It is a surreal movie, fully embodying Cronenberg's affinity for Body Horror, and like all of his movies, it also has a strong intellectual undercurrent. The film deals with Marshall McLuhan's philosophies and examines the relationship between television and its audience. Cronenberg was greatly influenced by McLuhan's theories.
More specifically, the film follows the CEO of a small cable station who stumbles upon a pirate television signal that is broadcasting extremely violent and horrific things. He investigates. As you might expect from Cronenberg, things get worse...
This film provides examples of:
- Adolf Hitlarious: Max has a picture of Hitler on stilts in a ballerina skirt with a swastika on it in his living room.
- Arc Words: "Come to Nicki."
- Author Appeal: Characters ranting about the power of flesh? Yep, it's a Cronenberg film.
- Bedmate Reveal: Played for horror. When Max wakes up in his bed late in the film after an extended Videodrome hallucination, he finds someone laying next to him. When he removes the sheets it turns out to be the corpse of Masha, tied up and tortured to death. He calls up a friend to come over and look, but it turns out he was again hallucinating and his bed is empty.
- Belly Dancer: A belly dancer appears in the restaurant where Masha reveals more about Videodrome to Max.
- Belly Mouth: Combined with a Vagina Dentata; Max grows a vagina-like slit in his abdomen which proceeds to swallow things like guns.
- Black-and-Grey Morality: Barry Convex may be a clear bad guy, but Bianca O'Blivion is no saint either. She uses Max just as Barry did, and the only difference is that she shows a little remorse, and that her actions seem to be in self-defense. She still uses him to kill her enemies and drive Max to suicide.
- Body Horror: As per usual for Cronenberg.
- Max's hallucinations where he has a gaping hole in his stomach that can double as a VCR player or a vagina.
- Max's handgun fusing messily into his hand.
- Harlan's death. While implanting a new tape into Max's abdomen, Max suddenly doesn't let go of Harlan's hand. When Harlan finally gets his arm free, it's now a bloody stump with a flesh-covered grenade in place of his former hand. Cue the kaboom.
- Convex's death. He is shot at several times by Max, and it seems like that's the end of him until tumors graphically and bloodily burst from his body, ripping it apart, all while Convex writhes and loudly moans in agony.
- Brainwashed and Crazy: Max eventually becomes compelled by the Videodrome tapes to murder his partners at Civic TV in cold blood. When he goes after Bianca O'Blivion, she reprograms him to kill her enemies (the people who programmed Max to become an assassin in the first place) for her.
- Brown Note: Videodrome itself. We get to see why, and it's as horrible as it is said to be.
- Canada Does Not Exist: Averted. Unlike many mainstream movies set in Toronto which omit specifying a particular city (or even that they're outside of the US), Toronto is actively discussed throughout the film and numerous landmarks such as the CN Tower and Red Rocket streetcars are shown. Justified as this film, like many of Cronenberg's films, was financed by Canada's film commission designed to promote Canada.
- Central Theme: Eyes and perception. It's little wonder that the Mega-Corp has a front as an eyeglasses manufacturer whose new Medici line uses the motto "The eyes are the window to the soul".
- Chekhov's Gun: Max Renn loses his gun in an early hallucination inside the cavernous tumor in his stomach. Guess where he gets his gun from before the climax.
- Cigarette Burns: Nicki puts out a cigarette on her left breast as part of her masochistic tendencies, despite Max's pleas for her not to.
- Corporate Conspiracy: Spectacular Optical, a corporation that makes everything from cheap glasses to missiles. Under the direction of its CEO, Barry Covex, it tries to use the Videodrome signal to make people fear the evolution of media.
- Corporate Warfare: It's hidden, but the entire plot was set in motion when Brian O'Blivion developed a technology for a Subliminal Seduction television signal. The Mega-Corp owned by Barry Convex either made a deal with O'Blivion or tried to steal the tech. O'Blivion ended his research when he found out it was giving viewers tumors that not only gave them hallucinations, but made them extremely susceptible to suggestion, making them the perfect Manchurian Agent that could be given their instructions via subliminal broadcasts (usually videotapes). The Mega-Corp murdered O'Blivion for the technology, which set off a secretive corporate warfare between Barry and Bianca, Brian's daughter.
- Cosmic Horror Story: Maybe. Sort of. It depends on how you view the signals and hallucinations.
- Double Entendre: "Civic TV, the one you take to bed with you."
- Deconstructor Fleet: For late '70s, early '80s "mondo" exploitation movies. Oddly enough, it is now much better known than films like Mondo Cane or the Faces of Death series.
- Does This Remind You of Anything?: Max undergoes all of the psychological torture that goes into making a Manchurian Agent, with the Videodrome signal replacing drugs. Bianca successfully deprograms and reprograms him, with her using a mantra to reinforce his mission ("You are the video word made flesh." "I am the video word made flesh.") Harlan even invokes the "kill the assassin" trope by saying they were going to use Max until there's nothing left. He even kills himself in the same way a lot of assassins are convinced to at the end.
- Erotic Asphyxiation: The Videodrome signal Max and Harlan see was an alleged snuff film where a woman has her clothes ripped off by two hooded assailants in a red room. She then has her hands tied to a pole and gets choked to death. Played for horror when it's later discovered that the scene was very genuine.
- Exploitation Film: Civic TV's stock in trade is exploitation TV. Justified, as Max explains that it's economic. Television is extremely competitive, and Civic TV makes its money giving audiences content seen nowhere else.
- Fake Shemp: David Cronenberg had to double James Woods for the scene in which Max Renn has a helmet put on his head because Woods was afraid that be might be electrocuted by said helmet.
- Fantastic Aesop: Not used by the film itself, but by the bad guys, who figure that if they make a torture porn show that kills the viewer, nobody will watch torture porn anymore.
- Funny Background Event: Max hitting on Nicki while the talk show host interviews Brian O'Blivion.
- Headache of Doom: After watching Videodrome with Nikki Brand, Max Renn appears noticeably tired and headache-ridden the next morning, symptoms that Masha initially mistake for a hangover. After watching a Videodrome tape given to him by Bianca O'Blivion, the trend continues; following a hallucination-filled evening, Max wakes up with a headache - but this time, Bianca reveals the source of the symptoms: the Videodrome signal induces the growth of brain tumors in anyone watching it. And that's not all it does...
- Head-Tiltingly Kinky: Nicki gets off on mutilating and piercing herself, as well as watching Torture Porn.Nicki: What's this? "Videodrome"?
Max: Torture. Murder.
Nicki: Sounds great.
Max: Ain't exactly sex.
Nicki: Says who?
- Hemo Erotic: When Max learns that Nicki is a masochist, she asks if he wants to try out something. He pierces her ear with a needle, and licks off the blood.
- I Just Shot Marvin in the Face: Done on purpose for extreme horror. At one point James Woods basically has sex with the cancerous vagina growing out of his own belly with a gun.
- Immodest Orgasm: Nicki's moans of pleasure come from a pulsating VHS cassette.
- Interplay of Sex and Violence: This film is rife with it. In fact, it could even be seen as the main theme of this film.
- Just Here for Godzilla: Invoked by Max. When he asks to see one of the last tapes in a Japanese softcore porn series, one of the distributors says that it won't make sense without seeing the entire story. Max scoffs his audience isn't interested in the story.
- Killed to Uphold the Masquerade: Nicki went in search of Videodrome. The people behind it filmed her, then killed her and used her image to manipulate Max.
- Lady in Red: When Max is on a talk show to defend his low-brow network, he notes that that the red dress of Nicki, one of his co-guests, is quite alluring. They strike up a relationship not long after. During one of his later sexual-themed hallucinations, she reappears in a red dress.
- Loveable Rogue: Max Renn may be a snarky dealer of smut, but he is charismatic and friendly and never really did anything wrong until Videodrome screws him up.
- Made of Explodium: Harlan dies with his body spontaneously combusting thanks to his hand becoming a fleshy grenade.
- Manchurian Agent: What Max becomes, by both Barry Convex and Bianca O'Blivion. Both are able to "program" him to assassinate anyone they want to. Bianca has the decency to note that Max is an innocent victim.
- Man in the Machine: One of Cronenberg's favorite tropes is played out here. Aside from "Max becomes a living VCR", at one point, Convex has Max wear a gigantic recording device over his head, making him look like a man with a robot head.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Yes, they're visions, but... is that really Nicki talking to him beyond the grave, or just his own psychosis?
- Mega-Corp: The Spectacular Optical corporation is revealed to have stolen Videodrome (a mysterious force that can give people the power to warp reality) from its creator, Dr. Brian O'Blivion, and assassinated him with it. While O'Blivion wanted to use Videodrome to help the human race, Spectacular Optical uses it to further their own evil goals of world domination. According to its CEO Barry Convex, the company makes everything from cheap glasses to missiles.
- Mind Screw: The blurring between fiction and reality only increases during The Climax.
- The Mole: Harlan is revealed to have been a plant sent in by Barry Convex in order to expose Max to Videodrome.
- Moral Event Horizon: Invoked by Masha.Masha: Videodrome. What you see on that show, it's for real. It's not acting. It's... snuff TV.
Max: I don't believe it.
Masha: So... don't believe.
Max: Why do it for real? It's easier and safer to fake it.
Masha: Because it has something that you don't have, Max. It has a philosophy, and that is what makes it dangerous.
- Moral Guardians: The purity league headed up by Barry Convex.
- Morality Chain Beyond the Grave: Nicki. Bianca uses her image to prevent Max from killing her.
- Mr. Vice Guy: While Max is mostly a good person, he is quite a sleazy guy, whose vices are mostly associated with lust.
- Mrs. Robinson: When Max jokingly offers to shower naked with Masha to get her to investigate Videodrome, she chuckles and says that while Max probably has a hot bod, she prefers younger men, giving the young bearded waiter a brief lustful gaze.
- New Media Are Evil: Deconstructed. This turns to be Barry Convex's plan with Videodrome all along: to make people fear the evolution of media. Bianca is against it, but her beliefs are just as extreme.
- Names to Run Away From: Brian O'Blivion and his daughter Bianca O'Blivion. While their alignment is very hard to make out due to the unreality of the movie and Brian being a resonant phantom living in the television world, they are engaging in a counter war against the brain-destroying, people-corrupting Videodrome syndicate by reprogramming the "video word made flesh" (an outside innocent, sleazy TV executive Max Renn) for their own sinister purposes. In his first appearance Brian explains that O'Blivion is just his "television name".
- No Celebrities Were Harmed:
- Brian O'Blivion is a parody of Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas are the central theme of the movie. He only exists in video tapes, parodying McLuhan's famous proclamation: "I refuse to appear on television, except on television," a line O'Blivion quotes verbatim in his first appearance.
- CivicTV and its head producer Moses is an Expy of infamous Toronto TV station City TV (back when it was a single, innovative TV station filled with local programming, as opposed to the multi-station, corporately homogenized TV system it is today) and its co-founder Moses Znaimer. (Perhaps a sense of irony, as Znaimer was often cited as following in Marshall McLuhan's footsteps, at least when it came to using television as a communications tool).
- Non-Actor Vehicle: Nicki is played by Deborah Harry, best known for being the lead singer of Blondie rather than as an actress.
- Nothing Is Scarier: The orange letters of the title card of the titular TV Show, with nothing but the buzz of your cathode ray-tube to accompany it.
- Novelisation: A novelization was released by Zebra Books alongside the movie in 1983. Though credited to "Jack Martin", the novel was, in fact, the work of horror novelist Dennis Etchison. Cronenberg reportedly invited Etchison up to Toronto, where they discussed and clarified the story, allowing the novel to remain as close as possible to the actions in the film. There are some differences, however, such as the inclusion of the "bathtub sequence", a scene never filmed in which a television rises from Max Renn's bathtub like a Venus in a conch shell. This was the result of the lead time required to write the book, which left Etchison working with an earlier draft of the script than was used in the film.
- Organic Technology: The television sets start to breathe and pulsate, the video cassettes are eventually made out of living flesh, and Max's hand morphs together with his gun.
- Phallic Weapon: When Max grows a cancerous vagina on his abdomen, he uses his gun to have sex with it.
- Pinball Protagonist: Max has very little agency in his actions, even before becoming a Videodrome-programmed assassin with no free will.
- Place Worse Than Death: Pittsburgh is treated this way throughout the film. It is where the Videodrome signal comes from, and "See you in Pittsburgh" is later used in lieu of the regular "See You in Hell".
- Playful Hacker: Harlan, who even has signs around bragging about being a video pirate.
- Pre-Mortem One-Liner: "See you in Pittsburgh."
- Punny Name:
- Raster Vision: Averted in here. Videodrome is credited as being the first film to feature low-flicker television. Used in stylized form on the poster's logo, however.
- "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A nasty one delivered by Harlan.Harlan: North America's getting soft, patron. And the rest of the world is getting tough. Very, very tough. We're entering savage new times, and we're going to have to be pure...and direct...and strong...if we're gonna survive them. Now, you and this, uh, cesspool you call a television station...(increasingly pissed) and, uh, your people who wallow around in it...and, uh, your viewers...who watch you do it you're rotting us away from the inside. We intend to stop that rot.
- Recorded Spliced Conversation: Professor Brian O'Blivion is a pop-culture analyst/ philosopher who believes that television will eventually replace all aspects of everyday life. He frequently appears on talk shows to debate his philosophy, but only if he can telecommute by having his image broadcast into the studio on a TV next to the other participants. Protagonist Max goes to Professor O'Blivion's base of operations at the "Cathode Ray Mission" in order to interview him personally, but discovers that Professor O'Blivion was murdered and his daughter, Bianca O'Blivion, has been using an archive of thousands of her father's pre-recorded tapes to fake his continued appearances on television.
- Science Is Bad: The seeming surface moral is that modern information technology is eeevill. But, later it turns out: not so much.
- Secret War: There is a hidden battle going on between Bianca O'Blivion and Barry Convex, with Max caught in the middle as a Manchurian Agent for both.
- To several famous exploitation movies.
- CIVIC-TV is a play on Citytv (a Toronto-area station that, past midnight, played porn movies at the time that Videodrome was made.).note
- Show Within a Show: Videodrome, which is ostensibly a Snuff Film, but later turns out to be a sinister movement.
- Smug Snake: Once the act is dropped, Barry Convex has this kind of personality.
- The Social Darwinist: The villains. They believe that moral decay is weakening the nation, so they created the Videodrome to kill off the most depraved individuals.
- Spiritual Sequel: eXistenZ. This is made particularly clear because it starts with a scene that looks very like the climax to this movie. Not to mention that both films make use of a disturbingly biological handgun.
- Snuff Film: Videodrome is snuff television. It's also much more than that, however...
- Starts with a Suicide: Inverted. The film ends with Max shooting himself to (he believes) be joined with Nicki in Videodrome. Whether or not he's hallucinating there is an open question, however.
- Surreal Horror: As Max's psychological descent steepens, plot points and settings grow more and more absurd.
- The Tape Knew You Would Say That: TV prophet Brian O'Blivion communicates solely through videotaped messages, even to participate in an interview early on in the film. Played with when thanks to the Videodrome hallucination, Brian directly speaks to Max from his recording.
- A Taste of the Lash:
- Another snuff film shown from the Videodrome signal has a woman with her hands tied above her as she's flogged repeatedly by two strangers in hoods.
- During the scene where Max wears a helmet to record his hallucinations, he ends up dreaming of Nicki who wants to play. Max finds himself in the Videodrome room, then obtains a whip and uses it on Nicki, who turns into Masha, who's trapped in a television set.
- The Television Talks Back: Nicki disappears when going to check out Videodrome, then appears to Max in his TV, and asks for a kiss. He does... and then things start to get really bizarre. Brian O'Blivion also starts to directly converse with Max in this way later on.Max: Be careful. It bites.
- There Are No Therapists: The only person coming close in the movie gets corrupted the fastest.
- Through the Eyes of Madness: The film is shown from the perspective of the protagonist, Max Renn, who has certainly gone batty at some point. Everything up to the first Brian O'Blivion tape he watches can be assumed to be real as he's still only slightly affected by the signal. But when Bianca tells him that his life could become "100% video hallucination", suddenly it looks more and more likely that the bizarre plot twists (i.e. an evil conspiracy operating out of an opticians', his best friend being part of this conspiracy, murdering people with flesh/metal hybrid weaponry) is all part of a massive psychotic break triggered by the Videodrome signal. Maybe.
- Too Kinky to Torture. Nicki. In fact, to her torture is kinky.
- Torture Porn: Subverted in-universe. When Max first sees the pirated Videodrome transmission, he thinks that it's the most realistic torture exploitation he's ever seen, which is exactly what he thinks his channel's viewers will want. Only later does he realize that Videodrome's 'actors' don't ever return, and is a real Snuff Film operation.
- Unreliable Narrator: See Through the Eyes of Madness, above.
- Unusually Uninteresting Sight: Part of the film's Mind Screw. After Harlan blows up Max walks out through giant hole the explosion left in the wall. We see a woman running towards him seemingly alarmed by said explosion, but then it turns out she's just chasing her daughter who is absentmindedly running off and they pay no attention to Max.
- Vagina Dentata: Just about the only trope played straight. Except that it's on a man. In his abdomen.
- Visual Pun: Max's handgun becomes overtly literal later on. There's also a literal hand grenade at one point.
- Zeerust: To a modern audience, the idea that television is the primary medium by which media influences the human mind seems quite antiquated, what with the rise of the Internet and social media. The potential remake of Videodrome addresses this issue by using the Internet and nano-technology as the means by which society is controlled. Television itself has also evolved beyond signal broadcasts since the rise of cable. Those adorable Betamax cassettes and VCRs really sweeten the deal, not to mention the Atari 2600 Max owns.