Thursday, 10 September 2020


Head Pops
And Boom Tricks

Canada 1981 Directed by David Cronenberg
Second Sight Blu Ray Zone B

The last and only time I saw Scanners prior to now I would have been about 16, a couple of years past its cinema release date, as a rented VHS cassette from my local off licence (the off licence is still there but... alas... they no longer rent movies). I remember liking it at the time (well, who doesn’t like Cronenberg?) but I remember being a little disappointed in the gore quotient, which I was more into as a kid as opposed to nowadays, I guess. I’ve been meaning to re-watch this for years though because, well, Cronenberg has been a consistently great director throughout his career and I always felt that when I first watched this, I wasn’t looking at the thing properly and appreciating it as much as I should.

Cronenberg himself cites this as one of his most chaotic and problematic films to make because it was rushed into production without a finished script, which he would have to write some of it each morning before trying to deal with whatever set or location they were using etc. I have to say that, looking at this movie now, I would never have known there were any production troubles. It’s an astonishingly good psychokinetic thriller with, despite the year of its release, a real 1970s vibe to it which groups it, in my mind, with the most popular of his earlier works Shivers (reviewed here), Rabid (reviewed here) and The Brood. I’d remembered hardly any of this film when I sat down to watch it but, right from the opening scene, I was drawn right in.

The film starts with the main protagonist, Cameron Vale (played by Stephen Lack) who is depicted as a down and out drifter, entering a mall and eating an absent customer’s food. We see him listening in on an old lady’s thoughts and, before he can control himself, his mind has entered hers and she’s taking a lot of internal damage and having a fit while he is trying to ‘turn off’ his powers, accidentally triggered by her negative thoughts. However, two men who have been watching him, shoot him with a tranquilizing dart and then give chase when he runs. The chase through the mall is quite well done and, though it’s vigorously edited, it’s got some nice, fluid camera motion in it and it feels quite coherent.

When Cameron awakens he is befriended by Dr. Paul Ruth (played by Number Six himself, Patrick McGoohan) who works for a company called CONSEC and who is a specialist in people with powerful psychokinetic abilities such as those possessed by Cameron. These people, in this movie, are called Scanners.

Then comes the films first big and, possibly, most spectacular set piece. When CONSEC try to unveil the existence of Scanners to the public in a live demonstration of mind reading, the subject they pick on from the audience of executives, Darryl Revok (played by everybody’s favourite 1980s US American movie villain Michael Ironside) volunteers and lets the Scanner in the room read him. However, he pushes back with his own, very powerful scanning ability and causes the other man’s head to explode in front of the audience in what, to me, is still an iconic piece of 1980s gory imagery (I think it probably started a bit of a trend). Turns out Revok is a psychic assassin who is trying to recruit Scanners and build a powerful army to, more or less, take over the world (wouldn’t you know it?).

From here on, Cameron is given the job of trying to infiltrate this section of recruited Scanners to find out what’s really going on and kill Revok. He becomes involved, to the extent that anyone in an early Cronenberg film becomes involved with anyone, with another ‘outsider’ Scanner who is at the peripheral of this group called Kim Obrist (played by Jennifer O'Neill, who genre fans might remember from Lucio Fulci’s The Psychic aka Seven Notes In Noir). From here on it’s all thriller shenanigans as various people are ‘scanned up good’ and a bunch of dead bodies is left in Revok’s wake as Cameron tries to both get close to him and also find out who the mysterious traitor is at the heart of CONSEC.

More revelations happen towards the end but it’s a thrilling ride and the usual, lovely Cronenberg’s eye for nicely designed compositions in interestingly lit shots certainly helps things along. For instance, when Dr. Ruth is showing Cameron a video of the young Revok, who has drilled a hole in his own head to let the pressure out... he carries the scar of this like a third eye throughout the film (which, I’m pretty sure is a deliberate reference to the third or inner eye)... there’s some wonderful blue lighting hitting both actors on the left hand side of their faces (or right hand, as we see it). Later on, when Cameron is infiltrating what he thinks is a rival chemical firm headed up by Revok, there’s a nice dirty, pale, yellow wash on some of the shots. There’s another great scene where Cameron gets out of a car near a forest but it’s taken from the other side of a spindly network of tree branches between the camera and the actor... which kind of gives another wash or webbed effect to the shot. It’s all good stuff and, like all Cronenberg films, is always visually interesting.

Another great thing about the film is the sound design, which is awesome and, it’s just as well because it needs to be. After all, for a lot of the time we’re looking at various people thinking at each other... connecting through each other’s nervous system rather than just the head, is how Dr. Ruth puts it. So you are looking at people pulling all sorts of strange and, frankly, orgasmic facial expressions at each other which really wouldn’t have looked out of place on the poster campaign for Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac movies. However, the sounds used on the soundtrack really make the shots work and you can really feel the implied power behind the intent of these moments.

Ditto for a young Howard Shore, who has stuck with writing music for Cronenberg’s movies right through to the present, starting with The Brood. He’s more famous for scores like The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit movies now, perhaps, but he’s worked on most (possibly all) of Cronenberg’s projects since The Brood and Scanners was only his third score. However, it’s like nothing else he’s done, really. A phenomenal, grinding, sometimes brooding, electronic bludgeon of a score which absolutely pushes the sound design and atonalism, too, in certain sections and helps alert the audience anytime something ‘Scannerish’ is about to happen. Decades ago, Silva Screen released a nice CD compilation of three of Cronenberg’s films which included just over 20 mins from this film but I suspect that’s not the full thing and it would be great to get a complete release of this score one day.

There’s some nice conceptual stuff going on with the film too. Computers (with their green screens and lines of code) were all the rage then and there’s a nice scene where Cameron goes into a phone box and scans his way into a computer system with his mind through the phone, as though he’s some kind of organic modem. The director uses some shots here which, to me, felt like they were inspired a little by the cinema of Dario Argento, as he moves the camera through a close up of a prop (probably built oversize and filmed normally, is my guess) for a few POV shots of the electronic insides of some of the equipment that Cameron is ‘mind hacking’ his way through. When things get a little explosive towards the end of this scene, there’s a nice shot of Cameron holding the telephone receiver which has begun to melt and liquify all over his hand like it’s an escaped convict from a Dali painting. There’s some really interesting stuff here.

My understanding is that the final, mental showdown filmed between Cameron and Revok was originally intended to be a lot more... ‘grand guignol’, shall we say... than just the vein popping, bleeding head with arterial spray and eyeball bursting that made it into the final cut and, this is possibly why it felt a little disappointing to me as a youngster... especially when you compare it to the famous poster painting of Michael Ironside having a full on body meltdown (which I used to pass every day on the way to school when it was released in UK cinemas). That being said, what he did leave in works well enough and I certainly didn’t feel cheated this time around.

The most important thing about Scanners, though, is that is absolutely entertaining and the chemistry between all the actors is very good. If you’re a fan of this kind of science fiction thriller (I’m not sure I’d fully go with it crossing over into the horror genre) then you will probably get a kick out of this one. I’d heartily recommend it to anyone who is into this kind of scientific pulp fiction. That being said, I’ve never seen either the two sequels to this movie, nor indeed the two spin off movies. My understanding is that Cronenberg had nothing to do with those other films but, still, now this movie has whet my appetite I think I’d like to see them so, hopefully I’ll have some reviews up for some or all of those within the next 12 months for you. We’ll see how it goes.

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