After a more mainstream approach than his earlier exploitation work with Scanners, David Cronenberg returned to the science fiction well with 1983’s Videodrome, a film that, to this day, feels like the platonic ideal of the body horror subgenre. So much of the Cronenberg filmography’s recognizable imagery — cybernetic orifices that double as both vaginas and I/O ports, gadgetry merging with the flesh — appear within this nightmarish conspiracy thriller that smartly presaged decades of media degradation and an exponential desensitization of the masses.

The film follows Max Renn (James Woods), the president of a local UHF station that specializes in pushing boundaries with violent, sexual imagery. Woods is at his near-sleaziest (the gold medal goes to Casino’s Lester Diamond), but he grounds Renn’s doomed quest for exploitative content with a normie’s cognizance of aesthetic distance. He plays Renn as a guy who’s been digging in the dark for so long, smut becomes the morning paper he peruses while munching the stale crust of cold pizza for breakfast.

In his search for what can best be described as the VHS-era’s prognostication of the dark web, Renn becomes obsessed with “Videodrome,” a pirate program just this side of a snuff film that he soon finds is more than run-of-the-mill titillation for the knife-play enthusiasts of the urban wasteland he inhabits, but rather sociopolitical propaganda for a hidden culture war. An anti-matter universe approximation of Marshall McLuhan called Brian O’Blivion (Jack Creley) created “Videodrome” to usher in a cultural evolution, a mass-reality exodus where viewers would ascend to the viewed, with television replacing existence. But a corrupt corporation stole the platform out from under him and are using it to attract the morally bankrupt in order to essentially euthanize them. It’s in this shadowy plot that Cronenberg’s fear of commodification recurs from Scanners, only instead of psychokinetic superpowers being catnip for the state, it’s the literal thoughts of every consumer in the land.

To applaud Cronenberg’s prescience here would perhaps be too generous, given the feat in a modern reviewing of Videodrome is less the miracle that this brilliant filmmaker foresaw our bleak reality in the post-truth, disinformation end of the digital age, and more the absolute tragedy a generation lived through as many robust bodies of work in every medium warning against a future they failed in chastening. For years, Videodrome was rightly pointed to as a precursor to the psychosexual violence of ‘90s film, television and video games but, along with later follow-up Existenz, it’s really the advent of the internet and its dark immersion that Cronenberg saw in his tea leaves. Today, Max Renn could easily be one of the NEET denizens of 8chan, refreshing his computer screen to see excessively cruel jokes, weird porn and whatever other trolling it takes to move the dopamine needle in a given day.

Videodrome’s brilliance comes from literalizing the unseen culture war waging at all times underneath media messaging, giving it form and a cracked-mirror kind of stakes-raising. It’s a film that remains a narcotic to consume because it captures the unsettling undercurrent of ideas as diseases, transmogrifying the back-and-forth word-sparring of media discourse into a life-and-death battleground that no viewer, no matter how passive, can be safe from.

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