This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
Compared to the solid run we’ve been on since the mid-1970s, 1983 feels like more of a breather year. There are some fine films here, but fewer that you would label as indispensable classics of the genre—the lineup is a little lacking in wow factor, you could say. In general, it’s not quite as memorable as the years that surround it on either side, with the exception of Videodrome.
It’s a year of lesser Stephen King adaptations, for one, being home to both Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone (a big year for him, given that he also directed Videodrome) and John Carpenter’s Christine. Both of those films serviceably adapt their source material—The Dead Zone as a chilly psychological drama with horror elements, and Christine as a considerably more goofy story that is uncomplicated fun, which was likely a reaction to the negative critical response to Carpenter’s more ambitious The Thing a year earlier. The Dead Zone can boast some solid performances at least, as Christopher Walken took the fairly blank character of “Johnny Smith” and made him his own—it’s also fun to see Martin Sheen playing a psychotic commander in chief in Smith’s visions, like a worst case scenario for his West Wing character.
Elsewhere, you’ve got David Bowie playing a sexy but rapidly aging vampire in The Hunger, discovering the fine print in the difference between “eternal life” and “eternal youth,” and the up-and-down whiplash of Twilight Zone: The Movie, which starts off with a hell of an opening sequence but then bogs down in sentimentality, along with the infamy always attached to John Landis’ segment because of the on-set death of actor Vic Morrow in a stunt helicopter crash.
The slasher genre, of course, is still in full bloom as well, offering up minor classics like The House on Sorority Row or Sleepaway Camp. The latter remains a very fun watch in 2019, capturing the zeitgeist of ridiculously cruel teenage bullying and a “secret” killer whose identity should be more than obvious from the opening moments. It will, however, always stand out for some of its sillier kills (the bee’s nest, for one) and the truly eye-popping nature of its ending, which remains nearly as shocking now as it was in 1983. Sleepaway Camp, in fact, might as well be considered the gold standard for slashers with left field, “what the hell did I just see?” endings.
1983 Honorable Mentions:
The Dead Zone, The Hunger, Christine, Twilight Zone: The Movie, Sleepaway Camp, Angst, Psycho II, Cujo, The House on Sorority Row
Director: David Cronenberg
Those who know Videodrome only by reputation and the iconic stills they see online probably expect a film that is more or less plotless, simply a melange of disturbing, hallucinatory imagery. The reality is surprisingly the opposite, as the central plotline of the film is as much mystery as it is social satire; a compelling quest to determine the nature and source of the infamous “Videodrome” pirate broadcast, before the last act of the film descends completely into the surreal nightmare fuel with which the film is indelibly associated. As a director, David Cronenberg sometimes seems to see himself as beyond the constraints of such things as “plot,” but Videodrome actually manages to be both grounded and quite abstract at the same time.
This is a film with a beautifully nihilistic outlook on modern culture, which manages to make the very thought of consuming any kind of entertainment seem deeply unwholesome. One might think that its themes, rooted in the age of cathode ray tubes and powerful TV broadcast stations, might have lost potency in the online streaming era, but if anything they’re more relevant than ever. The medium of man’s consumption of media doesn’t matter one bit—there’s nothing being said about the nature of reality and TV in Videodrome that doesn’t apply toward modern YouTube personalities or Twitch streamers. Like Max Renn, we still exist in a world where so many of us are always chasing the dragon, on a never-ending quest for the next high. Only now, we don’t have to fiddle with the rabbit ears of a junky old TV set—we simply request that the web supply us with stimulation, and it does, immediately. If the 1980s were already an “overstimulated time,” in the words of Debbie Harry, then imagine how much worse our “sexual malaise” must be now, with instant gratification ever at our fingertips. More frightening still, our media landscape is now so vast and impossible for a single consciousness to process that each individual voice needs to be that much louder, to be heard.
As Renn, James Woods exudes an aura of sleaze and disgust—he is a willing pawn for forces that he instantly accepts as greater than himself, overcome by a society where enough is never enough. The visions he experiences as the Videodrome broadcast breaks down the barriers of his consciousness seem to draw on the biomechanical nightmares of H.R. Giger, as twisted fusions of man and machine presage future body horror classics like Tetsuo: The Iron Man. It’s never clear what is hallucination and what is reality, but it’s one of those cases where trying to determine objective truth would be a pointless effort. As Videodrome argues, perception is itself reality, anyway.
To close with a summation from Paste’s own Dom Sinacola, from our list of the 100 best horror films of all time:
In Videodrome, maybe more saliently than in any of his other films, Cronenberg squeezes the ordeals of the slumbering mind like toothpaste from the tube into the disgusting light of day, unable to push them back in. Long live the new flesh—because the old can no longer hold us together.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.