Videodrome (1983) is the story of a pirate television station that broadcasts violent, sadomasochistic, snuff content. The effect of this content produces hallucination-inducing brain tumours. (The Videodrome television station is funded by a weapons manufacturer, with the secret aim of purging America of undesirable elements.)
The story examines society’s addiction to violence and pornography — how people have become physically connected to the delivery mechanism: the technology itself. Although released before the internet age, Videodrome explores the harmful effects of free, uncensored, unrestricted content. In Videodrome watching disturbing television programming is biologically hazardous; it results in physical brain damage, leading to a loss of mental self-control, and a warped sense of reality. The idea that consumers could be damaged for life, by being exposed to excessive violence, and pornography, was big news in 1982 and 1983, with a media backlash in the UK against the so-called ‘video nasty’. The perception was that obscene and immoral content, unsuitable for general viewing, especially with repeated viewings, could permanently damage young adults: ‘brainwashing’ them into carrying out ‘copycat’ behaviour. The Video Recordings Act, passed in 1984, was designed to control video distribution.
Theories about immoral, obscene and violent content were not new, the Hayes Code, published in 1930, dictated what could and could not be depicted in Hollywood movies. Forty years later, films like A Clockwork Orange (1971) were sparking outrage due to their disturbing subject matter.
Often labelled as ‘techno-surrealism’, Videodrome feels like a Marshal McLuhan influenced work of surreal storytelling. In that respect it has similarities with the art-house horror of Barton Fink (1991), Eraserhead (1977), and Mulholland Drive (2001). The surreal blurring of reality and illusion is used to explore the loss of self-identity, brought about by an addiction to explicit content. Ultimately, this process culminates in insanity, and the melding of man with machine.
The film predates the popularised internet of today, but it resonates with issues surrounding online addiction, and obsessive behaviour. The real (not acted) sadomasochistic content of the Videodrome network prophesies the explosion of reality television that occurred in the late 1990s.
Max Renn, the president of CIVIC-TV, becomes interested in Videodrome in an attempt to source more edgy content, but when he samples the material he begins a self-destructive journey. After witnessing his own suicide, on a Videodrome broadcast, he uses a gun to kill himself.
Videodrome is a deliberately provocative, surreal, art-house horror, a warning about explicit, violent content that corrupts individual identity, but it is itself graphically shocking and violent. One might say it is a ‘video nasty’ about the dangers of watching ‘video nasties’.