I love the first half of Videodrome (if love is the right word for something so weird & sleazy). Max Renn’s (James Woods) descent into a hallucinatory world of video nasty violence and getting-swallowed-by-a-TV weirdness is handled with enough of a dangerous edge that you really feel this isn’t just an excuse for some shocking/surreal horror-fantasy moments, but may actually be a film with what Renn himself doesn’t have — “a philosophy” — i.e., an actual coherence to its weirdness, something quite rare in this sort of hallucinogenic horror movie.
But then there’s the second half, and I never fail to be disappointed by it. It’s at this point the film sloughs off its weirdness for action; it leaves its ideas behind and settles for a shoot-out and a suicide. It has the effect of someone breaking off an interesting and well-reasoned debate to sock his opponent in the jaw, and represents a similar failure of ideas, or perhaps a lack of courage in its convictions.
After all, the potential was there, particularly once Renn has encountered the Ballardian video prophet Brian O’Blivion, whose Cathode Ray Mission aims to bring TV to the homeless, and who only communicates with the world via video tapes. O’Blivion (a gloriously silly name that surely points to this very much not being intended as a standard action thriller) sees the TV as an extension of the mind, and believes the sort of sleaze peddled by Max Renn’s Channel 83 to be a necessary outing for the murky, nightmarish depths of the unconscious. His is the sort of “philosophy” Videodrome ought to be about — and it’s the philosophy the first half most definitely is about. O’Blivion seeks to liberate mankind from the strictures of reality with the (then-new) power of video, even if it is a savage, uncivilised liberation. At least it will be an honest one.
But it turns out O’Blivion isn’t the man behind the brain-tumour inducing video signal known as Videodrome. That is Spectacular Opticals, an arch-reactionary mega-corporation, who aside from selling cheap glasses and missile guidance systems, seek to skim the scum from the human race using video-brainwashed killers (programmed by pulsating Betamax tapes). And the trouble is, theirs is a boring philosophy compared to the zany O’Blivion’s.
With O’Blivion’s enlightenment-through-video-sleaze we’d have the ending that, apparently, Cronenberg initially planned — a vision of Max Renn, Nicki Brand (Debbie Harry) and Bianca O’Blivion melded together in one “new flesh”, in some video version of heaven. But for some reason he swapped it for what we instead have — people getting shot at a corporate sales conference — the logical consequence of Spectacular Opticals’ realistic philosophy, yes, but so dull to watch after the visual richness of the first half of the film.
Perhaps the trouble is Cronenberg is a good director of the subtleties — and of actors — while having a strong love of the pulpier types of horror. Torn between the two, his films perhaps promise too much of both, but can only fulfil one side of the bargain. (I certainly felt the same about A History of Violence, which I thought, from the beginning, was going to be all about the is-he-or-isn’t-he-a-gangster of Viggo Mortensen’s character, only to be disappointed when it turned into yet another shoot out in the second half.)
My favourite Cronenberg film remains The Dead Zone, which keeps its use of the fantastic very cut back, and tells its tale of emotional reserve and quiet disappointment just as effectively as Videodrome delivers its first-half shocks and disorientations, but sticks with them to the end.