Way back in 1983, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg’s Videodrome was released to mixed reviews. Most negative takes on the film cite how, while it initially delivers a intriguing premise, the film ultimately relents into a series of gory set pieces that barely manage to resolve its plot. This is most likely due to the fact that due to a narrow production window, Cronenberg began the shooting of the film with only a rough draft, and literally wrote the script as it progressed. While the result is pretty much as it has been reviewed, it remains a remarkable film, filled with intense, disturbing imagery and concepts.
For the unwashed, Videodrome is the tale of one Max Renn (James Woods), a UHF television company president. Back before cable television, there were two types of television stations — VHF channels, which were usually affiliates of the “big three” networks (those at the time being ABC, CBS and NBC) — and UHF channels, who were primarily independent and privately owned. In order to attract viewership from the major stations, these channels often provided a steady diet of reruns of older shows and movie marathons. The two best known survivors of this period are WGN in Chicago and TBS (originally WTBS, formerly WTCG) in Atlanta. Probably since the film takes place in Canada, Max Renn’s fictitious CIVIC-TV is able to draw viewers in with the likes of softcore porn and other sensationalist fare.
What ultimately grabs his attention is a pirated satellite broadcast called Videodrome, a plotless and extremely violent exhibition of torture. The mystery of why and how Videodrome exists is the premise of the film, and leads Renn on a darkly surreal journey, punctuated with everything from pulsating videocassettes to televisions disemboweling (with real bowels). Neither of these are at the heart of the matter, but rather that which finds itself at the center of Cronenberg’s early efforts — the human condition. Videodrome is about how the aforementioned condition has been extended into technology, for better or worse. Well, okay — in Renn’s case it’s definitely for the worse. But what’s really eerie about it is the way Cronenberg in many ways anticipates that then upcoming technological venue — the internet.
One of the many characters Renn meets on his descent to the seventh ring of technological hell is Professor Brian O’Blivion (based on philosopher Marshall McLuhan) who admits that O’Blivion is not his real name, but rather a “television name”, and asserts that the battle for North America will be fought in a “video arena”. Anyone who has donned a “handle” in a multiplayer game or online chatroom, or are even slightly informed about the WikiLeaks scandal or the doings of hacktivists in recent years may find the coincidence a bit chilling.
But the most disturbing parallel the is object of Renn’s obsession. According to Cronenberg, Videodrome was first inspired by his experiences as a child, hunting from UHF signals from the United States after all the Canadian stations had signed off. He did so with trepidation, afraid that what he might see would be more than he could handle. Anyone familiar with recent attention brought to the “deep web” or “dark web” may find these feelings familiar. While what is most commonly termed the deep web is simply that area of the internet that has yet to be indexed by current search engines, the dark web is that portion of the deep web which can only be accessed with particular forms of software (such as that could function on a TOR network), and possibly then after some sort of additional key is given.
Honestly, I’m not even sure if that is the case, seeing as how I myself have never ventured to such areas — but that isn’t the point of this blog. Whether it is purely myth, hoax, or yet another form of internet prank, a persistent legend is that of the Red Room, which features actual human torture and murder. Some allude the myth has its basis with a Japanese pop-up software which ultimately curses its victims with a violent death, but it seems more likely that these supposed sites would appear like the picture at the top of this article. The consideration that what occurs in Videodrome the film (depicted as Videodrome the signal) could actually exist is beyond disturbing, but ultimately would be a grim tip of the hat to Mr. Cronenberg for being all too familiar with the darker side of humanity.