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Accessing the Ripe Program
A region 2 DVD review of SCANNERS by Slarek
 
Cameron Vale (attempting a bond with Pearce): "I'm one of you."
Benjamin Pearce (wearily cynical): "You're one of me."

 

I distinctly remember when Scanners was first unleashed on the UK. As someone who had already been convinced of the unique talent of its director by the stylish low-budget genre works Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977) and The Brood (1979), I had high hopes for this one and I was not in any way disappointed. It had a pace and drive that even its predecessors could not boast, it had the yuckiest special effects on the block, but was still very clearly a David Cronenberg film. It's box-office popularity also saw it reach a wider audience than the director's previous films, which had run primarily on cult power. One of my work colleagues of the time, who had refused to have anything to do with The Brood, was memorably delighted – "I was trying to scan the usherettes on the way out," he enthusiastically told me. Yeah, well, we all tried it once or twice on somebody. Just occasionally, I still do.

At the time, British SF magazine Starburst compared the film unfavourably to Brian De Palma's The Fury, which also dealt with destructive telekinetic powers and secret agencies. I disagreed with them then and have continued to do so, and whereas Cronenberg has developed as a true film artist, De Palma's subsequent output has proved uneven to say the least, works such as the catastrophic Bonfire of the Vanities and the near-hysterical Snake Eyes coming to mind too easily when we should really be remembering that he also made Scarface, Carlito's Way and The Untouchables. But it is this very elevation of Cronenberg to his present (and deserved) status as a creator of challenging and thoughtful cinema that prompts some reviewers to get retrospectively sniffy about his earlier work. Which is, of course, the sort of reaction these films were subjected on their release by a critical establishment for whom the very term 'horror film' was a put-down applied to an entire genre they believed was beneath them. Cronenberg fans – and there a fair number of them even then – knew better.

If you've even a passing interest in this singular director's work then you should already know what the film is about, but for newcomers here's a brief plot summary. Down-and-out drifter Cameron Vale is grabbed by agents working for the conglomerate ConSec after he causes a woman to have a heart attack through the power of is own thought. He finds himself under the care and tutorage of Dr. Paul Ruth, who informs Vale that he is a Scanner, a name given to individuals who for apparently unknown reasons have developed telekinetic abilities. Ruth introduces Vale to Ephemarol, a drug that suppresses his telekenetic powers and the constant chatter of other people's voices in his head.

Elsewhere in the company, ConSec have decided to demonstrate the abilities of another Scanner to a specially selected group of outsiders. Unknown to them, the audience member who volunteers to be scanned is a man named Darryl Revok, a Scanner of considerable power who uses his own abilities to reverse the demonstration and kill ConSec's man. Ruth sets about convincing Vale of the danger represented by Revok and his underground group, and asks for his help to hunt Revok down.

It's an intriguing premise given extra bite when the story dots are joined and enriched by a range of social, medical and intellectual elements, from the Thalidomide drug scandal to Jung's theories of the duality of man. There's even a sequence involving telepathic computer hacking via a phone line that prefigures the present structure and behaviour of the internet. Yes, there are a number of story holes and inconsistencies – Vale is sinking under the noise of other people's thoughts one minute and seemingly oblivious to them the next, and more than once he and fellow Scanner Kim Obrist are snuck up on by aggressors who conveniently announce their presence by loudly cocking a pump-action shotgun – but this is almost nit-picking given how slickly the story is developed and how smartly individual scenes are handled. The opener, for example, contains no explanatory dialogue, yet through canny camera placement and a superb use of sound, Cronenberg makes it clear not only that Vale has induced a heart attack through the power of thought, but that he is not in anything like full control of this ability. This audio-visual approach is followed through in the scene that follows, as Vale, tied to a bed like a drying-out junkie, has his head invaded by the increasingly oppressive chatter of the thoughts of a group of verbally silent onlookers.

The most famous sequence remains Revok's assasination of ConSec's Scanner, causing the man's head to explode in a jaw-droppingly convincing physical effect. Cronenberg may seem to confound genre logic by having it happen so early in the film rather than saving it for the climax (something De Palma did with the exploding John Cassavetes in The Fury), but its narrative positioning is crucial here, as from this moment on every time a scan is initiated we are only too well aware of the lethal direction it could take. Cronenberg never repeats the trick, however, instead exploring a number of variations on the theme, the most unexpectedly effective of which sees a security guard forced to relive a traumatic but unspecified memory of his mother that leaves him in a state of emotional distress. The final Scanner dual may be driven by prosthetic effects, but they are at least good prosthetics (courtesy of the brilliant Dick Smith), and accompanied as they are by Howard Shore's doom-soaked score, the scene has a sense of almost apocalyptic sadness that is typical of Cronenberg's early work, and concludes in a manner that is open to at least three possible interpretations.

Performance wise, Scanners marked the last of the iffy male leads that were always the weak point in the director's earlier films, which was to end sharply with James Woods and Videodrome. Stephen Lack was apparently cast for his penetrating eyes and they really are something, most convincingly selling the idea of physical power unleashed through the force of the mind, but asked to deliver dialogue he is devoid of emotion or any real inflection. But once again help is at hand in the supporting cast. Where The Brood had Oliver Reed and Samantha Eggar, Scanners has Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside. Despite constant arguments with the director over the character and script changes (Cronenberg admits he was writing it as he went along), McGoohan is at his low-key best here, pressed down by the weight of corporate judgment and his own past mistakes but finding new hope in his talented young protegé. But as the powerful and dangerous Revok, Michael Ironside effectively steals the film, from the authorotative menace of his vocal delivery to his facial contortions when scanning his victims, a disturbingly convincing mixture of malicious intent, physical struggle and sadistic satisfaction. It's a marvelous turn that set the actor on a career that was to be littered with memorable tough guy roles, and remains one of his most enjoyable and impressive performances. It should be noted that Scanners was the film that really brought Ironside to prominence and would thus not have raised 1981 audience eyebrows when he cautiously volunteers to take part in the scanner demonstration. Cronenberg regulars will also delight in another memorably eccentric performance from regular bit player Robert Silverman as cynical Scanner artist Benjamin Pierce.

Although more populist elements are incorporated into the action – shop windows are driven through, shotguns are blasted, and cars, gas stations and computers loudly explode – and the editing pace is sometimes up at action movie speed, the rest is Cronenberg to the core. Occasionally he does stumble, as in the attempt to show a positive side of scanning as a sort of communal telepathic meditation, which is jarringly clunky in its literal description of the shared thoughts (especially when you consider how effectively suggestion is used elsewhere), and the abrupt later arrival of a thoughts voice-over for Paul Ruth smacks of hurried plot-clearing. But for the rest of the time the director is flying, exploring favourite themes with an energy and storytelling drive that has prevented the film from seriously dating, despite the occasionally archaic technology on display. Sound in particular is employed to arresting effect, the scans building in intensity through a combination of powered bass notes, electronic growls and rising whines, the mental condition of those who survive the attacks vividly suggested through the garbled remains of their audible thoughts. So flawed it may be, but Scanners remains a terrific horror/sf crossover, and an essential slice of Cronenberg cinematic meat.

sound and vision

Oh joy. Taking a leaf from MGM's region 1 release of The Brood, Anchor Bay have delivered an anamorphic 1.78:1 transfer that is frankly as good as the film has ever looked on home video. The contrast is a tad harsh in places, but on the whole this is a very nice job, with sharpness, colour and black levels all very good indeed. Will someone now do the same for Rabid and Shivers?

There are three soundtracks available here – Dolby 2.0 stereo, 5.1 and DTS. Though the stereo track may be closest to the original release, the 5.1 and DTS mixes are actually rather good – although there is little in the way of surround sound, the increased clarity and punch really deliver in the scanning sequences. Both tracks do, however, emphasise a slight hiss beneath the dialogue, which is presumably down to the original recording and mix. Some of the dialogue is a tad aggressive in its volume on the DTS track, and moments of high-pitched sound and music can be a little shrill. Otherwise, a rather nice job.

extra features

The main extra feature here is The Directors: The Films of David Cronenberg (59:02), a single programme from Robert J. Emery's 1999 US TV series on noted movie directors. Built around an extended interview with the always fascinating Cronenberg, it includes a few words from some of the actors he has worked with, Michael Ironside included. Possibly most enthusiastic of all is Holly Hunter, who is very positive about Crash and her role in it, which should get up the nose of Daily Mail feature writers. Narrated in a voice that reminded me of Biography Channel documentaries and backed by tinkly music, this is a reasonably detailed overview of Cronenberg's film career, although Fast Company, The Brood and M. Butterfly are skipped over with barely a nod. The programme is framed in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, the sound stereo 2.0. It should be noted that this same documentary is also set to appear on Anchor Bay's region 2 release of The Brood.

Inside Scan: Scanners (8:28) is a short but informative overview of the film by horror journalist Alan Jones (who used to write for Starburst, as it happens). It contains some spoilers, but thoughtfully announces this at the start, so should be watched after the film.

There are 3 Trailers, one each for Scanners, Scanners II – The New Order and Scanners III – The Takeover. If you haven't seen the tawdry sequels and don't have the three-film box set (and I don't, thank you very much), the second and third provide a brief glimpse at what lesser talents did with Cronenberg's baby. The trailer for Scanners (2:12) is an edited lift of the head exploding sequence. All of the trailers are 4:3.

The Brood Trailer (2:47) is there to remind you of Anchor Bay's other new Cronenberg release. It's 4:3, in less than sparkling shape, but is intriguingly put together, despite the voice-over.

Film Notes provide brief background information on the film in white text against a could-be-clearer background. They do provide warning of the threatened remake, though.

There are brief but succinct Biographies of Cronenberg and actors Jennifer O'Neil, Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside.

Stills features 18 publicity photos, 2 posters and the cover of the press pack (I have that somewhere). All are reproduced at a decent size.

summary

Scanners is classic early Cronenberg, a smart, tightly paced and visceral slice of mind-and-body horror that has stood the test of time well, and survives Stephen Lack's unanimated delivery and a few plot hiccups caused by on-the-fly scriptwriting by way of Cronenberg's handling and some very fine work from the supporting players. Anchor Bay's new region 2 release delivers on the picture and sound quality and on a couple of good extras, but this still cries out for a Cronenberg commentary. Until a full blown special edition appears, though, this will do nicely.

Scanners

Canada 1981
99 mins
director
David Cronenberg
starring
Jennifer O'Neil
Stephen Lack
Patrick McGoohan
Michael Ironside
Laurence Dane

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby stereo 2.0
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround
languages
English
subtitles
English for the hearing impaired
extras
The Directors: The Films of David Cronenberg documentary
Trailers
Biographies
Gallery
distributor
Anchor Bay UK
review posted
21 July 2005

related reviews
Scanners
[Blu-ray review]
Rabid
[DVD review]
The Brood
[DVD review]
Naked Lunch
[DVD review]
David Cronenberg Shorts
[DVD review]
Stereo & Crimes of the Future
[DVD review]

See all of Slarek's reviews