Scanners (1981)

As a Canadian, I’m strangely proud of director David Cronenberg. Don’t know the man. Never met ‘im. But still. There aren’t many directors that hail from The Great White North who’s names people instantly recognize (James Cameron aside), but if you mention ‘Cronenberg’, it does tend jog people’s memories. If it’s not for his early films like ‘The Brood’ (1979), ‘Videodrome (1983), ‘The Dead Zone’ (1983) or the classic Goldblum-centric ‘The Fly’ (1986), then it’ll be for more contemporary fare like ‘A History of Violence’ (2005) or ‘Eastern Promises’ (2007), among others. Personally, I’ve always liked ‘Videodrome’, ‘Dead Ringers’ (1986), ‘ExistenZ (1999), ‘Spider’ (2002) and ‘Eastern Promises’. I also liked two of his appropriately monotone forays into acting (and he’s acted in a surprising number of projects), most notably his villainous turn as the button mask-wearing, blade-wielding psychiatrist maniac ‘Dekker’, from Clive Barker’s classic ‘Nightbreed’ (1990), and as the insanely dedicated gas company employee ‘Duncan’, in Don McKellar’s interesting ‘night of the apocalypse’ film ‘Last Night’ (1998). But I’m not here to go into exhausting detail of the man’s directing-to-acting ratio. Nope…I’m here because I FINALLY got to sear my mind with one of his more famous early titles…and that title would be ‘Scanners’.
Prior to actually firing it up last night, I was only really aware of the one infamous scene in which in a young-but-still-old Michael Ironside (another Canuck…yay!) ‘scans’ some bespectacled dude during a demonstration, and subsequently explodes the poor fella’s noggin…in the most gruesome way possible (practical effect: rubber head, rabbit livers, dog food + 12 gauge shotgun = ‘BA-SPLAT!!’). It was a cool scene (still is), but it hadn’t given me any off the meat of the story, even after ALL these years. SO…last night, the lil lady n I were hard-pressed for some entertaining entertainment…then we came across THIS. With a “Sure.” and a shrug, I hit PLAY.
‘Scanners’ opens in some random mall in early 80’s Toronto (where many of Cronenberg’s flicks are set) and we are introduced to a fairly clean-looking bum named ‘Cameron Vale’ (Steven Lack…this guy lives up to his last name, believe me.) as he makes his way through the food court, picking at the left-over grub like a trench-coated buzzard. After a ‘mental’ conflict with a nearby patron, two trench-coated ‘government agent’ types appear out of nowhere and engage in a slow and clumsy foot chase, eventually darting the twitchy weirdo and hauling him away. It’s later revealed that a doctor named ‘Ruth’ (Patrick McGoohan), working for an ominous corporation, plans to have ‘Cameron’ search out and eliminate a dangerous antagonist named ‘Revok’ (Michael Ironside), who revealed himself by popping the melon of a ‘scanner’ working for the corporation (The Famous Scene). It seems that there’s a generation of people who’ve all emerged as potentially dangerous ‘telepaths’, aka ‘Scanners’, and ‘Cameron’ and ‘Revok’ are powerful examples…for reasons explained later in the film. And so becomes the clunky collision with Fate for these two characters.
I know it’s not terribly popular to outright bash ‘classic’ films, especially in the sci-fi / horror genre…but ‘Scanners’ is not good. There…I said it. It’s largely a bad mix of being horribly dated, clumsily paced and lead by one of the worst ‘actors’ I’ve honestly EVER seen. Steven Lack…as in ‘Lacking the Ability to Act’ was a SERIOUS detriment to my enjoyment of this flick. He’s the single worst problem (don’t worry…there’s others) here. Wooden. Emotionless. Flat. Robotic. Boring. Terrible. ALL of these words apply to this particular ‘actor’ (can’t even type that word without scoffing right now). I can’t be bothered to IMDB this clown, but I genuinely hope that he was cast off into the Fast Food Industry shortly after this. Just pure SUCKAGE. EVERYBODY else is, at least, serviceable. I can’t help but to wonder if the pressure that Cronenberg felt, being that he was being shoved toward completion by the producers in order to use the film as a tax write-off, led him to hiring the first idiot that showed up at the audition. It sure seems like it. Just an awful performance that had me gritting my teeth and writhing from the awkwardness of his flat, robot-voice line deliveries. I wanted to punch him in his stupid face…and I’m not a violent guy!
Speaking of violence, I have to mention another distraction. It would seem that the meager budget only allowed Cronenberg MAYBE 6 prop guns, and it would seem that he ended up with whatever the prop shop had left over. Now, I’m a bit of a Gun Nerd. I find them fascinating mechanically….but I find their real-life purpose disgusting. But I do know a thing or two. I find it hard to believe that, even in the ‘way-back’ of 1981, that corporate security would run around brandishing P38 Lugers. For those who don’t know, a 9mm Luger is the stereotypical side-arm of the Nazis. As soon as I saw that, my eyes rolled up into my head. The low budget had just betrayed itself. Many characters employ guns in this flick, and it seems that the ole pump action shotgun is a favorite. So much so that EVERYBODY carries a Remington Model 870 12 gauge, when whipping out one of them GermanKraut pistols just wouldn’t do it. Non-affiliated groups of people in this movie ALL carry the same weapon! The low budget continues its own betrayal.
I found the music score was one of the key aspects that REALLY dated this one. At times, it sounded like Carmine Coppola’s synth heavy score from ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979), but where it somehow works for THAT movie, the same sound sure as hell doesn’t work for THIS one. Again, more irritating distractions.
The pacing is off too. Usually Cronenberg’s movies have an interesting, almost lyrical flow to them. But not this one. Either he was still cutting his teeth on the movie-making process (which I doubt) or the forced hastiness of the production prevented the streamlining he may have wanted to achieve prior to release. Some of this may also be the script’s fault, as Cronenberg was put in a situation where the story was being written as production ensued. Never a good sign. There’s many sequences that just don’t make sense or are so transparently conceived that, more than once, I was able to accurately predict the outcome of a scene…as the scene was just beginning. It was amusing being right so often, but after a short while, I grew tired of the lack of challenge the story was presenting me.
Speaking of the story, this IS a good one. The base concept of it. Many a folk may brand me a treacherous cinematic heretic for this, but in this artistically-bankrupt time of remakes, reboots and sequels, I’d actually like to a see a tweaked and polished version of this script put before the lens again. If done right, with more emphasis on the mystery and the horror of these telepaths running amok, this could be an impactful thriller. I still think the same of ‘The Fury’ (1978) too, which I reviewed a while ago. Same type of scenario, narratively-speaking. Hell, the two movies could probably share a common ‘universe’.
All in all, ‘Scanners’ was somewhat of an unfortunate watch. Perhaps too much nostalgic regard had built up, mostly stemming from the notorious ‘head exploding’ scene. Luckily Cronenberg recovered from this one a couple years later with ‘Videodrome’ (which I recommend…it’s some weird, cool shit), but it’s unfortunate that he was under so much unfair pressure to finish this movie…and it shows onscreen. A clumsy narrative, choppy editing, several non-sensical or unintentionally hilarious scenes and a lead actor who has all the charisma and energy of a moldy sponge chop this movie’s legs out from under it. But the premise is solid and the potential IS there for a clever remake (with some R-Rated ‘teeth’!) to pop out and do the material justice. I can only recommend THIS one to ‘The Curious’ and the Cronenberg-completists out there.

(Head suddenly explodes messily)


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