Exploding heads, bursting veins, collapsing eyeballs and searing, distended flesh: these ingredients are tailor-made for Canadian director David Cronenberg's particular brand of body-conscious horror; but in "Scanners" (Cronenberg's first commercial blockbuster hit and his biggest budgeted movie up to that point) they appear almost as bookends to an otherwise austere, futuristic sci-fi espionage thriller that concentrates more on loud action sequences than it does on the director's trademark philosophy based on twisted forms of biologically-derived transformation. From start to finish a traumatic production for the director (who was still rewriting the script well into the shooting of the film), the completed article may not be his most accomplished piece, but it certainly features some of the most memorable and unnerving sequences in his entire body of work!
Howard Shore's imposingly monolithic score introduces the first of two sequences near the start of the film that are pure "Cronenberg" in execution: a middle-aged lady in a shopping maul is psychically molested by a disheveled young tramp and ends up threshing around in an undignified manner on the floor as his psychic "scanning" causes her an epileptic spasm. The icy, matter-of-fact tone of this opener -- which develops into a chase scene when two suspicious-looking undercover agents attempt to take the tramp into custody -- is continued with another sequence set in the conference room of a weapons development firm called ConSec: a dry-looking businessman calls for volunteers to take part in a psychic mind-reading demonstration. However, the subject chosen is not the innocent audience member he seems to be and the demonstration ends in one of the most spectacular (and goriest) screen head explosions of all time -- made all the more effective by the spine-tingling audio effects which continue to put the viewer on edge with the promise of more outrageous nastiness to come whenever they appear at key points in the film.
The "tramp" is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack): a man driven to the fringes of society by his uncontrollable ability to read peoples' thoughts and to influence their minds; the audience member who causes the gory head explosion at the ConSec conference is Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside): a renegade Scanner who has left the ConSec Scanner programme to start an underground organisation bent on world domination. Vale has been taken into custody by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who now works for ConSec. Ruth invented a drug called Ephemerol in the 1940s which was administered to pregnant women; unfortunately, a side-effect of the drug was that it created Scanners: men and women with enormous psychic power. Only further controlled doses of Ephemerol can keep these powers in check. Ruth cleans Cameron up and teaches him how to use his powers productively. Eventually, he is set to work for ConSec and released into the field in order to track down and destroy Revok and his terrorist Scanner organisation!
"Scanners" is certainly recognisable as the work of David Cronenberg: the moody atmospherics; the overall tonal seriousness created by the director's usual team of collaborators; as well as the work of make-up artist Dick Smith ("The Exorcist"), whose groundbreaking psychically-induced mutilation special effects at the climax of the film are another highlight of Cronenberg's cinema -- all give credibility to otherwise threadbare material. There are still hints of Cronenberg's disturbing sensibility evident in his self-written screenplay. For instance, the idea of a new pharmaceuticals drug creating a race of altered humans and the suggestion that these powers might induce a radically reorganised way of looking at the world -- indicated in such sequences as Cameron visiting a Scanner artist whose grotesque work demonstrates a very bizarre and unusual outlook on life -- are indicative of the director's usual thematic concerns; as are deranged flourishes such as the antagonist drilling a hole in his forehead to try and escape the voices caused by his psychic powers. But this turns out to be all so much colouring in a rather bog-standard good versus evil/conspiracy plot-line that adds very little else that is new to the theme of psychic powers and their effects. As an action movie (and the film features no end of stunts, explosions and car crashes) it doesn't compare to -- for instance -- Brian De Palma's "The Fury"; with matters not being greatly helped by the fact that the screenplay is lazy, illogical and often incoherent. The plot (so far as there is one) moves from one action set-piece to another with hardly any proper linking material and all the plot revelations and developments that could have made things more interesting are crammed into the last few minutes of the film!
Performances range from the excellent to the appallingly bad; the worst offender is lead, Stephen Lack (Cameron Veil) who delivers his lines with all the vigour of a drugged tortoise. Cronenberg apparently cast Lack solely because he had piercing blue eyes (?!), and the director has obviously thrown a few lines into the screenplay about how Cameron's unique scanning powers are responsible for hindering the development of his personality to cover for the complete lack of screen charisma of his chosen lead actor. This ploy will not convince anyone! Meanwhile, Veil's foe, Darryl Revok is played with deliciously threatening menace by Michael Ironside who, here, plays it like a twisted cousin to Jack Nicholson's manic persona in "The Shinning". Supporting roles from Jennifer O' Neil as the Scanner renegade, Kim Obrist, who teams up with Cameron, and Patrick McGoohen as his mentor, Dr. Paul Ruth, add some much-needed flavour to proceedings despite neither having that much to do and despite both reportedly causing much trouble on set for Cronenberg: O'Neil because of her dislike of the increasing violence that was being introduced into the film; and McGoohen because he objected to the constant script rewrites that were taking place throughout the shoot. To be fair to McGoohen, he is often forced to play scenes that require him to, quite literally, talk incoherent nonsense -- the ex-prisoner manages to get away with it extremely well all things considered!
Despite its obvious troubles "Scanners" remains an engaging and enjoyable outing from the director thanks to its outrageous special effects and edgy atmosphere. This disc from Anchor Bay UK gives us a beautiful and pristine widescreen anamorphic transfer that reproduces every gory detail to perfection. We get the usual selection of audio options: 2.0 Stereo and artificial 5.1 with optional DTS, as well as subtitles for the hard of hearing. Extras include cast & crew biographies; film notes; and a selection of trailers for "Scanners" and its two sequels. Also of note is an eight minute featurette, "Inside Scan", produced by Nucleus Films and presented by genre critic Alan Jones who gives a fairly good appreciation of the film and its production history before having his head explode in a hilarious CGI effect! This disc also features the same hour-long Cronenberg documentary -- part of "The Directors" series -- that features on the Anchor Bay UK release of Cronenberg's "The Brood".
"Scanners" is available as an individual disc or as part of a three disc box set which also contains the films two, Christian Duguay directed, sequels (which are also both available individually).