Videodrome, which came out in 1982, probably freaked me out as much as any movie ever has, when I caught it on cable TV a year or two after its release at the age of 13. In fact, I turned it off halfway through—it was just too much—but I ventured back a week later and watched the whole thing in morbid fascination.
It was the last of the films David Cronenberg made in his concentrated early “body horror” period, that stretch when he was establishing himself as an absolute master of intellectual schlock. Not that he ever abandoned that terrain at all—Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, and Crash were still to come—but his next project was a comparatively commercial Stephen King adaptation, The Dead Zone, and it wasn’t too long before he’s adapting David Henry Hwang plays and making movies about Jung.
After the thrilling, entropic run of serious mindfucks between 1975 and 1982, consisting of Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Scanners, and Videodrome—leaving out the racecar drama Fast Company to make a tidier chronology—there was a period in which Cronenberg’s actual personality and his public persona were quite out of sync.
Just a normal day in the Cronenberg universe…..
In real life, Cronenberg was a thoughtful, mild-mannered dork, but he was perceived as an insane freak, since cinephiles hadn’t had much access to seeing Cronenberg himself yet. The 1980s would bring The Fly and Dead Ringers, which would cement Cronenberg’s reputation as a filmmaker with a rare power to unsettle.
Today we think of him as this genial old guy who makes striking but somewhat conventional dramas like Eastern Promises or Maps to the Stars, but there was a time when even Martin Scorsese, a filmmaker quite accustomed to a bit of the ol’ ultraviolence, was actually frightened to meet his Canadian colleague!
In an interview that appeared in David Breskin’s wonderful collection Inner Views, Cronenberg commented:
I’m aware there are apparent contradictions, like the well-known Marty Scorsese thing: after I met him, he said in an interview that he had been terrified to meet me, though he had wanted to meet me. This is the guy who made Taxi Driver and he’s afraid to meet me! This is a guy who knows from the inside out that there’s a complex relationship between someone who makes films and his films. But he still was taking the films at face value and equating me with them, and the craziness he saw in the films, and the disturbing things he saw in the films, he felt would be the essence of me as a person. And so he was amazed to meet a guy who, as he later said, “looked like a Beverly Hills gynecologist.” And I was not anything like he thought I was going to be.
So that’s the context in which James Woods says, in Mick Garris’ look at the making of Videodrome, that Cronenberg’s was “one of the strangest minds I’ve ever encountered.” The fact is, Cronenberg’s sensibility has been tremendously normalized over the last generation, and it takes a mental effort to recall a time when Cronenberg was fucking dangerous and ultra weird.
To be fair, Woods was in the middle of making a movie in which his character, Max Renn, develops a kind of vagina into which he can insert a videotape and basically acts out the narrative laid out in David Bowie’s “TVC15” when he crawls into the cold glass of his cathode-ray tube…..
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Fear on Film’: Three masters of horror—Landis, Cronenberg, Carpenter all in the same interview