Gazette Telegraph

'Videodrome' loses picture toward the end

Friday 4th March 1983

Page 7 movie review, Page 8 small ad for movie

Gene Siskel – film critic

David Cronenberg is one of few young directors who makes grisly horror films that actually contain as many ideas as blood capsules. “Scanners,” Cronenberg’s last film, was an intriguing thriller about mind control taken to its obvious conclusion – that a bad guy might be able to blow up someone else’s brain just by staring and thinking bad thoughts.

Similarly, “Videodrome” is a thoughtful, grisly little thriller about TV programming gone amok. A bunch of bad guys have concocted a TV program, spiked with violence, that rots the brains of those who see it. The story is a more sophisticated version of the plot line of “Halloween III,” which by comparison with “Videodrome” seems positively cheerful. After all, “Halloween III” was only about a guy who developed Halloween masks that would smother the nation’s children after the masks received a TV signal.

In “Videodrome,” James Woods (“The Onion Field”), surely one of the creepiest actors around, plays one Max Renn, a TV programmer who works for a UHF channel that makes big bucks by offering kinky sexual material. A Japanese program of soft-core sex is too soft for Max’s taste. “I’m looking for something tough, something that will break through,” he tells his partners at Channel 83.

And what’s tough is “Videodrome,” which is billed to Max by its salesman as a potent piece of programming that actually contains sadomasochistic sex acts. “It’s Snuff TV.'” says someone in reference to the controversy a few years back about “snuff films,” which reportedly (it was never verified) contained footage of actual murders.

Deborah Harry, of the rock group Blondie, co-stars in “Videodrome” as Nicki Brand, a brunette pop psychologist for a radio station. Although she apparently gives healthy advice to her call-in audience, Nicki is into some sick scenes away from the microphone. She says she likes to be cut with a knife or burned with a cigarette as part of sexual foreplay.

And yes, you guessed it, “Videodrome” is rated R.

Actually, for all of its kinkiness and because of some of it, “Videodrome” builds up quite a head of steam as a story. We are dealing, after all, Cronenberg makes us believe, with something that if not likely is certainly imaginable.

But “Videodrome” takes its poisoned video story nowhere interesting, ultimately turning into a routine thriller laced with a few typical Cronenberg special effects involving a vibrating videotape cartridge and a slimy hand being enveloped by a gun with springlike claws. The special effects in “Videodrome” were created by Rick Baker, who does give us one memorable effort. Max Renn is eventually turned, in effect, into a living, breathing cassette machine, and it becomes possible to stick a cassette and a few other things directly into his stomach.

But as the slime and goo quotient of “Videdrome” mounts up, the credibility of the story goes out the window, and you get the feeling that Cronenberg is simply trying to mask an incomplete story with shock after shock.

“Videodrome” is never as offensive as so many of today’s killer-with-a-knife pictures, but its last half-hour is a genuine letdown following an interesting premise.

At the performance level, James Woods is well-cast for both his haunted look and his ability to deliver an occasional sick comic line. Put Woods into a movie and the film immediately gains authenticity as a contemporary picture. He’s a 1980s presence. And Deborah Harry is properly seductive in small doses; Cronenberg is smart to realize that Harry has an alluring mouth and her mouth figures into one of the film’s better special effects.

But at the end of “Videodrome’s” brief 87 minutes, one if left with an “is that all there is?” attitude. It’s all buildup and no payoff.

Rating **

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