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Psi warriors
Scanners was the film that really brought David Cronenberg to international attention, and it gets an audio-visual makeover and a new set of extras on Second Sight's welcome Blu-ray release, reviewed here by Slarek.
 

As Oscar Wilde observed back in 1889 in The Decay of Lying, "Life imitates art far more than art imitates life," but in a post-modernist world, art has responded by imitating just how life imitates art. Back in 2005 when I reviewed the DVD release of David Cronenberg's superb horror-science fiction crossover Scanners, I offered evidence of Wilde's assertion with the recollection that after seeing the film, I and my friends spent a disproportionate amount of our time trying to scan those around us in the way we had watched Cameron Vale and Darryl Revok flex their telekinetic muscles in the film. "Occasionally, I still do," I noted at the time, then a few minutes later failed completely to force a pigeon that was greedily scoffing all the birdseed I'd put out for sparrows to bugger off using the power of my laughably non-telekinetic mind.

It is, you might think, a rather geeky thing to do, but then, as Berberian Sound Studio producer Keith Griffiths cheerfully pointed out to me just a couple of weeks ago before introducing a screening of his fine film, I am a a bit of a geek. If you don't regard such behaviour as odd, you're probably one too. It thus seems only right that Scanners would be the subject of art imitating life imitating art in a series in which most of the lead characters are of a similar mindset. For those of you unfamiliar with The Big Bang Theory, I should perhaps provide an outline of its characters and premise, but I won't. It's been a runaway hit and you won't have to look far to find all you need to know on that particular score. You need only know that four of the five central characters (I'm harking back to the days before it became over-populated with girlfriends, family members and colleagues) are geeks – smart geeks, but geeks nonetheless – with a collective obsession for the very cinema and TV that is defined by the word "cult". In the first season episode, The Cooper-Hofstader Polarization, flatmates Leonard and Sheldon have a falling out and the self-absorbed Sheldon refuses to talk to his friend. "Not only is he still not talking to me," Leonard tells neighbour Penny when she asks how things are going, "but he does this thing where he stares at you and tries to get your brain to explode," then adding helpfully by way of explanation, "You know, like in the classic sci-fi movie Scanners?" The trick is, when we see Sheldon attempt this, it's clear that deep down he really believes he can make it work. Everyone who tried it did to a small degree. Later, when Sheldon tries it again before a gathered audience, Leonard responds by physically attempting to stop him, almost as if he feared that just this one time his deluded flatmate might actually be able to pull it off.

I digress. Just a bit. But then part of the appeal of Scanners lies in the idea that even the most physically unimposing of us might be able to hold our own in a fight simply through the power of our mind. I think therefore I am dangerous. But it's what Cronenberg does with this concept that has continued to make Scanners the easy leader of the admittedly small telekinetic thriller pack, in spite of a few widely recognised flaws. If you're new to the film and want to know why I continue to hold it in such high regard, then you can check out my review of the 2005 Anchor Bay DVD release here. The focus of this review is whether this new Blu-ray edition from Second Sight is a worthy upgrade for fans of the film who already own the DVD, which means we should get straight to...

sound and vision

When I covered the Anchor Bay DVD back in 2005 I praised the picture quality, particularly in relation to the transfers on other DVD releases of early Cronenberg films. Times have changed, of course, and the bar for what makes a fine transfer has since been considerably raised in the intervening years, particularly since the arrival of HD TVs and Blu-ray. It's thus pleasing to report that this new HD transfer, while not reference quality, still rises to the challenge and is superior to the previous DVD in pretty much every respect.

At first glance there's a suspicion that the image has been slightly cropped at the sides to fill the 16:9 screen (we can assume the original projection ratio was 1.85:1), but comparisons with the previous DVD tell a different story. Viewed on a modern flat-screen without CRT overscan, the DVD transfer is revealed to be slightly windowboxed on all sides, making the ratio of that transfer 1.78:1, exactly the same as the one on Second Sight's Blu-ray. It's thus surprising to discover that the new transfer includes more picture information than the previous transfer, suggesting that it was the DVD picture that was slightly cropped. It also feels more accurately graded than that on the Anchor Bay DVD release – the first exterior view of the ConSec building at the start of Chapter 3 (on both discs, as it happens), actually feels close to sunset on this transfer, whereas on the DVD it looks closer to midday in spite of the sun's low position in the sky. The setting sun itself also has an appropriately golden glow on the Blu-ray transfer, but is a burned-out white on the DVD (see the screen grab comparisons below).

Compare the grab from the Second Sight Blu-ray (above) with the one
from the Anchor Bay DVD (below, uncropped) – the differences in the
picture content and grading are clearly visible.

The strong colours and earthy toned interiors of the DVD transfer have been reproduced here with slightly more finesse, and the contrast, while still punchy, is a little more subtly rendered, revealing detail in darker areas (including black hair and clothing) that was invisible on the DVD. As hoped, the image is appreciably sharper without obvious signs of image enhancement – the tell-tale film grain of the helicopter arriving at ConSec just over an hour into the film is still very visible here. Daylight exteriors – Cameron and Kim's late-film arrival the doctor's surgery is a good example – look particularly good, and the slight gate movement of the DVD image has been completely stabilised here. Colours are still not natural in some interior sequences (see the grabs of Patrick McGoohan and Stephen Lack below), but on the whole, this is a very pleasing transfer.

There's a choice between PCM stereo and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround, but given that there has been no remix of the original soundtrack the DTS-HD is also a stereo track. Both score on clarity and lack of high-end distortion, but the DTS-HD is not only the more pleasing of the two, it noticeably improves on the DTS track on the DVD. A good test sequence is Revok's assassination of ConSec's scanner, where the introductory speech displays a better balance between the vocals and the room acoustics on the DTS-HD than the linear PCM, and is a lot less shrill than on the DVD DTS. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is slightly more bass punch during the scanning sequences, though this is subject to the restrictions of the original mix.

Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also included.

extra features

My Art Keeps Me Sane – interview with star Stephen Lack (23:46)
I wasn't alone in my critical view of Stephen Lack's central performance (it's widely commented on in the other interviews here), so it was something of a thrill to discover that the man behind that sometimes expressionless mask is lively, animated and a good deal of fun. What I wasn't aware of at the time of the film's release (in pre-internet days we were almost solely reliant on film magazines for our trivia, and few were digging deep into the background of a genre film like Scanners) is that Lack drifted into film acting almost by chance and was actually a painter, a vocation he has since returned to (his rationale for doing so makes perfect sense) and appears completely happy with. Lack proves a most entertaining raconteur, recalling how he came to be cast in the film, his first fractious meeting with makeup wizard Dick Smith, his fondness for Patrick McGoohan, and the not always helpful direction he received on Cronenberg, who apparently limited his performance advice to "You're doing fine." The are also some priceless off-the-cuff comments: "He had written the script," he says of Cronenberg at one point, "and his wife was having a baby, or whatever they were having," and after Dick Smith had done a facial cast of him with his eyes open, he recalls that his eyes were "tired like a hooker in the back of a Chevy after doing a whole football team." Great stuff.

The Eye of Scanners – interview with cinematographer Mark Irwin (15:11)
Cronenberg's regular cinematographer until a scheduling conflict left him unable to shoot Dead Ringers, Irwin has some interesting memories of filming Scanners, particularly the problems he had with leading lady Jennifer O'Neill, her husband and their large Alsatian, and suggests that while Stephen Lack was good playing himself in his previous film, The Rubber Gun, playing other characters was just not his forte. If you only had this interview to work from you'd think that Scanners was Irwin's first film for Cronenberg after a spell shooting hardcore porn and the softcore cult fantasy Tanya's Island (which was directed by Alfred Sole, who also gave us the brilliant low budget Hitchcockian thriller Communion / Alice Sweet Alice), whereas he'd also shot Fast Company and The Brood for Cronenberg by this point.

The Chaos of Scanners – interview with executive producer Pierre David (13:42)
The film's executive producer Pierre David, who really does come across as a man who would sell ya a movie, outlines just why the production kicked off with the script not yet ready, and comments with amusing frankness on many aspects of the production, including the chaos of the shoot ("You had to be there to see it"), the casting of Stephen Lack ("he can't act a character – he can be himself very well"), working with Michael Ironside ("Extremely professional") and Patrick McGoohan ("Fantastic in his role, but here was another British actor who drank like crazy" – those wondering what he means by "another Brit actor" should remember that he previously worked with Oliver Reed in The Brood). In common with almost everyone else interviewed on this disc, he recalls how the effects team solved the problem of the exploding head, and regards his three-film producer-director relationship with Cronenberg – whom he describes as "smart and so talented" – as one of the best of his career.

Exploding Brains & Popping Eyes – Interview with makeup effects artist Stephan Dupuis (9:33)
Having heard everyone else comment on how the exploding effect head was achieved, it won't come as a surprise that this is a key area covered by special makeup effects man Dupuis, but he also talks about working with and learning from Dick Smith and his continuing working relationship with Cronenberg – Dupuis was also makeup designer on the director's most recent feature, Cosmopolis.

Bad Guy Dane – Interview with actor Lawrence Dane (5:18)
A short but still engaging interview with actor Lawrence Dane, who talks about playing sinister ConSec security chief Braedon Keller, the pleasure of working with David Cronenberg, how he approached the interrogation scene, and working with Patrick McGoohan, whom he was a fan of from The Prisoner. "There's one thing you can't say about Patrick," he says with a grin, "that he was a teetotaller."

summary

The audio-visual upgrade and a completely new set of extra features make this a worthy purchase even if you already have the Anchor Bay DVD. All the interviews are worthwhile, but it's Stephen Lack who steals the show, effectively confirming the claims of his co-workers that he's an fine performer when asked to play himself. What's sadly missing, of course, is any input from Cronenberg, and the feature that was top of my wish list when the DVD was released – a Cronenberg commentary – remains achingly absent. Otherwise, recommended.

Scanners

Canada 1981
103 mins
director
David Cronenberg
producer
Claude Héroux
screenplay
David Cronenberg
cinematography
Mark Irwin
editing
Ronald Sanders
music
Howard Shore
art direction
Carol Spier
starring
Jennifer O'Neill
Stephen Lack
Patrick McGoohan
Lawrence Dane
Michael Ironside
Robert A. Silverman

disc details
region B
video
aspect ratio
sound
PCM 2.0 stereo
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 Surround
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
Interview with actor Stephen Lack
Interview with cinmatographer Mark Irwin
Interview with executive producer Pierre David
Interview with makeup effects artist Stepahn Dupuis
Interview with actor Lawrence Dane
distributor
Second Sight
release date
8 April 2013
review posted
4 April 2013

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Rabid [DVD review]
Rabid [Blu-ray review]
The Brood [DVD review]
The Brood [Blu-ray review]
Scanners [DVD review]
Videodrome
The Naked Lunch
A History of Violence
5 David Cronenberg films that you might not have seen

See all of Slarek's reviews