In the introduction to his book Killing For Culture: An Illustrated History of Death Film From Mondo to Snuff, David Kerekes states “Film doesn’t simply document, it creates. Whatever is put before the camera imbues the celluloid with life, grants those frames their existence. When somebody is seen to lose their life on film, their death becomes a product subject to change”. It seems that the death described by Kerekes is quite obviously more real in nature than what most audiences would ever think of buying a ticket to see – or would they? – his opening remarks ring true to enigmatic reaction that VIDEODROME’s Max Wren (James Woods) has when he first encounters streams/recordings of “real” people meeting their demise.
The concept of “snuff” has been around for decades in American popular culture and/or mythos, depending on how you see it. Real and/or fabricated cases surrounding The Manson Family and various lesser-known crimes, either made their way to tapes or were at least told to have. Whether or not snuff is in fact a myth – we all know by now, thanks to the internet, that videos of real death do very well exist – is a moot point as the public at large bought into it regardless, propagating something that became real even if it never was. Which lead to the natural commandeering of/by the narrative film – i.e Hollywood.
Following the popular culture adoption – or at least acceptance – of snuff, cinema began to explore the concept of a captured murder. Films from respected (and non-respected) filmmakers, including Paul Schrader’s HARDCORE (1976), Ruggero Deodato’s CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), John McNaughten’s HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986), MAN BITES DOG (1990), Kathryn Bigelow’s STRANGE DAYS (1995) and Joel Schumacher’s 8MM (1998) were all released to varying degrees of commercial and/or critical success in decades that followed. David Cronenberg’s VIDEODROME, released in 1983, would arrive somewhere in the halfway point and capitalize on the current video craze prior to 1986’s HENRY. Save for the latter, all of the films mentioned above would involve a lead character being exposed to snuff rather than creating it, a concept which would be explored far more in the 2000s thanks to Fred Vogel and his notoriously nauseating AUGUST UNDERGROUND series as well as the ‘can-you-take-it’ cinema sadism of A SERBIAN FILM (2010).
The majority of narratives involving snuff at least feature the lead being mentally affected by what he – I’ve yet to see a female star in any of the faux-snuff titles – has seen. George C. Scott in HARDCORE and Nicolas Cage in 8MM – almost unavoidably similar films, in story as well as grimness – both become involved in underground worlds of S&M and snuff dealers (two worlds that seem to consistently collide cinematically yet should not be deemed equivalent at all) and are driven to different degrees of madness and hostility as a result. Max Wren in VIDEODROME becomes mentally stimulated by what he watches, especially in his lurid dreams, but he is also physically transformed via Cronenberg’s blueprint ‘body horror’ imagery. Along with STRANGE DAYS, it is the only of the mentioned features to fall into a science-fiction genre and offer a discussion (or warning) on the current/future state of technology and how information is disseminated; the ‘information’ here being murder/sex and the co-existence of the two, and the ‘dissemination’ being that of television signals and videotape.
Wren’s life, professionally and romantically, becomes exaggerated to a heightened display of sadomasochism and alpha-male integrity. He goes from the – perhaps snarky – business focused CEO of Civic TV to a signal addicted, analog fantasizer that can’t separate reality from fiction and technology from flesh. As with anything Cronenberg made in the 1980s, The Body is on center display here with Wren changing in ways that would make Seth Brundle wince in pain. Watching a pulsing video tape be thrust into a vagina-like opening in Wren’s stomach is not only a moment that is hard to shake, but one that takes into question anxieties of sex and media, and the convergence of the two. When Wren reaches into his new womb for the tape, he instead retracts a slime covered gun which attaches itself to his arm, turning the sex into violence, much like the tonal shift in the Videodrome signal that has been plaguing Wren.
The end of VIDEODROME features Wren having nearly finished his murderous rampage, walking into a homeless man on the street with a small TV set run by batteries, on the TV is a news report of the shooting and the man says to Wren “You wanna see the monkey dance, you pay the piper.” Shortly after this, another tape – this time bloody and flesh like, rather than black plastic – is shoved into Wren’s abdomen but rather than consume the tape, Wren’s belly-vagina chews up the arm and spits it out. Wren has become the monkey that he was so intent on watching to begin with.
Kerekes ends his book with an attempt at diagnosing our need for something like snuff: “It is evident that the outrage and furor over snuff reveals a tacit desire – indeed, a need – for it to exist, if only as an idea. Just as we had to create, say the vampire as an embodiment of man’s darker, unacceptable sexual urges, so too the mythic ‘snuff peddler’ – ultimate incarnation of the iconic serial killer – must carry the can for our death-lust”. Cronenberg ends his film with Wren “killing the old flesh” in order to undergo the “ultimate transformation.” We watch Wren view himself inside of a TV and putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. The TV explodes with guts and viscera. And then he actually does it. He viewed/became his own snuff film. “Long live the new flesh.”