Oh, to have been a Brundlefly on the wall when David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, screening midnight Friday and Saturday at The Belcourt in honor of the director's new Cosmopolis, was test-screened for naïve, unsuspecting audiences back in the early ‘80s. Earlier this year, the Criterion Collection (which gave the movie the double-disc. director-approved special-edition treatment in 2004) unearthed a bunch of comment sheets from a test screening and posted them on its Web site. As expected, audience members weren’t exactly feeling what Dave Deprave was serving up. (“Disgusting” was a word that popped up on a couple of sheets.)
How could they not enjoy a film where James Woods, test-driving the oiliness that he would inject in nearly every role he’s done, plays the head of a TV station that traffics in sex and violence and discovers a pirated TV signal (from Pittsburgh — thanks, Mr. Romero!) that transmits nothing but bona fide torture porn? Oh, yeah — and the signal is really a mind-warping tool that makes him, among other things, sprout a vaginal VCR-like slit in his torso. (A handy place to keep a gun, though!)
Even fans can understand why audiences then — or audiences now — would not find this too appealing. I’ve seen this film several times throughout my life, and much like those test-screening commenters, I will forever be amazed that this got the greenlight. Considering both its baffling, hyper-surreal subject matter and the fact that Cronenberg was still writing the script while shooting it, the movie can't help but raise the question: How in the hell did this get made?
Nevertheless, Videodrome is still one compulsively watchable — and deliriously fucked-up — experience. Working with Oscar-winning makeup-effects wizard Rick Baker, that creepy-ass Canuck Cronenberg outdid himself in creating gory and unsettling moments that’ll most likely haunt you until you’re on your deathbed. But it’s not all freakiness for freakiness’ sake. Ever the cerebral provocateur, Cronenberg also made a savage, satirical indictment of our sensationalistic, thrill-craving, couch-potato culture.
With its relentlessly twisted view of TV as a soul-sickening wasteland that both pacifies and zombifies its audience, where extreme images can do everything from numb viewers to drive them to the brink of insanity, the most eerie thing about this nasty, noirish nightmare is how utterly relevant it is now. With repugnant reality shows left and right, titillating some while nauseating others — there goes Honey Boo Boo — one can only wonder how truly balls-to-the-wall, both figuratively and literally, Cronenberg would’ve gone if he'd made Videodrome today.