Max Renn (Woods) runs a seedy
TV station, Channel 83, and is on the lookout for some new shows. When his pet technofreak gives him some pirate tapes of a satellite transmission, he senses something new, even though the show, called Videodrome, is nothing more than torture and sadism. On a talk show he meets media guru, Brian O'Blivion and radio DJ Nicki Brand (Harry). He shows her the tape and she
shows him some interesting tricks with a cigarette end, a needle and an ice-cube (not in the original video version - in an act of rank cowardice, CIC Video cut the film themselves 'just in case' it might be seized, and removed several 'offensive' sections. The sell-through version recently released is a hell of a lot better).
Max begins to suffer increasingly bizarre hallucinations - his TV becomes a living creature, corpses appear in his bed and his stomach develops a video-cassette shaped slot, in which he 'loses' a gun. He turns for help to Professor O'Blivion, only to find O'Blivion is dead - he exists only as a vast collection of video tapes, looked after by his daughter, Bianca (Smits). Meanwhile, Nikki has vanished, in search of the makers of Videodrome - that she's found them becomes clear when Max gets a tape showing her torture. Matters come to a head and Max discovers he's been the guinea pig in a bizarre mind control experiment. The tapes were not satellite broadcasts but were planted on him by his engineer - they contain a subliminal signal which causes the visions. He is 'programmed' to kill his colleagues at Channel 83, but after he has done this, Bianca helps him control the hallucinations and he destroys the people responsible before committing suicide.
Apologies for this lengthy synopsis, but no shorter one would make sense; you can't envisage anyone presenting a 25-word pitch on it to a coked-up studio executive. The film is astonishingly non-Hollywood - how many other films end with the hero blowing his brains out? But what is it all ABOUT? Let's take a few choice quotes, and see how much of my English O-grade teaching I can remember...
"[Videodrome] has a philosophy, and that's what makes it dangerous."
The most obvious theme is the impact of television and other such media on the audience - I think Max Renn is meant to represent Cronenberg, a comparison made explicit during one scene in an opticians when James Woods tries on a pair of Cronenberg-style glasses. The message is, it's not what you show that's important, it's the underlying meaning which counts, as against Channel 83's policy of showing anything likely to get an audience.
"We're entering savage new times, and we're going to have to be pure and direct and strong if we're going to survive them."
Cronenberg is worried about what happens when someone becomes unable to tell the difference between reality and fantasy - the hallucination sequences are played totally straight, with no clear border to give the audience something to hold on to. It's especially worrying when 'reality' is being controlled by someone else - in this case, a multinational conglomerate, of uncertain right-wing mores, who discover the power of Videodrome while experimenting with night sights for soldiers (a fact not really made clear in the final cut of the film).
"To become the New Flesh, you first have to kill the old flesh."
One of the many interesting side avenues to this video-eye view of the world is Bianca O'Blivion and the Cathode Ray Mission she runs. This is a pseudo-religious sect which gives down-and-outs the chance to watch TV; it helps "patch them back into the world's mixing board". The religious angle can be extended further - "I am my father's screen", says Bianca at one point and the relationship between her, the Professor (who exists only on tape) and Max Renn is almost a holy trinity of Virgin, Holy Spirit & Christ, with Christ/Renn dying yet expecting to rise again as the New Flesh.
"Television is reality, and reality is much less than television."
Very little of our world view is based on personal experience. Beyond our immediate area, we rely on television, and have to take on faith that what it's showing us is actually happening. Simultaneously, all we see on TV are edited highlights, which means that most of our lives are less funny, exciting, scary, fast-moving, sexy and entertaining than an average evening on the network.
The entire movie is deep. And that perhaps it why it's appeal has taken so long to filter through. On one viewing, it's difficult to take everything in; given enough effort, however, it's one of the finest, most genuinely thought-provoking films of all time.