40 years ago, a sci-fi horror with one of the best special effects of all time was released
Like many great pieces of cinema, it was a box office bomb upon release but is now considered a cult classic.
If his early work like Shivers, The Brood and Scanners signalled Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg as a talented up-and-coming writer-director, Videodrome cemented him as one of the most important voices ever in horror cinema.
Released on 4 November 1983, James Woods stars in the movie as Max Renn, the president of a TV station in Toronto specialising in sensationalist programming that emphasises sex and violence.
On the hunt for a new hit, a friend of Max that operates an unauthorised satellite dish shows him ‘Videodrome’, a plotless show apparently broadcast from overseas which depicts people being violently tortured and killed.
Fascinated by the footage and believing it to be the future of television, Max begins to seek out its origins, which leads him and his girlfriend – radio host Nicki Brand (Blondie’s Debbie Harry!) – to become entangled in a political conspiracy. Meanwhile, the more Max watches Videodrome, the more it begins to alter his mind and body in increasingly disturbing ways.
Cronenberg is considered the main originator of the body horror genre, movies categorised by characters undergoing extreme physical transformations that often serve as means to explore social anxieties. Arguably his most potent film in the sub-genre - alongside The Fly released three years later - is Videodrome, which probes the rising influence of television, as well as humanity’s obsession with sex and violence and censors seeking to control what people watch.
James Woods and Debbie Harry in Videodrome
Speaking about the origins of the movie, Cronenberg once said:
“It came out of two things, I suppose. The first was remembering as a kid, watching TV late at night, and of course it was black and white television, and when all the regular stations would go off the air you could get these distant, strange stations that were probably all American.
“But they were always very bad images, and they would fade in and out, and where they came from and what they were was very mysterious.”
Also with Videodrome, Cronenberg imagines a scenario in which those that seek to ban material based on its level of sex and violence, as they believe it will negatively impact viewers, are correct. However, he heightens this into the realm of horror, whereby watching such subversive content not only changes the viewer mentally but also physically.
On this, he stated:
“With Videodrome, I wanted to posit the possibility that a man exposed to violent imagery would begin to hallucinate. I wanted to see what it would be like, in fact, if what the censors were saying would happen, did happen. What would it feel like? What would it lead to?”
In keeping with the movie’s examination of the proliferation of television, the central motif to the movie’s best special effect – which given the amount of body horror in Videodrome is high praise – is a TV.
The sequence in question involves Max watching a tape sent to him by an enigmatic media theorist named Dr Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley). In the video, O’Blivion hypothesises that television has become such a central part of our lives that it is now inextricably linked with our brains. “The television screen is the retina of the mind’s eye… Therefore, television is reality and reality is less than television,” he explains.
Max then appears to hallucinate as the on-tape O’Blivion begins speaking directly to him. Then, the latter is strangled by a masked figure revealed to be Max’s girlfriend Nicki, who seductively calls for him to come closer to the screen. As Max does so, the TV begins to undulate like a living, breathing thing – even at one point revealing what looks like veins.
Nicki’s lips then take up the entire television screen, urging Max to come to her. As this is happening, the telescreen begins to expand out of the TV set, with Max eventually plunging his face into Nicki’s lips displayed on the now amorphous screen.
All in all, it’s a powerful visual metaphor for the themes of the movie. Cahiers du Cinema critic Serge Grünberg highlights how television in the sequence appears “in the form of a mouth which attracts us with its siren song”. In keeping with this reading of the scene representing the seductive power of TV, Woods reportedly described the screen as looking “literally like a big breast”.
However, even ignoring all the thematic weight of the sequence, the special effects within it still look absolutely flawless 40 years on. So, how were they pulled off?
Well, the "breathing screen" effect was accomplished through the use of a sheet of rubber and a projector.
Speaking about this, the movie's special makeup effects designer Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London) told Criterion, “I knew we would need a flexible material.
"We tested with a weather balloon first, stretching it over a frame the size of a TV screen, and pushed a hand through it to see how far it stretched, and then we rear-projected [footage of Debbie Harry's mouth] on it.”
Baker and Cronenberg wound up settling on a sheet of dental dam, "a stronger, stretchier kind of rubber", as the material for the sequence, which worked perfectly when covered with highly reflective white paint.
As for the pulsating television set, Videodrome cinematographer Mark Irwin recalls in a DVD commentary for the movie years after its original release:
"The television was made with different air bladders and someone just kind of played this organ of keys that would inflate bladders in a different sequence.
"So, the whole thing was made out of rubber or plastic of some sort and it would expand and contract."
Speaking about why the effects are so impressive, Cronenberg explained in the commentary with Irwin:
"This stuff is kind of primitive compared with what you can do with computer imagery.
"It's literally a kind of a latex screen being blown out by compressed air and rear-projected images on it.
"But it works and it has a tactility that you don't really get with computer imagery yet."
While Videodrome was critically well-regarded upon release and has gone on to be considered a cult classic, it was a box-office bomb, grossing only $2.1 million on a $5.9 million budget.
However, Cronenberg's next two movies - Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and sci-fi horror remake The Fly - went on to be both financial successes, particularly the latter.
Meanwhile, the director has continued to make movies about characters undergoing extreme physical and/or psychological changes, eventually leaving the horror genre behind to make a number of acclaimed dramas and thrillers like Spider, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
That said, he returned to his body horror roots with last year's excellent Crimes of the Future, starring Viggo Mortensen, Léa Seydoux and Kristen Stewart.
Set in a future world in which some humans' bodies have started to rapidly evolve in strange ways, it showed that 40 years after Videodrome, Cronenberg has not lost his ability to shock viewers while simultaneously providing them with plenty of food for thought.
Videodrome is available to watch at home right now on Apple TV+, Google Play and Sky Store.
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