Exploding heads, swelling veins, frying eyeballs that pop and burst amid searing, distended flesh: these ingredients are tailor-made for Canadian director David Cronenberg's unique brand of body-conscious horror. But in "Scanners" (the director’s first commercial mainstream blockbuster hit and his biggest budgeted movie up to that point) the horror scenes appear almost as bookends to an otherwise austere, semi-futuristic sci-fi espionage thriller that concentrates for most of its running time more on the explosive action sequences than it does on the director's trademark philosophy of biologically-motivated transformations and twisted flesh-forms. From start to finish a traumatic production for the director (who was still drafting and writing sections of the script well into the shooting of the film), the result may not be Cronenberg's most accomplished piece of work, but it certainly features some of his most memorable set-pieces and some typically Cronenbergian atmosphere and settings -- all of which are elements that helped it capture the public imagination when it was first released in 1981.
Howard Shore's spiralling, monolithic score introduces the first of two sequences -- each of which is ‘pure Cronenberg’ in execution and in their eerie clinical stylisation: a middle-aged lady in a shopping mall café space is psychically molested by a dishevelled vagrant who can hear the voices of those all around him coursing through his mind. She ends up flailing around in an undignified manner on the floor as his psychic probing brings about an epileptic spasm. The icy, clinical, matter-of-fact tone of this opener -- which develops into a chase scene up and down escalators when two suspicious-looking undercover agents in mackintoshes attempt to take the vagrant into custody -- is continued not long after with another sequence set in the conference rooms of a private security firm called ConSec: a smart looking businessman calls for volunteers to take part in a public psychic mind-reading demonstration for the company’s clients. 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) on-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 throughout the rest of the film.
The "tramp" is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack): a man driven to the fringes of society by his uncontrolled ability to read peoples' thoughts against his own will, and to influence their minds in a destructive manner. The audience volunteer who causes the gory head explosion at the ConSec conference is Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside): a renegade Scanner who has left the company’s Scanner programme to start an underground organisation of his own bent on world domination. Vale has been taken into custody by Dr Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) a psycho-pharmacist who now works for ConSec: a shady firm that supplies weaponry and private armies to even shadier international clients. Ruth’s former biotech firm, Bio-Carbon Amalgamated, invented a drug called Ephemerol in the 1940s which was administered to pregnant women as pain relief; unfortunately, an unintended side-effect of the drug was that it created Scanners: men and women with enormous psychic power. Only further controlled doses of the same substance can keep these powers in check.
Ruth cleans up Cameron and teaches him how to use his powers more productively. Eventually, he is set to work for ConSec and released into the field as a spy -- valuable because he is unknown to the main players. Vale soon finds himself involved in a covert war for control of the scanner population. His task is to track down and destroy Revok and his terrorist Scanner organisation -- which is planning to create its own private army of Scanners in order to wrest control of society away from ‘the normals’! During the course of his investigations, Vale comes into contact with a dissident group, whose members have trained themselves to link minds to create a collective psychic experience that helps sooth their mental turmoil without the use of drugs.
"Scanners" is certainly recognisable as the work of David Cronenberg by its moody emotionless atmospherics, which convey the sterile corporate business world as a threatening state within a state, with factions spying on each other from the confines of stark modernist office blocks. The overall tonal seriousness is created by the director's usual team of collaborators being employed here: Carol Spier’s art direction in particular cannot be underestimated in the film’s successful realisation of atmosphere. Business conference auditoriums and vast corporate office spaces provide a set of sleek but mundane backdrops for what is otherwise a fantastical sci-fi tale cast in true Cronenberg spirit. Then there is the contribution of world famous make-up artist and consultant on the movie Dick Smith ("The Exorcist") whose ground-breaking special effects realise the war of psychically-induced mutilation -- with its expanding veins and popping eyeballs, etc. -- which occurs at the re-shot climax of the film, and which has since become another highlight of Cronenberg's cinema, helping to lend credibility to what is in this case and otherwise meagre narrative.
There are still hints of Cronenberg's unique sensibility evident throughout his self-written screenplay, though, even if the plot is rudimentary in this 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, is indicative of the director’s usual thematic concerns during this point in his career. One highlight is a sequence in which Cameron visits a Scanner artist whose grotesque work demonstrates a very bizarre and unusual outlook on life. A striking scene set in an art gallery among some nightmarish sculptures which look like the Chapman Brothers’ work crossed with Francis Bacon, and another in the artist’s studio, which contains a giant sculpted head furnished with bean bags for relaxing inside the skull, make for surreal backdrops to espionage or action sequences which are otherwise little different in executionto the sort of thing that would be expected from a formulaic James Bond movie.
The idea that what ‘normal’ society considers to be madness is really just an alternative means of mentally ordering the world is a familiar Cronenberg theme, and the film is peppered with disturbing, deranged flourishes such as the suggestion that the antagonist has drilled a hole in his own forehead to try and relieve the pressure inside his head and to escape the voices created by his psychic powers. But much of this detail turns out to be all so much colouring in a rather bog-standard good-versus-evil conspiracy plotline that adds very little which is original to the theme. 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 seems hasty, often illogical and incoherent (although the fact that it was being written on the fly must surly have had something to do with this).
The plot, so far as there is one, simply moves from one action set-piece to another but with hardly any interesting 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 in the form of hurried exposition. That said, there is a particular atmosphere surrounding “Scanners” which manages to feel retro-futuristic but also apposite in its linking of multinational corporate concerns with a shady underground milieu of espionage, terrorism and renegade groups set amongst modernist tower block office locations, 1970s computer rooms full banks of spinning tape-reels and computer boffins in white lab coats; and remote organisations financing strange programmes from shabby buildings such as Dr Ruth’s warehouse-based Scanner training facility. There is also an uncanny prediction of the internet which Croneberg stumbles on by expanding on the metaphor of a computer network resembling a human nervous system, and thus allowing a Scanner to link up his mind to the workings of a computer through a telephone exchange and to download information in the same way as he might link it with and control the nervous system of another human in order to read his mind!
Performances range from the excellent to the appallingly bad. The worst offender is male lead Stephen Lack (as Cameron Vale) who delivers his lines with all the vigour of a drugged tortoise. Cronenberg apparently cast Lack solely because he had piercing blue eyes (?!) after he was spotted in a couple of Canadian independent features, and the director has obviously thrown a few lines about how Cameron's unique scanning powers are responsible for hindering the development of his personality into the screenplay to cover for the complete lack of screen charisma of his chosen lead actor! This ploy will not convince anyone, but well done for trying! Apparently, the director found out too late in the day (namely, after he’d already begun shooting) that Lack was not really an actor and was only able to be himself on screen.
Meanwhile, Vale's foe, Darryl Revok is played with deliciously threatening and unpredictable menace by Michael Ironside who here relates the part of a controlled psychopath like he’s a twisted cousin to Jack Nicholson's manic persona in "The Shinning". It’s unfortunate that he doesn’t get that much screen time overall although by mainly keeping him in reserve until the psychic battle in the finale, Cronenberg does manage to build up a considerable head of anticipation and suspense for the final face-off. Supporting roles from Jennifer O' Neill (“Summer of ‘42”) as the Scanner renegade Kim Obrist, who teams up with Cameron, and Patrick McGoohan 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'Neill because of her dislike of the increasing amount of violence that was being introduced into the film; and McGoohan because he objected to the constant script rewrites taking place throughout the shoot. To be fair to McGoohan, he is often required to play scenes that have him talking incoherent nonsense, and the ex-“Prisoner” star manages to get away with it extremely well, all things considered! Also worth a mention is actor Lawrence Dane (“Happy Birthday to Me”) who plays Revok’s shifty spy inside ConSec with a creeping, effective, understated relish.
Despite its obvious production troubles "Scanners" remains an engaging and enjoyable outing from the director, thanks to its outrageous special effects and edgy atmosphere, both of which have made it the cult classic it is today. This Blu-ray edition from Second Sight gives us an excellent new HD transfer which really brings out textures and details in the image like never before. The disc includes subtitles for the hearing impaired and 5.0 and 2.0 audio tracks which aren’t exactly going to blow you out of your seat, but convey the unsettling atmosphere created by Howard Shore’s brooding electronic score very vividly.
The extras here were produced by Severin Films and consist of five interviews which add up to nearly an hour of extra content in all. First, in “My Art Keeps Me Sane” Stephen Lack talks about how he came to be cast as the lead in the film, and turns out to be full of far more personality off-screen than he was able to display on it. He talks about his relationship with his co-stars and his difficult time with make-up artist Dick Smith, who was called in to save the end sequence three months after the original shoot was wrapped, when it became apparent that the ending as originally shot didn’t work. Lack is seated in front of some of his own paintings and the interview winds up with him giving a summary of his artistic career and talking us through a selection of his works.
“The Eyes of Scanners” is a 15 minute interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin, who had worked with Cronenberg before on “Fast Company” before starting work on “Scanners”. Irwin has some juicy gossip to impart about why headline star Jennifer O’Neill tried to get him sacked, and how Cronenberg threatened to walk off the picture too if the producer succumbed to her demands on the subject. The various failed attempts to film the exploding head sequence also forms a major part of this interview as it does executive producer Pierre David’s interview in “The Chaos of Scanners”, which otherwise concentrates on the string production difficulties the film experienced: Stephen Lack’s inability to act, Patrick McGoohan’s drinking and his attempts to take over the direction of the movie, and Jennifer O’Neill’s constant demands -- all provided the backdrop to other troubles such as the failed special effects requiring lengthy re-shoots three months later, and the difficulties the special effects people had in getting the head to explode effectively for the other big set-piece. Eventually Gary Zeller settled for packing a fake head made of layers of gelatin and wax, each packed with as much gore and gunge as they could make, which Zeller than blew up by firing a sawn-off shotgun at! David then talks about the flop that was Cronenberg's follow-up “Videodrome” and how he tried to cash in on the success of “Scanners” by making a series of sequels in the early ‘90s.
Exploding Brains & Popping Veins” is a nine minute interview with special effects artist Stephen Dupuis, who was one of the young team working under Gary Zeller on the film. He talks in more detail about the various attempts to get the head explosion sequence to work and about getting to see Dick Smith in action when he was brought in as a consultant on the re-shoots of the final psychic battle between Stephen Lack and Michael Ironside’s characters at the end of the film. Finally, a five minute interview with actor Lawrence Dane, who gives us some of his good natured recollections about acting opposite some of his co-stars on the film, rounds of this nice release, which has an excellent HD transfer and gives one of David Cronenberg’s most commercially accessible movies a whole new lease of life for potentially a brand new audience.
This UK Blu-ray is on sale as a highly collectable limited edition Steelbook version, and a DVD edition is also available.
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