Cronenberg hits his stride: Scanners
Woo-hoo. Here we go…
Scanners is Cronenberg’s first unarguably great film- and contains probably the defining Cronenberg image/ scene of the 80’s. I know there are other contenders (notably James Woods probing at the vagina-like opening on his stomach with a gun in Videodrome), but I don’t honestly think there is another scene that is the equal to the iconic demonstration sequence of Scanners, and just because no review of Scanners can possibly be complete without a picture of an exploding head:
Pop. Need more than Nurofen for that one mate…
Anyway, digressions aside, the plot of Scanners is thus: A shadowy pharmaceutical company are looking to control swathes of the population through drugs. A generation of people has thrown up “telepathic curiousities”, the titular Scanners, who (aside from telekinesis) suffer from myriad side effects and live on the margins of society. One Scanner, Vale (Stephen Lack), is recruited to infiltrate an organisation of Scanners under the command of the insane Revok (Michael Ironside- for the fucking win) and stop whatever evil plan he’s putting into motion. Events accelerate until a big Scan-off between Vale and Revok and an ambiguous ending.
The temptation with Scanners is to waffle on about a whole manner of different themes that reduce the reader into a somnolent state. So, because I can resist anything except temptation, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. One of the reasons that this is a truly great film is the depiction of the telepathy as a debilitating mental illness. Vale comes to attention after a disturbing incident in a shopping mall, and the film is shot from the perspective of an outsider. This is clearly a comment on society’s marginalisation of the mentally ill, and the default position is to medicate them.
Aside from that, the thread of identity runs through the film. Vale assumes a new identity to go undercover, and in the climax of the film only one of the two scanners is left standing, but it’s extremely ambiguous which scanner actually won, and I can make a reasonable case for both Revok and Vale being victorious. And, obviously, there is the undercurrent of shadowy medical organisation up to no good.
The acting in Scanners is patchy. Stephen Lack plays Vale with an odd sort of dislocation. If I’m completely blunt, he’s pretty crap in the role. Vale is an outsider, sure, and is medicated and struggling to come to terms with his gift, but really, I wondered if the actor was also actually medicated. Nevertheless, who gives a toss about Vale when there’s the awesomely psychotic Michael Ironside playing Revok. The asylum footage is astonishingly frightening, and his utter lunatic conviction makes Revok a real villain with style. It’s a monstrous performance and the first of his great turns. The rest of the support is OK.
Scanners also has a great script. Aside from the cleverly portrayed Mental Illness theme (the artist in particular is great on this score) Revok gets a huge amount of lunatic megalomanic speeches- I particularly like the monologue before the climactic battle:
There’s a whole generation of scanners soldiers just a few months away from being born. We’ll find them. Train them to be like us. Not like Obrist and their band of cripples. We’ll bring the world of normals to their knees. We’ll build an empire so brilliant, so glorious. We’ll be the envy of the whole planet.
Obviously, it helps that Ironside is delivering that speech, but still it’s a great piece of writing.
Furthermore, the effects of Scanners are fucking incredible for the time. There’s not a jot of CGI used, and the practical effects (which include lashings of gore), particularly the exploding head effect, not only stand up today, but look better than most CGI would. I really, really wish practical effects would come back into fashion, as when done properly (as in here) then they really are superb and a damned sight more effective than rubbish computer generated nonsense. Just because you can use a computer for something doesn’t mean you should use a computer as your default option.
The other feature of renown in Scanners is the score, composed by Howard Shore. It’s a sparse, synth driven affair that creates a notable atmosphere of menace. The other sound work, particularly the Scanner noise itself, is unsettling and I’m sure drives dogs nuts when they hear it. Really top class work.
Needless to say, it’s pretty obvious that I do really recommend Scanners. It is a genuinely great film. Scanners is an intelligent, adult, thoughtful sci-fi that deserves more than just a reputation as a cult classic. It’s exciting and tense and has an absolutely cracking performance from Ironside. There are so many different reasons to see this film, and at the very least it is worth watching just for the Scanner demonstration at the beginning. A truly superb effort that would be getting 4 Changs were it not for Lack’s pretty mediocre turn as Vale.
Scanners- top class stuff with a flaw, but unquestionably a great film: 3.5 Changs
The ranking order so far:
- Scanners- 3.5 Changs
- The Brood- 3 Changs
- Shivers- 2 Changs
- Rabid- 1 Chang
- Fast Company- Orangutan of Doom
Next up- The New Flesh: Videodrome fucks my brain.