Monday 24 November 2014

Videodrome at 31

In 1981, I was 12 years old and already a film buff.  Having fallen in love with “Star Wars” in early 1978, I loved the cinema and behind-the-scenes material and one of my regular reads was a British magazine called Starburst.  Through its pages, I read news - and looked at pictures - of films that I wouldn’t end up watching for years to come (this was before the advent of home video), but which I stored away for future reference.  The reason I mention this is that 1981 is the point where each item that drew me to “Videodrome” (1983) began to mesh into one thread.  “An American Werewolf In London” was released and Starburst covered it faithfully (check out the gory cover!) and I was astounded by the Rick Baker make-up effects (I’d been a big fan of make-up for a while, having discovered a book in the library about Lon Chaney).  It became a film I had to see, though I don’t think I actually managed that feat until 1983.  Blondie released “The Best Of Blondie”, a greatest hits compilation that I had on cassette tape and played so often I wore it out.  And David Cronenberg, Canada’s “Baron Of Blood”, released “Scanners”, which also made the cover of Starburst featuring Michael Ironside in full, vein-popping glory.
left - Starburst no.40 and, on the right, Starburst no. 33.  Pretty cool for 1981, eh?
In 1983, reports began to surface of a new David Cronenberg film called “Videodrome”, which had make-up effects by Rick Baker and co-starred Debbie Harry.  My stars were in alignment and the more I read about the film, the more I wanted to see it.  Just like in the film itself, imagery settled into my brain and painted a picture that drove me ever closer to the source - Debbie Harry in the red dress, James Woods with ‘something’ on his hand, the stomach vagina, the TV set.
UK poster, massively playing up the part Debbie Harry plays in the film
I finally got to watch “Videodrome” in early 1985 when I convinced my friend Steve (he had the only video player of our gang) that it would be a good choice.  As I recall, he didn’t like the film at all (his comments were probably similar to those of the Barry Convex character - “Why would anybody watch a scum show like Videodrome?”) but I loved it, though I wouldn’t say I understood it all (that didn’t come until a couple of years later, when I picked up the novelisation written by Dennis Etchison under his Jack Martin pseudonym).

Fresh from the (rather unexpected) box office success of “Scanners” in 1981, David Cronenberg’s growing reputation gave him access to studios, actors and resources he hadn’t experienced before - “Videodrome” had a $6m budget, double that of his previous film.  As it turned out, Universal Pictures were perhaps expecting something more along the lines of the relatively straightforward sci-fi thrills of “Scanners” rather than the surreal, disturbing and harsh sensibilities of “Videodrome”.

Warning - there are spoilers ahead

James Woods as Max Renn
Max Renn (James Woods) is president of the sleazy cable Civic TV Channel 83.  Always on the look-out for new cheap and erotic content, his techie employee Harlan (Peter Dvorsky) shows him a clip he’s downloaded, a pirate-video broadcast full of torture, murder and mutilation called Videodrome.  After watching it, Renn becomes obsessed with getting it for his channel and asks his regular supplier Masha (Lynne Gorman), a pornographer of long-standing, to try and track it down but she refuses to get involved, saying that Videodrome is a set of real snuff movies.

Woods with Debbie Harry, as Nikki Brand
Renn appears on a talk show, defending his channel against fellow guests Nikki Brand (Debbie Harry), a sadomasochistic radio-psychiatrist, and Professor Brian O'Blivion (Jack Creley), a pop-culture philosopher who only ever appears as a video-link, here delivering a speech prophesying a future where television overcomes real life.  Beginning a relationship with Nikki, Renn shows her an episode of Videodrome that arouses her and she asks him to hurt her sexually.  When Harlan discovers the feed is actually coming from Pittsburgh, Nikki goes to audition.

Nikki: I was made for that show.
Renn: Nobody on earth was made for that show.

When Nikki doesn’t come back, Masha informs him Videodrome is the public face of a political ideology movement, with links to Professor Brian O’Blivion.  Renn visits his office at The Cathode Ray Mission - where homeless people are given food and shelter and encouraged to watch television - which is run by O'Blivion's daughter, Bianca (Sonja Smits), who is dedicated to helping bring about her father’s vision where television replaces every aspect of everyday life.

By videotape, O'Blivion tells Renn that “the Videdrome” is a socio-political battleground in a war being fought for control of the minds of the people of North America. After this, Renn begins to hallucinate which is a side-effect of watching Videodrome, as it’s the carrier of a signal that causes the viewer to develop a malignant brain tumour - the same tumour that killed O’Blivion (though he spent the last year of his life recording tens of thousands of videotapes).  As Renn watches these, scared and holding a gun, he scratches his stomach with the barrel and it disappears into a vaginal slit.

Professor Brian O’Blivion:   There is nothing real outside our perception of reality, is there?

the Teleranger
Barry Convex (Leslie Carlson) runs the Spectacular Optical Corporation, a glasses company that acts as a front for a weapons manufacturer. In league with Harlan, he’s been trying to get Renn to broadcast Videodrome as part of a government conspiracy to give fatal tumors to “lowlifes” who fixate on extreme sex and violence.  At Harlan’s lab, Convex pushes a pulsating videotape into Renn’s stomach, to program him to further the cause and Max pulls out his gun, which fuses with his hand.  He goes to kill Bianca O’Blivion but is instead shot himself by a TV set, de-programming him and she sends him to kill those who created Videodrome.

Bianca O’Blivion:  You are the video word made flesh. Death to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh.

At a Spectacular Optical trade show, Renn shoots Convex with his handgun then takes refuge on a derelict boat in an abandoned harbour.  Nikki appears to him on a TV set, saying that he has weakened Videodrome, but in order to completely defeat it, he must “leave the old flesh.”  The TV shows an image of Renn shooting himself in the head, causing the TV to explode in a spray of bloody human intestines.  Renn puts the gun to his head and pulls the trigger after saying his final words: “Long live the New Flesh”.

“Videodrome” began life as a rough draft screenplay called “Network Of Blood”, partly inspired by childhood memories of picking up unexpected broadcasts on television and also the content of CityTV, a Toronto cable television station which, in the 1970s, was notorious for showing soft-core pornography.  Cronenberg’s first draft, which producer Claude Heroux told him “would get the film a triple X for sure”, was strong enough to draw in the major talents of James Woods, Debbie Harry and Rick Baker, though production began work on the second draft.  As it was, Cronenberg was writing and re-writing up to the last day of principal photography.

Woods was chosen, according to Cronenberg, because he “really embodied that kind of intensity and articulate[ness]…that I had written”, adding he also had “a lovely comic flair”.  Woods, by all accounts, loved the script, saying “I thought it was pretty terrific”.

Of Debbie Harry, Cronenberg said “Blondie was huge at the time, not just as a band, but as a kind of essential part of the cultural zeitgeist of New York City. And she knew William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg and was connected with…a kind of above-ground/underground movement.  She was very responsive and very willing to learn and to understand that the kind of self-parody and satirical stuff that she did onstage simply did not work when she was trying to play a real character, a human being on screen.”

David Cronenberg and James Woods
Principal photography began on October 19th, 1981 with the first week of shooting devoted to video inserts - the O’Blivion monologues, some of the Videodrome torture sequences plus “Samurai Dreams” and “Apollo & Dionysus”, the two porn films that are pitched to Max.  “Samurai Dreams” was shot in a rented TV studio on one-inch tape over half a day and director of photography Mark Irwin said “that’s where I came into the business - shooting porn - so I felt right at home.”

The Videodrome parts, shot on Carol Spier’s stark set, were - according to Director Of Photography Mark Irwin - “more funny than sick.  If you listen [to the original tapes], you can hear David shouting, ‘Okay, now put her up against the wall! Okay, now shake around—you’re being electrocuted! Okay, now hang him up on that hook there! Let’s see some more energy in that whipping!’”  Cronenberg agreed, saying; “Most of the people we worked with enjoyed the experience, because it was cathartic. Of course, they weren't really being hurt and…we found - in one case - there was a woman who kept coming back.  She would dress up and put on a lot of makeup and dress herself really well and just kind of hang around. She couldn't let go…and it was quite strange, but very much in keeping with the strangeness of the film as a whole.”

The production was based in a large building in Toronto.  A former nursery and piano school, the exterior served as the Cathode Ray Mission whilst the interior was used to build sets, with the downstairs serving as both the Videodrome arena and the interior of the derelict ship.  In the former auditorium, the Cathode Ray Mission cubicles were built and it was also the stage for the Spectacular Optical show where Barry Convex expires in a rash of tumours.  On the second floor, during November and December of 1981, was the workshop for Rick Baker’s EFX team (and seen in the film as the O’Blivion archive) but since the building wasn’t soundproofed, the crew couldn’t work when a scene was being shot (and no toilets could be flushed either).

In my opinion (and this is said as a huge fan of Rick Baker), the special effects work of EFX are astonishing and stand up well today, even if a couple of the shots do betray their latex foundation.

For the breathing television, Baker and Cronenberg chose the Teleranger model, since it was large enough to accommodate the workings for everything the script needed it to do.  Various models were built, which could flex and move and the screen was made from dental dam - “a stronger, stretchier kind of rubber,” Baker would say - which was painted with a highly reflective white paint.  This allowed Woods to press his head right into it when Debbie Harry’s lips fill the screen and although the scene overflows with sensuality, the actor said “I felt sort of stupid when I was doing it, to be honest with you.”  The Teleranger also featured in a scene which was never shot (but is used in the novelisation), where it rises out of a bath Max is running and shows him images of Masha being tortured.

For me, the two key special effects images are the handgun and the vaginal split.  For the latter, two different prosthetic chest and belly pieces were built and for the shot of Woods standing up (for me, one of the few occasions where the effect is held too long to work), the actor was on set for twenty hours as they set it up.  When Max is on the couch, watching TV, James Woods was sitting inside the sofa and it was built up around him - he apparently swore after this he’d never work with anything glued to him again.

The handgun itself was a foam latex appliance (which Woods dubbed ‘the pooperoo’) that was worn as a glove by the actor from a mould of his hand whilst the shot of the metallic tendrils burrowing into his flesh was completed using a puppet.  The gun is described in the script as firing cancer growths at its victims (there were originally six, but Cronenberg cut it back to just Convex) and the effect went through several tests before the final concept was decided upon.  Once Cronenberg and Baker decided that the effect should show an internal cancer growing until it burst out of the victim’s body, Baker explained that it was something they could do “fairly simply - put people under a raised set who’d push the cancers up through a hollow dummy.”  This is why Leslie Carlson, as Convex, is laying down when the effect happens.  In the end, Steve Johnson (who also worked on Ghostbusters) created the effect and it’s one of the most memorable death scenes in cinema.

Another planned effect was where characters would, in Cronenberg’s scripted term, “twitch video”.  Special video effects supervisor Michael Lennick described these as a character being “broken down from celluloid film’s 4,000-line resolution to 525-line video resolution. Their body edges would become serrated, their colouring electric and almost neonlike.”  Although tests were carried out, Cronenberg eventually dropped them (after they survived every draft of the script), as he felt they “looked too tricky.”
Special Effects genius Rick Baker sets up a shot with the Teleranger TV set
The film uses Betamax tapes - which are occasionally seen to ‘breathe’ and swell - since they were large enough to accommodate the effects work whilst not being too big to fit into the abdominal slit, as VHS cassettes were.

David Cronenberg
Filming ended in December 1981, though special effects photography and inserts were shot in March 1982.  In post-production, the climax was reworked several times and after a test screening in April 1982, Debbie Harry was brought back for re-shoots since her character originally disappeared.  By showing her again, it appears that Max Renn’s suicide comes from his sense of outrage and being alone, rather than seeming defeatist.  Cronenberg said to Tim Lucas, “It felt so right that it felt inevitable, not so inevitable that I’d thought of it before!”  He originally intended to continue beyond the suicide, with the ‘next phase’ showing Renn hugging and kissing Nikki in the Videodrome arena, which would have been - according to the director - “my version of a happy ending.”

“Videodrome” does not have a happy ending, but it has the perfect one for the film and I love that it ends with the bang.  Although it’s now dated by the technology it shows, it’s actually ahead of its time in the portrayal of media ideas and concepts and stands strong because of that.

“Videodrome” was released on February 4th, 1983 in the US (November 25th in the UK), debuting at number 8 on the box office charts and to generally positive reviews.  Although a commercial failure - it’s made $2.2m to date on a $5.9m budget -  it is a cult favourite, described by Andy Warhol as “A Clockwork Orange of the 80s” and listed 89th “Most Essential Film In History” by the Toronto International Film Festival.  In addition, it’s soundtrack - composed by Howard Shore - was ranked 10th in the Top Sample Sources list of 2004.

Despite its poor commercial perfomance, the film tied with “Bloodbath at the House of Death” for Best Science Fiction film at the 1984 Brussels International Festival of Fantasy Film, where Mark Irwin received a CSC Award for Best Cinematography in a Theatrical Feature.  The film was also nominated for eight Genie Awards with David Cronenberg and Bob Clark (for his “A Christmas Story”) tying for Best Achievement in Direction.

The trailer for the film is glorious and it comes complete with computer graphics created on a Commodore 64.

I loved the film in 1985 and I love it as much today, a gruesome, surreal and intelligent shocker that is almost a black comedy in the way it plays out perfectly.  Any time is a good time to watch “Videodrome” but, on the occasion of its 31st birthday, why not give it another view?

Long live the New Flesh!


  1. Fascinating film. I saw it at the cinema when it came out, but it was also a first date... poor choice of film in those circumstances really! However, I paid it more attention a few years later and appreciated it for its unique qualities. Still looks good today.

    1. Thanks Martin - yes, not the best film for a first date! How did it go?

  2. Thanks for this write up! Good info in there. You're the first person I've seen mention how the scene was done where Nikki's lips were expanding on the TV screen and Woods pressed his face into the screen. I've always wondered how they created that scene.

    So, the dental dam makes perfect sense, but I still can't figure out how they got her lips onto the expanding screen. Was the image projected onto the dental dam from the rear while they inflated the dam?

    I love how creative they got with the special effects of this movie. Thanks for taking the time to share your knowledge with the world.


    1. Thanks Max. I assume the image was back projected, as you suggest, otherwise it would show up on James Woods.