1983 – there was no cell phone, no DVD or Blu-ray, and no Internet.
1983 was also the year of David Cronenberg’s first fully realized masterpiece, the prophetic Videodrome.
This is part two of a four-part series on the oeuvre of visionary filmmaker David Cronenberg.
David Cronenberg originally developed his ideas for Videodrome in a 1975 treatment entitled “Network of Blood.” The draft included themes already integral to Cronenberg’s films to date – concepts of overreaching technologies, societal paranoia, body horror and sadomasochism – but in a more mature and realized rendition. After the commercial success of Scanners, studios took notice and Cronenberg could finally bring his terrifying vision to the screen.
Videodrome stars James Woods as cable television producer Max Renn, who accidently comes across an errant video signal. The signal’s images of torture and porn are fresh, intriguing, and they seem so real – just what Max needs to boost the company’s sales.
“It’s just torture and murder. No plot, no characters, very, very realistic. I think it’s what’s next.” ~ Max Renn
While Max pursues the source of this signal, he begins a complicated relationship with radio personality Nicki Brand (Deborah Harry of Blondie) that challenges his own appetite for sadomasochistic tendencies. Max and Nicki’s pursuit of Videodrome will ultimately reveal a devastating and horrifying truth.
Cronenberg’s daring and explicit approach may not have surprised those who had been following his films, but the establishment was another matter. The MPAA originally certified Videodrome with an X-rating (the kiss of death for any commercial success), but Cronenberg appealed to the MPAA, and even instituted several minor edits to secure an R-rating. Unfortunately, Universal also took matters into its own hands and subsequently added its own cuts (even after the MPAA’s approval). Thus, the film released in 1983 differed dramatically from Cronenberg’s original rendition.
Videodrome failed miserably in its initial theatrical release. It opened in February 1983 to 550 screens and earned only $2.1 million over two weeks of play.
Even so, Videodrome caught on with critics and select audiences, and its cult following grew. Janet Maslin of the New York Times admired that Cronenberg “is developing a real genius for this sort of thing.” TV Guide called Videodrome “a fascinating rumination on humanity, technology, entertainment, sex, and politics.”
But as with any Cronenberg film, there were those who did not understand or appreciate the filmmaker’s vision. The BBC commented that “Cronenberg sometimes becomes so stylistically exuberant that he forgets to harness his admittedly striking images to credibility and plot.” And Roger Ebert was scorching, calling Videodrome “one of the least entertaining films ever made.” Today, the film enjoys an overwhelmingly positive rating of 80% on the film Website Rotten Tomatoes.
Cronenberg’s challenging sci-fi horror thriller was in keeping with his visionary tendencies. He pushed the bounds of his artistic explorations. His film seamlessly integrates daring themes and horrifying imagery, and it transcends its material by commenting on our culture in new and fascinating ways.
Videodrome is eerily prophetic in how it predicted so much of today’s culture – from internet avatars and the popularity of reality shows, to video chatting, cyber sex, torture porn, and even the paranoia associated with cell phones (and their connections to brain tumors).
The positive critical reception of Videodrome meant that Cronenberg was no longer considered on the fringe or even a straight-up horror film director. He had “arrived” as an acknowledged visionary (but admittedly, one who would continue to court controversy given his challenging themes and executions). But as a true visionary, the filmmaker was not content to rest on his laurels; he continued to challenge himself.
For his next film, Cronenberg would undertake something new in his creative process – not only would he direct material from another source, but he would also direct somebody else’s screenplay.
Initially, Jeffrey Boam’s screenplay adaption of Stephen King’s suspense thriller, The Dead Zone, might seem at odds with Cronenberg’s focus. The themes of “body horror” were no longer explicitly present – no mutating body growths, no exploding heads or even uncontrollable psycho-sexual urges – but one just needs to look a bit closer to see Cronenberg’s influences with The Dead Zone.
Christopher Walken portrays Johnny Smith, a schoolteacher in a sleepy town, who survives a traumatic car accident only to lie in a coma for five years. When he miraculously awakens, however, Johnny discovers that life has passed him by and that he now possesses a mysterious psychic ability to see premonitions and to potentially alter future possibilities.
Stephen King’s small town setting aligns with Cronenberg’s prevalence for desolation, and as the misunderstood protagonist, Johnny is a perfect match for Cronenberg’s emphasis on isolated characters. In fact, The Dead Zone could be viewed as the inverse of Cronenberg’s presentations to date. He is still exploring recurring themes of “body horror,” but in a more sublime way, and with an emphasis on the emotional and the psychological.
To Johnny, these visions are a curse. He is absolutely horrified of his new ability (body horror), and at one point, he exclaims: “Bless me”? Do you know what God did for me? He threw an 18-wheeled truck at me and bounced me into nowhere for five years! When I woke up, my girl was gone, my job was gone, my legs are just about useless… Blessed me? God’s been a real sport to me!
In addition, The Dead Zone’s central story of unrequited love and loss becomes more poignant under Cronenberg’s direction and his emphasis on Johnny’s loneliness and isolation. Surprising as it may seem, this is not the first time Cronenberg has highlighted love as a key element of his films. The Brood, Scanners and Videodrome all included love stories that were critical to their stories. In The Dead Zone, however, the combination of Stephen King’s story elements, Cronenberg’s sensitivity to his characters and the source material, as well as Christopher Walken’s chilling and internalized performance, propel this love story to a palpable resonance. Critics called The Dead Zone, “moving and quietly unsettling,” as well as “a thing of dark, twisted, ironic beauty.”
The love story was to become even more central for Cronenberg’s next outing – The Fly.
Cronenberg’s remake of Kurt Neumann’s 1958 sci-fi film was a big step up in its approach to the original material. As with The Dead Zone, Cronenberg would direct material from another source and he would also direct somebody else’s screenplay. And while Charles Edward Pogue wrote the original screenplay (based upon the original short story by George Langelaan), Cronenberg re-wrote much of it and applied his unique interpretation to the story of a scientist, whose body begins to transform in horrifying ways following an accidental genetic fusion.
With The Fly’s explicit themes of cutting-edge technologies and the body out of control, Cronenberg seemed to be returning to his body horror roots of old. But in keeping with his visionary tendencies, the filmmaker was after something much more here.
Jeff Goldblum portrays the scientist, Seth Brundle, who falls for Geena Davis’ reporter, Veronica Quaife. There is an immediate chemistry between Seth and Veronica, and Cronenberg establishes the Seth-Veronica love story front and center for his film. In addition, the filmmaker leverages Seth’s misunderstanding of Veronica’s former lover, Stathis Borans (played by John Getz), to create added tension and establish a potent love triangle.
Cronenberg’s builds the framework of his story around this love triangle – not around external forces encroaching upon a scientific breakthrough (as he did with the Con-Sec conspiracy in Scanners).
Each development in The Fly is a reference upon the lovers’ growing relationship. And even when Seth begins his transformation into “Brundlefly,” the film remains grounded with its focus on the doomed lovers. As a result, the film’s controversial conclusion is emotionally charged and the tragedy feels that much more palpable.
Much has also been written about The Fly’s reflection of an era wrestling with the outbreak of AIDS. Although Cronenberg would appreciate audiences’ perspectives of the time, he did not consciously develop The Fly as a referendum on AIDS: There was something about The Fly story that was much more universal to me: aging and death – something all of us have to deal with.
With The Fly, Cronenberg once again demonstrated that he could successfully integrate true emotion and relevance within his challenging stories of horror. And critics and audiences alike agreed.
While Variety acknowledged The Fly was “not for the squeamish,” Time Magazine hailed the film as “the year’s most poignant romance” and Empire Magazine proclaimed it “Cronenberg’s most triumphant and accessible film to date.” The Fly won an Academy Award (for Chris Walas and his grotesque makeup effects) and it earned over $40 million domestically, making it Cronenberg’s most commercially successful film to date.
Cronenberg now had the attention of the critical establishment several times over, and he had somehow also managed to carry forward the integrity and challenging concepts of his earlier works, all the while building commercial credibility. Where would he go from here?
Next time, we’ll examine Dead Ringers, one of Cronenberg’s finest films, and we’ll consider its impacts on his career and subsequent films.