Niall Anderson looks at the early work of cinema’s favourite bodyhorror auteur
Two men sit fully clothed in a bath. One of them describes himself as a secret agent; the other says he’s a chemical weapons expert. They squabble about what is down the plughole and which of them should sit nearer to it. The chemical weapons expert draws the short straw and is killed by a thing in the plughole, at which point the secret agent begins to make dutiful notes. We realise we’ve been watching a political assassination. The chemical weapons expert has been killed because he knew too much about what the government is doing. This is the plot of David Cronenberg’s From The Drain (1967). It is also proof that Cronenberg is basically a big old hippie.
Hippiedom isn’t the first thing you think of when you think of Cronenberg. It certainly isn’t what you think of when you watch Videodrome (1983), reissued today by Arrow in a deluxe four-disc DVD/Blu Ray set. A lean, propulsive and cruel film, Videodrome conjures its own reality so successfully that it frustrates any attempt at a political reading. But then we remember how the film ends: with the promise of violent consumer revolution. Hippiedom survives even here, in a fittingly mutated form.
Cronenberg’s debt to hippiedom is made plainer on the bonus disc of early work. More playful than you might expect – or at any rate more obviously comedic – the four films included are all to some extent political, in the woozy paranoid manner of William Burroughs. They all pivot on questions of individual liberty and social control. What changes is the style. The shortest films – From The Drain and Transfer (1966) – are hypergarrulous comedy routines. The two longer films – Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) – do away with dialogue altogether, preferring a hectoring narration and random synthesizer noises.
Each of these films wears out its welcome long before the end, but Stereo has the seed of greatness in it: it might even be Cronenberg’s Rosebud. A monochromatic tale of institutionalised telepaths and the experiments performed on them by clinical staff, it has all the modish anti-establishment posturing a good hippie could want. But by denying the telepaths an audible voice, and devolving all speech to unseen narrators, it also gets to the secret anxiety at the heart of all Cronenberg’s films: the literal impossibility of getting inside somebody else’s head; the fear that they may be thinking something you don’t want them to.
Packaging these particular films with Videodrome doesn’t initially seem to make a lot of sense, except as a means to get this rare and largely uncommercial material into general release for the first time. But in a way, Videodrome is the film in which Cronenberg resolved the philosophical problems that these early films raise. What if you accepted the voice in your head as an active agent in the world, and used it to bend reality to your will? What if social control could be circumvented just by refusing to believe in it?
This is the unrated cut of Videodrome, which adds about forty seconds to the original version. The new cut lingers here and there on the more explicit sex and violence, but none of the emendations is particularly crucial. More obvious is the effect of the new digital remaster, which adds brightness and a certain Hollywood lushness to Mark Irwin’s cinematography, without losing the analogue murk that the film’s theme would seem to demand.
The film itself remains an unrepeatable oddity: a cartoonish thriller done in almost insultingly broad strokes, that nonetheless ends up being one of the most haunting and suggestive films ever made. James Woods was never better cast than as corrupt TV producer Max Renn, whose discovery of an illegal snuff channel leads him either to madness or to complete psychic regeneration (or both). The notorious body horror effects haven’t dated particularly well, but the spookier moments – Max’s TV gesturing him to walk into the screen and begin to create his own reality – have a frank hallucinatory power that will never get old. All hail the new flesh!