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Widely considered to be the movie that put Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg on the map in the United States, 1981's Scanners begins with a scene where a man, seemingly homeless, sits in a food court. As he munches away at a hotdog someone left unfinished, two older women look at him and make disparaging remarks. He stares at them and begins to convulse a bit and before you know it one of the women is on the floor, twitching in a seizure like state, blood running from her nose. Two men in trench coats chase him through the mall and when they get close enough, shoot him with a dart.
The drugged man, who we learn is named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), wakes up bound to bed in what looks like an abandoned warehouse. He's being watched over by a Doctor Rose (Patrick McGoohan), who tells him that the reason he hears the voices in his head is because he's a ‘Scanner' and that he's basically telepathic. He injects him with a drug called Ephemeral which allows him to better control his ability. It turns out that Rose works for a corporation called ConSec who have ties to certain defense technologies. They've been working on a Scanners program under Rose's watchful eye but when they invite twenty-five VIP's and CEO's to their facility for a demonstration, it goes horribly wrong. The Scanner doing the demonstration asks for a volunteer, a man raises his hand and when it turns out that he's a Scanner himself, the demonstrators head literally explodes in one of eighties horror's most famous scenes.
It turns out that the man responsible is Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) and that he leads an underground group of Scanners who oppose ConSec. Rose brings Vale up to speed on the situation and sends him out to try and infiltrate Revok's group, an organization that Rose tells him intends to use their abilities to grab power. The closer Vale seems to get to Revok, however, the more those around him seem to get killed in the process…
Cronenberg would make better films than Scanners but this entry in his filmography is a smart mix of science fiction and horror complete with the body horror motif that would dominate most of the auteur's early work (which would peak with Videodrome two years later and his remake of The Fly in 1986). The exploding head sequence, which still packs a serious punch, is the most obvious example here but the scenes in which the Scanners do their thing tend to feature throbbing veins and pulsing arteries pushing through membranes and the effects used in these scenes fit right alongside similar sequences in his other pictures. As he tends to explore horror using the human body as an entrance, it's easy to see how what he accomplished with this picture would resonate in later entries right up to 1999's eXistenZ. Of course there were deviations from this motif, M. Butterfly for example, but it's obvious to anyone who pays attention to his output that this is very much a recurring theme.
There's more to this than just a group of rogue telepaths wreaking havoc, however. The film speaks to conspiracy theories regarding a telepathic underground bent on taking over and so too does it offer up some insight into the hidden agendas of pharmaceutical companies interested more in profit than in the greater good. The influence of seventies era conspiracy thrillers works its way into Scanners in that regard, and so we wind up with a movie that uses elements of politically motivated psychological thrillers just as effectively as it does those aforementioned moments of graphic, visceral horror. This mix makes the movie considerably more thought provoking than it would be had it simply focused just on the more fantastical aspects of the story (a weakness demonstrated by the sequels to this picture, films in which Cronenberg had no involvement whatsoever).
Performances are very good here. McGoohan, probably best known for playing the lead in the popular TV series The Prisoner, shines as the aging doctor in charge of the Scanners program. He has the right look and screen presence to play a member of the intelligent elite quite well, keeping his calm even when his training with Vale doesn't go exactly as planned. At the same time, there's something about his performance that alerts us to the fact that he's not being completely honest with his subject about all of this. Likewise, Lack is good here too. He's a little wooden in a few scenes but when the director ratchets up the intensity later in the movie, he rises to the occasion and his showdown in the finale with a scene stealing Michael Ironside is a highlight in the director's output. The beautiful Jennifer O'Neill has a supporting role in the film as one of Vale's allies and she too is quiet good, and special mention should be made of Robert Silverman's performance as an eccentric Scanner posing as an artist after being let out of an institution for trying to kill his family as a ten year old.
The movie takes a little while to get going and aspects of it are definitely dated (the most obvious example being its use of computer technology) but for the most part, Scanners remains an intelligent and influential work of genre filmmaking.The Blu-ray:
Scanners arrives on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.78.1 widescreen in a brand new 2k scan supervised by the director himself. As has been noted elsewhere online, the transfer here is different than those seen on Blu-ray discs released overseas. The colors are warmer and the contrast less harsh. Some may prefer this look, others may not but for this reviewer's money, this is a very strong picture indeed. Detail is outstanding throughout the presentation in close up, medium and long distance shots. The image is remarkably clean and shows no serious issues with print damage but the natural grain structure remains intact meaning that there are no obvious signs of any noise reduction to note. Skin tones look nice and natural and the cool, sterile look of the medical facilities and old warehouses where much of the film plays out is replicated very effectively. Black levels are nice and deep and there are no noticeable issues with compression artifacts or edge enhancement.Sound:
The sole audio option on the disc is an English language LPCM Mono track but it sounds great. For an older single channel mix, there's a surprising amount of depth to this track, particularly during the scanning sequences where that high pitched whine noise really starts to build to disturbing levels. Dialogue stays clean and clear and Howard Shore's excellent score has good clarity to it. There are no problems at all with any hiss or distortion and the levels are balanced nicely throughout the film. Optional subtitles are provided in English only.Extras:
Extras on the disc are plentiful, beginning with a new featurette entitled The Scanners Way, a twenty-three minute documentary featuring interviews with director of photography Mark Irwin and experts Stephan Dupuis, Chris Walas, Gary Zeller and Rick Baker. Here the interviewees go into quite a bit of detail about how the effects in the film were pulled off and about the importance that they place in the effectiveness of the movie itself. They also discuss budgetary limitations, what it was like working with Cronenberg on the Canadian based production and a fair bit more.
Criterion have also supplied a second new featurette entitled Mental Saboteur which is an interesting twenty-minute long interview with Darryl Revok himself, actor Michae Ironside. Here he talks about working with Cronenberg on this feature, some of the themes and ideas that work their way into the film, the politics behind the movie and how his work on this picture would go on to lead to work in other films. Ironside speaks quite proudly about his work here, and rightly so. It's nice to see him represented on this disc in this piece. Not to be outdone, actor Stephen Lack, who played the lead role of Cameron Vale, receives a fifteen minute video interview entitled The Ephemerol Diaries where he shares his thoughts on the character he plays in the film, the film's locations, the effects work featured in the picture, working with Cronenberg and more.
While the director himself is conspicuously absent in most of the supplements on this disc, he does appear in a vintage clip from the CBC's The Bob McLean Show originally broadcast in March of 1981. Cronenberg talks to the host about the then brand new Scanners and gives him some details on that picture. They also discuss his earlier horror pictures and his career in film up to that point. It would have been nice to get a commentary from Cronenberg or to even have him involved in a new featurette, but that didn't happen. This is an interesting segment, however.
The disc also includes a beautiful high definition presentation of Stereo, the director's first feature from 1969. The movie tells the bizarre story of a para-psychologist named Luther Stringfellow. His theories, which he has developed for Canadian Academy For Erotic Inquiry, is that if he removes the ability to speak from a select group of volunteers that he will be able to increase their ability to communicate through telepathy. He performs brain surgery on the group of volunteers and, while under the surveillance of a group of students, begins to study the results. At first, things seem to be going as planned until he introduces some mind-altering drugs into the mix and things start to take a turn for the worse. This very early student film clocks in at roughly sixty-five minutes and while it's far from a great movie, it is a very interesting look at some of the themes and ideas that would manifest in some of his later films like The Brood, Shivers and especially Scanners. It's not full on ‘body horror' like some of his work but the cold medical institutes that populate a lot of his films appears here and his fascination with the human body and the way it can be altered is evident.
Rounding out the extras are a few radio spots, a theatrical trailer for the feature, menus and chapter selection. As this is a dual format release there are two DVDs included inside the package as well, one with the feature and one with the extras on it. All three discs are housed inside a nice package that fits inside a slipcover. Also included inside is a booklet of liner notes from Kim Newman that compare and contrast the feature to other similar horror films dealing with telepathy.Final Thoughts:
The Criterion Collection's Blu-ray release of Scanners presents the film in excellent condition and while the color changes (when compared to past releases) might irk some, many will likely find this to be the best looking version of the film currently available. On top of that the disc includes a strong selection of supplemental material. The movie itself holds up well, a smart and well-made mix of intense science fiction and horror delivered through the director's skewed sensibility. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.