So there you are, in the dark movie theater. Suddenly, on the motion picture screen is a television screen. Now you are watching a film of a video. The video is a secretary, giving her boss a wake-up call - taped, not live.
Her boss is one Max Renn (James Woods: CAT'S EYE, VAMPIRE$, FINAL FANTASY: The Spirits Within, SCARY MOVIE 2), a disheveled guy who lives in a disheveled apartment and runs the crappiest, most offensive television network he can, because it's all he can afford to do. He doesn't have the money to buy better quality television shows and movies, so he buys the trashiest, which usually involve lots of sex and violence. He's one step away from getting nabbed by government regulators but, for the moment, he's small enough and local enough to fly just below their radar.
Max wants to change that. He goes to seedy hotels to meet with underground porno filmakers to look at their videos for license and none of them can give him what he wants.
Max wants the edge. The next big thing: Something mean, something hard.
It's what Max thinks he is, or at least what he can become. It's what he wants to be and he's willing to fake it until he makes it.
Max is still big enough to be a featured guest on local television shows. The interviewer, Rena King (Lally Cadeau), has nothing kind to say about Max even to his face. Yet her outrage is calm, non-plussed: Max is simply too small to get upset about. Max, bored, finds more interest in Rena's other guests, and starts hitting on local radio pop psychologist Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry: DEADLY HERO, TALES FROM THE DARKSIDE: The Movie, DEADBEAT). Flustered at being shut out by two of her guests, Rena turns to a television monitor which in fact, is televising her third guest, one Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley: RITUALS).
Brian, who dislikes television, refuses to appear on television, except as a talking head on yet another television. He also admits that his name isn't his real name, but a stage name he chose for appearing on television. It's his way of fighting against the whole medium - which he sees as a growing unwanted extension of humanity's physical evolution.
Meanwhile, Max has a secret upstairs at his company. Before the days of mass market Internet, the big underground, subterranean thing to be, instead of a hacker, was a video pirate: busting scramble codes and watching feeds from anywhere in the world: broadcasting them if you had the cojones.
Max's personal video pirate, Harlan (Peter Dvorsky: THE DEAD ZONE, TERROR ON TRACK 9 [TV]), has tapped into a signal from out of Malaysia. It's brutal and coarse, violent and sexual. Max has never seen anything like it, but it's the very thing he's been looking for. It's called VIDEODROME and it appears to be a 24 hour non-stop snuff channel.
Max, of course, doesn't believe it's real. It's easier and far less trouble to get kinky actors than murdering people every hour, 24 times a day, seven days a week.
Funny though, how the actors never come back for a second show.
Max wants VIDEODROME and he tries his best to find out who is behind it. As it turns out, thanks to Harlan tracking satellite feeds, VIDEODROME isn't in Malaysia after all, but local, right across the Canadian border in fact.
Max shows Nicki a bootleg of VIDEODROME, only to discover that she is far more than merely interested in it. Unlike Max: it turns her on. So much so that she wants to find VIDEODROME and be a "contestant" on it. Max freaks at the news. It's one thing for him to watch it, but he could never actually participate.
"Those mondo weirdos play rough!" he tells her. "Rougher than even Nicki Brand wants to play."
Nicki asks Max to light her cigarette, then casually proves just how wrong he is.
Later that night, Merry Mishaps occur.
What is probably most amazing about VIDEODROME is how well it holds up nearly 20 years later. Director David Cronenberg (SHIVERS, RABID, SCANNERS, THE FLY , eXistenZ) made no attempt to give VIDEODROME a high tech or futuristic feel. Instead, he opted for a low tech retro atmosphere. This is not a story about what is going to happen, but what has already happened right under our noses. The televisions are often black and white, and look like the large boxy wooden teevees of the 1960s instead of the plastic ones of the 80s. Video tapes are beta standard even though in 1982, when the movie was made, beta was losing market share to VHS.
Moreover, the areas of the city where Cronenberg chose to shoot all have a squalid appearance. This is a city in a state of disuse, and that may be because everyone is more concerned about what's going on in their little plastic box than the world around them.
Because of this, VIDEODROME is ageless. People live in an archaic city, surrounded by broken things. The modern world, in Cronenberg's vision, is lost and squandered: Like Canada!
The people behind VIDEODROME feel this way as well. "The world is getting tough," one of them say. "And we need to get tough too."
The growing horror that becomes Max's life is perhaps best expressed by his good business associate, Masha (Lynne Gorman).
"These people, this VIDEODROME: they don't do it for money. They have something you don't Max - a philosophy; and that makes them dangerous."
James Woods steps away from his usually villainous roles to play Max as a victim who is forced to become a villain against his will. The inevitable transition as Max loses control of his life, loses his ability to distinguish between what is and isn't real, is tragic and you've never seen James in another role like it. This is one of his best.
Speaking of best, Cronenberg's VIDEODROME moves slow like a freight train out of the station, building speed and power, going faster and faster, until the end comes racing toward you with full whistles blowing. WOW! POW!
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