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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Fourteen: Scanners (1981)

And we arrive at “Scanners”. When it hit theaters in 1981, I was just 15 years old. I remember that I didn’t see it on the big screen, so the wait was probably 12 months or so before it popped up on HBO or Cinemax back then. But us teenage boys were aware of “Scanners” when it was set to open, because the commercial being played on television to advertise it was a corker. Men and women convulsing in obvious pain, and guys standing in an office shaking uncontrollably as their veins swelled and protruded from their head and arms. “That looks so freaking awesome”, was probably exclaimed each time the ad ran. But it wasn’t always easy to fib your way into a Rated-R film in suburban New Jersey those days if you were under 17. Also, if you were under 17, you weren’t old enough to drive a car, which further complicated matters. But we were pretty psyched to see “Scanners”, and we frequented it quite a bit when it finally arrived on cable T.V. (there wasn’t a VCR in my home until 1984). So, that makes the 1981 movie the very first time that I sought out a David Cronenberg creation, even though it could’ve been directed by Allan Smithee for all I knew at the time. In fact, David has gone on record more than once as to how difficult of a shoot “Scanners” was, so maybe he occasionally wishes the fictional (yet prolific!) Mr. Smithee did indeed helm the production. And “Scanners” is, without a doubt, the weakest Chronicle entry I’ve revisited, so far. The seams really show in this one. I mean, some of the special effects hold up quite well. Chris Walas and Stephan Dupuis certainly outdid themselves (with a big assist from Dick Smith, and more than five years before the duo would grab the Academy Award for their make-up in “The Fly”) with bursting veins and exploding heads. In fact, I still refer to that scene (you know the one!) as the greatest exploding head effect ever put to film (there’s a longer list than you would think!). But there are also cheesy looking things like cars that instantly explode after relatively minor crashes and wires showing as stuntmen are pulled through plate-glass windows. It’s awfully difficult to ignore. And then there is Stephen Lack. Oh–the irony of that name! Right after “Scanners” Cronenberg would go on a tremendous streak of gifted male lead performances that included James Woods, Christopher Walken, Jeff Goldblum and Jeremy Irons. But preceding them was Mr. Lack. And his acting holds up–as stupefyingly awful. It’s outright painful to watch the poor man. And he’s expected to carry the bulk of the film! No wonder David hates to recall “Scanners”. Oddly enough–it was a sizable hit and spawned a slew of imitators and sequels (without Cronenberg’s participation, of course). It also opened at #1 at the box office, a feat that David has failed to repeat since.

We meet Cameron Vale (Mr. Lack) scavenging for leftover food on the vacant tables at an indoor shopping mall eatery. Two nearby women watch him scrounge in his derelict clothes and whisper about how disgusting he is. One of the ladies is particularly cruel in her hushed tone assessment of the apparent homeless man. Strangely though, Vale seems to hears them, despite their virtual silence. And he’s angered by the one woman’s dripping disdain. He looks at her intensely–and she begins to convulse. An outsider would think she’s having some sort of spontaneous attack, but it’s obvious to us (the viewers) that Vale is somehow causing this reaction. And Vale is spotted during the disruption at the mall by agents of ConSec–who abduct Vale with the use of tranquilizer darts as he tries to flee via the escalators. Next we visit a large conference room, where ConSec is conducting some type of demonstration. A company representative is educating an audience on the topic of “scanners”. It seems scanners are a very small portion of the world population, but they are people who possess the ability of telepathy–therefore “scanning” other people’s thoughts. Scanners are often miserable because people’s random musings flood the mind of a scanner perpetually. And the more powerful scanners also exhibit the gift of telekinesis–the ability to move objects with one’s mind. The speaker himself claims to be a scanner and asks the audience for a volunteer. Darryl Revok (the creepy character actor Michael Ironside, in one of his earliest roles) raises his hand, and is chosen to take a seat next to the speaker. The man says that he will now “scan” Revok–but promises not to hurt him. But almost instantly, the speaker appears to be in distress. He begins to shake and sweat and pull at his collar. Revok himself, appears very intense during this event. His eyes are closed, and the flesh on his temple is pulsing. Suddenly, the audience runs from the room screaming in terror as the ConSec speaker’s head explodes like a bomb. It’s now obvious that Darryl Revok is a powerful scanner, but when the attempt is made to detain him, he manages to kill or injure a number of men by simply using his mind. Revok escapes. Soon, Dr. Paul Ruth (“The Prisoner” legend, Patrick McGoohan) is utilizing the captured Cameron Vale to hunt down the dangerous Darryl Revok with the purpose of infiltrating the secret “scanner” society. But are the intentions of Dr. Ruth (how unfortunate is that character name) completely admirable? And what exactly are the desires of ConSec–a company that works in both weaponry and security. And will Cameron Vale’s eventual introduction to Kim Obrist (beautiful 70’s staple, Jennifer O’Neill–who’s quite good here) yield any answers? And is Kim a scanner too?

“Scanners” would be the final piece of a five film puzzle that represents Cronenberg’s cinematic infancy through puberty. He would finally attain full maturity upon the release of 1983’s previously chronicled “Videodrome”. And “Scanners”, while entertaining, is a decidedly mixed-bag. I hate to continue an attack on the talent-deficient Stephen Lack, but he very nearly sinks the entire film singlehandedly. And he’s in just about every scene! Always the loyalist, Cronenberg would use Lack again in a film nearly eight years later–in his masterpiece “Dead Ringers”of all films! David’s no dummy however, Lack’s role is a featured cameo as an oddball metal sculptor named Anders Wolleck in that 1988 release. Cronenberg devotees will have little issue spotting him–and it’s actually kind of a gas when he does appear. Also, the plotline is somewhat clunky and convoluted during “Scanners”. But the make-up effects retain an icky power, and the body-horror quotient is quite high. It’s been reported that Cronenberg was very pressed for time while working on “Scanners” with very little pre-production and with pages of the script being churned out the mornings before shooting would begin. He apparently still refers to the production as his hardest ever. That being said, there was enough inspiration from the difficult “Scanners” to eventually give birth to the Cronenberg-less “Scanners II”, “Scanners III”, “Scanner Cop” and “Scanners: The Showdown”. And there’s been pretty consistent talk about some type of “Scanners” remake (again—without David C.). So, the film does manage to strike a nerve with many. A nice selection of S-team members are on-board for “Scanners”. First-off, what an odd score from composer Howard Shore. It’s equal parts effectively ominous, and then annoyingly simplistic and repetitive. Ronald Sanders’ edit is far from his crispest, but he keeps things moving along at a brisk enough pace and manages to keep the proceedings from becoming too bewildering. Art director Carole Spier is present, and there is a macabre giant plaster cranium along with cold, corporate, steely interiors with a conspiratorial feel. There’s also a nifty sequence showing the inner guts of a computer, as it’s “scanned” by Vale, that could have served as template for director Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy”), who often uses a similar technique. Mark Irwin’s cinematography is serviceable. And Cronenberg stalwart Robert A. Silverman is along for one delicious scene. I loved Jennifer O’Neill’s frosted, otherworldly hair. And Patrick McGoohan exudes authority and suspicion wrapped in an almost fatherly charm. All-in-all, I still maintain a little soft spot for 1981’s “Scanners”. Flaws notwithstanding, it retains a certain power. And besides, even sub-par Cronenberg is better than no Cronenberg at all! If only it could’ve forseen to lack Lack.

Grade:  C+

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2 comments on “The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Fourteen: Scanners (1981)

  1. It was nice to read through your nostalgic memories here … I wasn’t born until the mid-80s so I obviously missed out on all of the excitement of seeing nearly every movie I love on the big screen or through television broadcasting or whatever, haha.

  2. Very pleased that you enjoyed it. Yeah, imagine that…we actually had to wait over a year sometimes to see things if we couldn’t catch the films at the theater. And gory stuff like “Scanners” would only broadcast late at night—even on cable television. That’s also how I first saw next month’s Cronenberg Chronicle entry, 1979’s “The Brood”. Thanks for checking in! ML

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