"Certain shades of limelight can ruin a girl's complexion," Holly Golightly indisputably observed in "Breakfast at Tiffany's." The limelight reflects so harshly on a misbegotten new shocker called "Videodrome" that it could damage the career of writer-director David Cronenberg, hitherto a promising young specialist in the macabre whose cult reputation expanded to the outskirts of the mainstream two winters back with "Scanners."
Simultaneously stupefying and boring, "Videodrome" is too extreme a blunder to survive exposure to a justifiably disillusioned horror-movie public. More often than not a film will be accepted on its own terms if people can clutch at even the flimsiest excuse for suspending disbelief. Every so often the presentation proves so faulty that the natural excess of tolerance is transformed into sarcastic rejection. In the horror genre the last fiasco to inspire vociferous, jeering contempt from paying customers was "The Hand." It's now supplanted as the touchstone of hideous ineptitude by "Videodrome."
Cronenberg's system of illusion malfunctions so drastically on this occasion that the audience titters at would-be erotic or appalling sensations and pelts the hapless actors, notably James Woods as the grotesquely manipulated leading man, Max, with tart advice. Although the bughouse plot eventually obliges Woods to ricochet around Toronto assassinating people, the real lethal weapon conjured up by "Videodrome" will be a devastating word of mouth.
Cronenberg takes his initial expository pratfall by depicting Max embracing kinkiness far too abruptly in the far-too-frigid form of Deborah Harry--cast as a zombieish pop psychologist named Nicki Brand who introduces him to sadomasochistic foreplay. Allegedly turned on by Max's pirated excerpts from the mysterious Videodrome signal--which seems to transmit an ongoing atrocity spectacle of naked women being tortured--Nicki purrs, "Wanna try a few things?" in her drowsy monotone, provoking the susceptible hero into a bewildering, hallucinatory state of arousal moments after he obligingly skewers her earlobe with an ornamental needle.
Craving major-league sadism, Nicki vanishes in pursuit of an audition for Videodrome ("I was made for that show" she pants), whose signal has been pinned down, you should pardon the expression, to Somewhere in Pittsburgh--a detail that puts the audience in stitches. Vaguely following the trail of his lost, sicko Lorelei, Max falls victim to the brainwashing influence of Videodrome, ultimately identified as the overreaching electronic narcotic of some ill-defined corporate tyrants who figure to profit in some obscure way by controlling degenerate mentalities. "It has something you don't have," Max is warned at one point. "It has a philosophy, and that iswhat makes it dangerous."
If Cronenberg had been able to make a scintilla of sense out of this supposed philosophy, "Videodrome" might have had a fighting chance to avert wholesale ridicule. Since the diabolical, mind-bending threat he presumably had in mind emerges as a half-baked jumble of sordid or lurid cathode apparitions, the movie self-destructs and then seems to take an eternity hauling its unsightly celluloid carcass out of sight.
Woods' claim on preposterous duty pay extends far beyond the ear-piercing scene. Not since Ann-Margret in "Tommy" and Donald Sutherland in Fellini's "Casanova" has a performer's sincerity been so elaborately abused. Cronenberg requires the following additional humiliations: Woods must pretend to embrace the image of Deborah Harry's beckoning lips that bulges from his TV set during a typical Videodrome transmission; stare in helpless terror as a gaping hole opens in his abdomen; plunge a handgun inside this cavity, suggesting a whole new way of "carrying a concealed weapon"; expose the wound to vicious Videodrome agents who then shove rubbery, pulsating cassettes into his cluttered gut; extract the gun, which remains forgotten for quite a spell and reappears dripping with an oddly confectionary gore--as if it had rested in a simmering vat of caramel-- in order to shoot unsuspecting colleagues; and, the silliest indignity of them all, sit still for a kind of Rube Goldberg hairdryer-helmet contraption that allegedly measures the intensity of hallucinations induced by Videodrome and causes him to go into a fantasy where Max flogs a TV set with a bullwhip. The funniest single loose end in the presentation: how in hell does Max get out of that prop after it's locked on his fool head?