David Cronenberg has always brought a cerebral edge to his movies, starting with his scuzzy debut of the sex parasite creature feature SHIVERS. He infuses his work with rich subtext and meaning , intending to give viewers something to chew on while grossing them out. Since most of his early films were laced with gore and subsequently ran into censorship woes around the world, he was often confronted by critics presenting the notion that violent films could induce violent urges in the audience. Naturally he dismissed the idea, but this concept was the jumping off point for his 1983 masterwork VIDEODROME.
The plot follows Max Renn (James Woods), the owner of a sleazy TV network specializing in sex and violence. He becomes obsessed with a pirate signal for an underground show called VIDEODROME, which appears to feature real people being tortured and murdered. He soon finds himself hallucinating disturbing images after watching it and gets drawn into a dark underworld involving sadomasochism, murder, stomach vaginas and cancer guns.
Another seed for VIDEODROME came from Cronenberg’s own childhood where he was able to pick up signals on his television from New York, and he became obsessed with the idea he might see something he wasn’t supposed to in this blurry static. While the movie didn’t do much business upon release, it’s since become recognized as a horror classic that was eerily prophetic of things like the internet and virtual reality.
Of course, such a gory and subversive work was – ironically enough – never going to have an easy time on syndicated television. VIDEODROME has a lean runtime and is peppered with graphic imagery and sexuality, so quite a few changes had to be made to make it fit for mass-public consummation. Cronenberg actually shot way more footage then what ended up in the final cut and experimented with various concepts to give himself options in the edit. He left most of this on the editing room floor, leaving lots of material for the TV cut to play around with.
A most noticeable difference in the TV version is the increased role of Debbie Harry. Her character Nicki Brand disappears for a chunk of the movie, but in the TV version she gets a little more to do including accompanying Max to his meeting with Videodrome producer Barry Convex. Cronenberg has spoken of how he had to essentially micromanage Harry’s performance due to her inexperience, and that may explain why her screentime was ultimately reduced for the final movie cut. Her performance in this scene, in particular, feels quite stilted, and it’s easy to see why Nicki was edited out and replaced with Barry Convex talking to Max on TV in the theatrical version.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the television version is an extended scene with Convex who explains the origins of Videodrome to Max, stating that it started with a prototype helmet for military snipers. During testing, the helmet somehow recorded imagines from the user’s subconscious during stressful or violent situations, and thus Videodrome was born. It’s an interesting backstory for sure, but Cronenberg was right to snip it to keep the mystery.
Another intriguing addition is a brief scene where Max catches a quick glimpse of his reflection and notices he’s still wearing the imagine accumulator. He quickly snaps out of it, but the implication is that everything in the story from the moment he put the helmet on is a hallucination. Cronenberg toyed with this concept during filming, shooting some scenes two ways: one where Max wears the helmet to show he’s under Videodrome’s control and one without. In the final cut, Cronenberg blurs the lines and lets viewers decide if the hallucinations are real or not.
While some of this excised material adds new layers to the plot, there’s quite a bit of filler too. There is gratuitous footage of James Woods walking and needlessly extended takes of Max strolling along sidewalks and into buildings. There’s also pointless extensions like an awkward encounter with a dinner lady in the television shelter. Barry Convex’s horribly gruesome demise by the infamous cancer gun is reduced to nothing, with Max just shooting him in a wide shot and running off stage.
The opening credits for this version features a bizarre painting with characters from the movie, and the ending returns to this painting again, seemingly to avoid Max’s suicide being the final moment. There’s a close-up of each character – including a very cyberpunk looking James Woods – repeating key lines from the movie. It’s an odd way to cap things off really, but strangely eerie in its own way.
Cronenberg personally hated this edit, since it was made without his supervision, and it chopped the movie to bits. He blocked the TV version being included with the Criterion Collection edition, so it’s probably not a good idea to mention it to him at a party. A “clean” version of a movie about sex, violence and its effects on viewers was always going to be a hard task, and it’s difficult to defend the sloppy end result of this TV cut. For fans of VIDEODROME however, it does provide a fascinating look at how Cronenberg shaped the movie and the concepts that were abandoned along the way. It is also oddly “meta” that VIDEODROME would morph into a twisted new shape for television.
P.S. Be sure to check out the trailer below, which is a textbook example of a major studio having no goddamn idea how to sell a movie.