Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, June 11, 2018

Director Report Card: David Cronenberg (1981)

7. Scanners

David Cronenberg's last four films had been commercial successes, making back their budgets for their producers. However, despite being box office hits, none of the director's previous films had exactly broken through to the mainstream. Flicks like “Shivers” or “The Brood” floated around in the video underground, gaining cult audiences but never widespread viability. That would all change with “Scanners.” With the dawn of the eighties, it seems audiences would finally become accepting of Cronenberg's extreme visions. And it might all be because of that exploding head, an unforgettable image that immediately connected with gore hounds and sci-fi freaks. “Scanners” would be a success and launch Cronenberg to cult infamy.

A confused man named Cameron Vale wanders into a mall in Ontario. He finds himself able to hear the thoughts of an elderly woman. He falls unconscious and she falls into a coma. Cameron doesn't know it yet but he is a “scanner,” a powerful type of telepath. At the same time, private security firm ConSec unveils the existence of scanners to the public. This display goes horribly wrong when the scanner's head explodes. This is the work of Daryl Revok, an even more powerful scanner determined to lead a psychic uprising against normal society. Cameron is recruited by ConSec to function as a spy against Revok's revolution. Soon, he'll come face-to-face with Revok and uncover the origins of the scanners.

With the back-to-back punch of “The Brood” and “Scanners,” David Cronenberg's obsessions become even more obvious than before. The director's early films, maybe all of his films, are about making the internal external. Mental anguish transformed into literal monsters in “The Brood.” In “Scanners,” the human mind is given the ability to mutate and destroy other people's bodies. Once again, the mental and the physical states are indistinguishable. While “Shivers” and “Rabid” showed human evolution being forced into bizarre new directions, “Scanners” is the first of Cronenberg's films to show this progression as completely neutral. Scanners, by their nature, are neither good nor bad. They are, however, the future.

Each of Cronenberg's horror movies, up to this point, showed the director putting a unique stamp on a classic horror archetype. The zombie in “Shivers,” the vampire in “Rabid,” and the monster movie in “The Brood.” “Scanners” takes the director more into the realm of science fiction to handle the concept of the psychic. The film, however, doesn't just focus on the usual tropes of cinematic telepathy. Scanners don't clearly hear other people's thoughts. They come in as jumbled, disruptive signals. Scanners don't just take over other people's minds, they sync one-to-one with their brainwaves. In fact, this ability even extends to machines. In a rather improbable plot twists, scanners can even link their minds to computers! The mutation and bodily contortions scanners can perform were simply unlike any other depiction of psychic powers seen in 1981. “Scanners” bent the power of the mind into unseen directions.

The gore and extreme special effects were likely what attracted audiences to “Scanners.” There's a reason why, in a 1982 round table conversation with John Carpenter and John Landis, Cronenberg said the exploding head had become the symbol of his career. Movies had brought us exploding heads before. There's a pretty good one in “Maniac.” However, “Scanners'” is still an impressive display. The scene builds and builds. The sound design is frantic, shrieking and scrambling. We focus on the psychic's face as he sweats and strains. The sequence is designed as a climb leading up to that literally explosive shot. A head bursting with thoughts until it literally bursts. It's a moment of shocking gore that is brilliantly designed and executed, while also saying so much about the movie's themes.

The exploding head is one of two phenomenal special effect sequences within “Scanners.” Throughout the film, we see other examples of scanners' powers, which include mind control and people bursting into flames. For the climax, Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok, the film's two most powerful scanners, face off. And what they do to each other is pretty messed up. Veins bulge on the arms and face, spurting blood. The skin sizzles and melts, almost as if it was burned with acid. Bodies burst into flames. One man's eyes turn white while the other bursts out of his head. It's a triumph of special effects, a fantastically executed sequence that grows wilder and more intense as it goes on.

These moments of visceral violence and dynamic special effects is when “Scanners” is its most successful. Many of the film's other elements don't work as well. The plot is full of conspiracies and secret agendas. Cameron Vale is recruited by ConSec to infiltrate the scanner underground. Revok's rebellion, however, has a spy inside ConSec. The exact goal of Revok's rebellion, meanwhile, never seems entirely clear. Vale's own motivations, why he chooses to work with ConSec, are similarly vague. Revok is a villain and Vale is the hero, the plot setting the two on their confrontation. That's about all the depth we get to their conflict. “Scanners” was apparently rushed into production, causing David to write and rewrite the film as he was shooting. So it seems the director threw in elements of evil corporations and conspiracies, favorite elements of his, as a way to occupy an otherwise incomplete plot.

Cronenberg's films had been fusing horror and science fiction elements pretty much from the beginning. “Scanners” brings in another, previously unseen genre. The film is, in many ways, an action movie. There are even gun fights and car chases. Vale uses his psychic powers to blow Revok's minions through walls. Cronenberg is fairly adapt at directing these moments. The action is typically bloody and intense, people being shot full of holes by shotguns. That car crash, which smashes into a record store selling about two dozen copies of Frank Zappa's “Sheik Yerbouti,” is intensely presented as well. At other times, “Scanners” seems to be a somewhat awkward attempt by Cronenberg to move into a genre he's not comfortable with. Other action scenes, like Revok's goons attacking a group of good scanners in an apartment complex, are more awkward.

Another problem facing “Scanners” is its lead performance. Once again, a Cronenberg movie has another protagonist played by a stiff actor. Stephen Lack spends most of his screen time as Cameron Vale starring widely and blankly. His delivery can only be described as somnolent, each line of dialogue coming out as a monotone drone. Ironically, he never gives the viewer any insight into the character's mind. Lack plays Vale as a complete blank, displaying very little emotion. A totally emotionless lead character is a big problem facing “Scanners,” making it harder for the audience to relate to the movie and its world.

Since “Scanners” is all about orchestrating the psychic fight between Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok, you'd think a performer of equal value would be cast opposite Stephen Lack. Instead, Michael Ironside was cast as Revok and completely blows Lack out of the water. Ironside doesn't actually have that much screen time. He appears at the beginning, the end, and a few scattered scenes in-between. Yet Ironside undeniably makes an impression on the viewer. He stares with a psychotic gaze, wide-eyed and crazy. Later, Ironside gets to shout with an intense vigor as he explains the origins of the scanners. The character's goals may be unclear but you never doubt his conviction. Unsurprisingly, the part would proceed Ironside getting cast in similar bad guy roles in other sci-fi or action movies.

The film's supporting cast is similarly all over the place. Jennifer O'Neil gets top-billing for some reason. She plays Kim, the female scanner that Vale befriends. While it's nice that the movie doesn't spin this into a romantic story, Kim still feels frequently sidelined by the plot. O'Neil is fine in the underwritten part. Patrick McGoohan appears as Dr. Ruth, Vale's mentor. It's easy to imagine Cronenberg being influenced by “The Prisoner,” so it's neat he got McGoohan into one of his films. Sadly, McGoohan's performance is somewhat one-note, speaking gravely of what is happening but never appearing affected by it. Robert Silverman reappears from “The Bood” as Benjamin Pierce, a scanner who deals with his psychic visions by building odd sculptures. Silverman is a highlight of the film, bringing a lot of entertainment value to his brief scene.

“Scanners” afforded Cronenberg a chance to create some interesting visuals. Depicting psychic powers on-screen presents some challenges. Usually, the director maintains this was showing faces overlapping with others, visually illustrating one man fusing with another. Later, when Vale does the same thing with a computer, we see atmospheric shots of the camera hovering over a motherboard. The story presents quite a few novel locations as well, especially the artist's barn full of strange sculptures. Less novel is Howard Shore's score, which is a little heavy on electronic meandering.

“Scanners” would be the biggest hit of Cronenberg's career up to this point. For the first time, one of his movies would launch a franchise, begetting two direct sequels and a two film spin-off series. (There's also an unofficial television prequel of sorts. After his head exploded in this film, Louise Del Grande would star in a Canadian television show, “Seeing Things,” where he played a psychic detective.) There have been several attempts to continue the “Scanners” series into the modern day. Darren Lynn Bousman came close to remaking it in 2007 and, more recently, there were rumors of a TV series. I'm not too surprised, as it wouldn't be hard to retrofit “Scanners” into a superhero-style modern blockbuster. Though an undeniably important film in his career, I've never liked “Scanners” as much as many other Cronenberg films. The plot is messy and the protagonist is weak. Cool special effects only go so far. [Grade: C+]

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