Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Book Review: Videodrome

Book Review: 'Videodrome' by Jack Martin

3 / 5 Stars

This New English Library paperback edition of ‘Videodrome’ was published in the UK in July, 1983. ‘Jack Martin’ was a pseudonym for the well-known horror writer Dennis Etchison. 

(The US editions of the novelization paperback, with a cover illustration derived from the film poster, rather than playing up the Debbie Harry angle, are quite expensive, with used copies starting at $18).

The film was released in the US in early February, 1983, and it received considerable critical praise. However, Videodrome's  low-budget presentation was out of place with the expectations of the horror and sf viewership of the time, and it did poorly at the box office.

The novel is set in Toronto in the early 80s. Lead character Max Renn is the owner and producer of an independent TV station called ‘Civic TV’. Renn is essentially a sleaze merchant, constantly looking for cheap softcore porn and 'mondo' films, with which he can fill out the late night blocks of Civic TV’s broadcasting. 

Assisted by a video technician named Harlan, Renn covertly uses a satellite dish to steal video feeds from around the world, taping the pirated programs for release on Civic TV.

One day Harlan captures a brief segment of what appears to be a torture scene, originating from a broadcast
titled ‘Videodrome’, from Malaysia. The video’s creepy ‘feeling’ is exactly what Max is looking for in terms of newer, more disturbing material to fill the late night programming slots, and he instructs Harlan to try and capture more of the strange video. 

Appearing on a local talk show, Max encounters Nicki Brand, a pop psychologist who hosts a call-in radio show. Max Renn and Nicky become romantically involved, and Max discovers she is turned on by the torture video. When Harlan discovers the Videodrome broadcast is actually originating from Pittsburg, Nicky’s obsession with the video leads her to travel to the city to discover more about the company producing the broadcast. 


Max’s interest in the Videodrome broadcasts becomes more than simply mercenary in nature when he discovers that they are triggering vivid hallucinations
By now alarmed by the effect the Videodrome hallucinations are having on his waking hours, Max Renn probes deeper for answers to the nature and purpose of the broadcasts. What he discovers sends his life spiralling out of control. For Videodrome is not just an outlet for particularly disturbing snuff films. Videodrome’s ambitions are set on a societal transformation much more all-encompassing….and dangerous. 

Thirty years after its release, the Videodrome film holds up well, as does this novelization, which contains segments / scenes that failed to make the filmed script. These additional scenes help fill out some of the narrative, and give Videodrome a greater standing as a work of proto-cyberpunk.

Videodrome, which came out just a year in advance of 'Neuromancer', contains a number of cyberpunk tropes, such as the advent of a ‘virtual’ reality, and the use of a helmet-type device to allow the end-user access to his or her own perception of said VR. 

But both the film and, to some extent, the novel, avoid using the more stylized, noir-ish elements of early cyberpunk (e.g., Blade Runner) and rely instead on a grubby, lurid, low-budget aesthetic that seems truer to the genre, back when it was in its formative stages.

If you haven’t seen Videodrome, or your last viewing was a long time ago, it’s definitely worth checking out. Given the overstimulated, frantic nature of so many contemporary sf films, the low-budget, gritty packaging of Videodrome, and its satirical but unsettling approach to the passive nature of tv viewing, will seem fresh and novel.

1 comment:

Will Errickson said...

I haven't read this but I love the movie, love Cronenberg, love Etchison. The US paperback has been on my shelf for years, nice to know it's a collectible!