(Canada - 1981)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O'Neill, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror
Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Composer: Howard Shore
Runtime: 103 minutes

"We're gonna do it the scanner way. I'm gonna suck your brain dry. Everything you are is going to become me," - Darryl Revok

Continuing to deal with concepts of physical manifestation and bodily horror, this 1981 Sci-fi/Horror blew people's minds away with its special effects and announced Cronenberg as a director to be reckoned with. The film deals with a group of mutants born with a certain extrasensory perception known as telepathy. In the hands of a weak scanner who doesn't understand his special powers, the gift is nothing more than madness because they constantly hear the thoughts of all those around them like an antenna that draws signals from everyone broadcasting but isn't equipped with a tuner to select one. In the hands of the master Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), it can control another person's mind and force them to do anything, even commit suicide. The focus is not on a positive aspect of the power; this is a movie about if thoughts could kill.

The disturbingly powerful scene that everyone remembers - the most famous Cronenberg has ever created - occurs a little more than 10 minutes into the film when the only scanner cooperating with the good forces of ConSec attempts to give a demonstration of scanning to a select group of VIP's (no doubt in hopes of acquiring more funding for the program). Revok, who has infiltrated the top level security meeting but isn't known by anyone there, innocently volunteers to be the subject of the scanning. I like how he asks "Do I have to close my eyes" as if he has no idea what's about to happen and then we cut to the First Scanner (Louis Del Grande) who is just beginning his process but seems to be straining himself. With a cut back to Revok, who is obviously in deep concentration but showing no ill effects, and a brain snarl sound effect we begin to realize that he too has this power and it's much greater than the demonstrator's. The battle scene continues going back and forth between profile shots of Revok - devilishly enlivened and probably sexually pleasured by control and superiority as he sucks away his foe's nervous system - and First Scanner - peering in fear at Revok as his body starts sweating and convulsing - mixed with shots of the audience to show that they don't know things are going wrong. Finally, the pressure on the demonstrator becomes too much and Cronenberg delivers the shocking, gory money shot of his head exploding. I love the look on Ironside's face right after this happens, it's like he sucked so much out of the scanner that it gave him indigestion. This is definitely one of the great scenes of gore, not only for the actual effect but also for the perfect suspenseful setup and intensity of the performances.

The movie is not about gore though, as it later contains an excellent training experiment where the good scanner is asked to raise the heartbeat of world renown Yoga master Dieter Tautz (Fred Doederlein). One thing I like about the scene is it shows the need for an equalizer because even in good hands tremendous power can be all consuming and result in misuse.

The plot is seemingly pretty basic because most of the story isn't explained until the final minutes. Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the man at ConSec who trains the scanners, trains the unknown 237th scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) to use his power then sends him out to infiltrate Revok's secret society. Revok has Hitler-esque aspirations of his master race controlling the world and will stop at nothing to achieve this goal. He has any scanner that won't join his cause killed, and certainly doesn't mind taking out any of the "normals" that get in his way. Although this is nothing revolutionary, the movie is socially aware and the scenes are all well handled. It shows the various dilemmas that are associated with dealing with a special human being from all perspectives.

The opening sequence that shows the scrubby outcast Cameron, haunted by his own powers, being driven crazy in a restaurant by two old ladies is particularly good. They think they are making fun of the bum behind his back, but unfortunately he knows what women don't want. It brings out the idea that his powers prevent him from functioning in a society that's still controlled by uncaring and uninformed traditional human beings. He's a scared misunderstood reject who can't control his own powers that only cause him physical, mental, and social problems. It also causes one of the women problems because she "forces him" to hurt her with the power he doesn't know how to control.

In spite of my purposely disingenuous plot summary, the film has freshness, uniqueness, and originality because even though this is "accessible Cronenberg" he never makes anything that turns out to be tired and remotely standard. All the technical and scientific aspects Cronenberg would become known for incorporating into his films enliven the story. The Dr. Ruth character that gets almost all of the explanatory dialogue is particularly interesting. He knows the scanners are the most spectacularly evolved human beings, and by being the only non-scanner that understands their capabilities he can suggest things to Cameron like getting an important highly guarded program off a computer by calling it up and connecting to it's "nervous system."

Unfortunately, like Rabid, the film constantly breaks down into something of an action film. The many interesting concepts that should make it a thinking man's sci-fi are there. I know Cronenberg would like you to consider them, but instead of fully developing them the film starts to lose focus in the middle with chase scenes and gunplay. Too many of the ideas, even if fascinating, wind up seeming rolled out. Late in the movie Kim is scanned by a fetus. Although people consider this one of the silly scenes, I don't have a problem with the possibility because the baby doesn't have to see Kim to pick up her thoughts. However, the idea is so radical that it distracts from the point of its inclusion.

The film is interesting because in addition to horror, sci-fi, and action it could even be called a thriller or a spy film. However, as is usually the case when a film could fit into 5 or more genres (Abre Los Ojos would be an exception), while it scores a lot of points for tackling so much it loses some of them because doing so in a short film dilutes the individual concepts. I tend to appreciate almost every movie I review more when I really dig into it, but since this buzzes through it's many ideas I find myself mainly looking at the technical aspects that make it a good film.

Scanners was the first film Cronenberg had a bit of dough to work with. The budget was $4,100,000 Canadian as opposed to $1,400,000 Canadian for his far better 1979 effort The Brood. However, there was some tax shelter system that forced Cronenberg to finish shooting by the end of 1980, which was difficult because Cronenberg began without a completed script. The result is he'd get up and write some scenes then give them to the crew so they could find a location to shoot them that day, with the actors learning their lines in the meantime. Nonetheless, while Scanners cannot match The Brood for terror or especially conceptually, the film is clearly superior from every technical perspective.

Cronenberg really brings his concepts to life. The scenes involving mind control are all so well done with the actors doing things like whipping their body around to show they no longer control it. Still, it wouldn't work at all without the excellent special effects, particularly the astounding makeup that is so grotesquely realistic and believable. The climactic scanner battle is the best example of this with the veins swelling then bulging out of Michael Ironside's head. Then, when he takes over, Stephen Lack's veins not only bulge out but also rupture. The eyes exploding out of their sockets is probably what people remember about the scene, but the look that's created for the mental duelists is really what makes the scene.

Carol Spier's sets are generally claustrophobically minimized to help create the tense atmosphere. The highlight is hermit scanner Benjamin Pierce's (Robert A. Silverman) isolated (so people are too far away to be accidentally scanned) art warehouse. This is vintage Cronenberg, the kind of look at all that's missing setting he'd go back to in the masterpiece eXistenZ. Here we have large futuristic sculptures being made in a place that could almost be an Amish paradise. To top it off though, they create something so ridiculous as having Benjamin's "living room" and "bedroom" be combined on a small upper level of the giant warehouse seemingly only so he can store a bunch of wooden junk under it.

Howard Shore provides an excellent score that fits the film perfectly. It's eerie and creepy like a horror film composition should be, but it incorporates the technology aspect that is such a big part of the film. Actually, all the audio is incredibly well done. The multitude of voices that Cameron hears at once are so believably maddening because all the layering distorts them into distinguishable words but not followable sentences.

Michael Ironside, who was relatively unknown at the time, gives his best performance. He is so creepy and devilish, just a totally deranged and demented example of pure malevolent evil. Aside from the awesome intensity of his sucking scenes, my favorite involving him is a 13-year-old tape Dr. Ruth & Cameron watch. This was during Revok's self-destructive days in the nuthouse before he'd come close to mastering his powers. He's there looking totally ridiculous with tape in the middle of his forehead that has an eye drawn on it. He tells the psychiatrist that he drilled the whole in the middle of his forehead to let the people out and then taped it up and drew an eye in the middle to fool the people into thinking it wasn't a door. The scene gets over the scanners feeling like the brain is overloaded with other people's thoughts at the same time it makes us understand why humans would institutionalize them. I always laugh my ass off because he looks so foolish and his story would be so crazy if they movie didn't establish the logic of it. What I like about his performance is he's serious to show that he believes everything he's saying, but laughs to show he enjoys self-mutilation. When you start thinking the younger Darryl might have been a lighter more pleasant individual, he explodes with a George C. Scott burst of rage, but then momentarily switches to being merely crazy. This is one troubled individual.

Patrick McGoohan is good as the intelligent, devoted, fatherly Dr. Unfortunately Ironside and McGoohan don't get nearly enough screen time, and the rest of the cast is pretty Lackluster. With this film, Cronenberg built his reputation as a unique director with challenging thought provoking material, which allowed him to land James Woods and Christopher Walken as the stars of his 1983 features and go on to make films with the likes of Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, & Jennifer Jason Leigh. At this point though, although the excuse could be made that he hadn't worked with a notable protagonist other than Oliver Reed, the fact that Reed's work was clearly subpar leads me to believe he hadn't become a great actor's director yet.

Scanners protagonist Stephen is very hard to identify with because he's severely Lacking in ability. Lack is incredibly bland and shows no range, dimension, or depth. He makes a few good faces when he's scanning, but you get the idea he was more lucky than good. Other than working for Cronenberg in his second masterpiece Dead Ringers, his few films before and after were barely seen. Jennifer O'Neill gets top billing because she's the only name in the film, but she is given remarkably little to do and could best be described as forgettable.

The film has its share of ups and downs and certainly has its flaws, but ultimately it's a satisfying film. If you are on the fence about it's quality the final segment where certain aspects are turned upside down, changing your perception of what you just saw and really this whole world Cronenberg has created, combined with the brilliant final conflict and brilliantly terrifying ending should win you over. It's hardly Cronenberg's best film, but it's an important actually commercially successful film that marks a great technical improvement for the director and helped him acquire the means to make superior films for the rest of the decade. The effects were way ahead of their time, and like the rest of the film they still hold up very well today.




* Copyright 2001 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *