The Film: 2/5
Scanners are gifted individuals with the power to not only read the minds of others, but to also control them and destroy those people from within. There are 236 known Scanners in the world and they're all being sought out by two groups: the international security corporation ConSec represented by top honcho Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane) and the sensitive scientist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan); and a radical underground Scanner movement lead by the most powerful of them all, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a Scanner living as a derelict until he uses his power to attack a woman in a shopping mall food court. He is capture by ConSec employees and wakes up in Dr. Ruth's laboratory. The doctor offers to help Cameron harness and control his powers in exchange for helping ConSec track down other Scanners on their recruitment list before Revok can get to them because those who do not join his cause end up dead. But no matter where Cameron goes there are teams of killers under Revok's control not far behind, and he must take regular injections of a "scan suppressant" called Ephemerol in order to control his unstable abilities. Vale discovers that Revok is planning on enslaving humanity with an army of Scanners at his command, and a terrifying secret that unites them will bring these two powerful telepaths together in a mental battle for the ages.
I have only seen David Cronenberg's Scanners twice in my lifetime. The first time I was moderately entertained by the movie but was left wondering how it could have amassed such a sizable cult following in the three decades since it opened to decent reviews and impressive box office, brain-bursting visual effects aside. Outside of an early scene that the word "explosive" doesn't quite do justice and a spectacular finale where the fate of the world rests of who can cause the worst Excedrin headache, Scanners is a very ordinary sci-fi thriller with a few interesting ideas and some fine but uninspired performances, with one notable exception I will come back to later. Cronenberg has always been one of the best directors working in the realm of high-toned horror and science-fiction; his films are often intellectually profound and feature grisly visual effects that go much farther in their design and execution than most would dare to venture. He has made his share of classics and groundbreaking masterpieces in his career, but I would not consider Scanners to be one of them. It is a very middling movie in Cronenberg's oeuvre, a stepping stone to greater things but successfully enough financially to ensure that studios would be more willing to grant the director all the creative freedom he required to make the films that defined his career without constant interference. For that reason I can offer Scanners my undying respect, if not my unadulterated admiration.
Cronenberg directed Scanners from his own original screenplay, but due to a scheduling crunch was unable to complete the script before principal photography commenced. Most of the time that leads to an awkward tone in the staging of certain scenes that should be the most crucial to the narrative. As a result there is never a sense of escalating tension in the story. Some scenes come to a violent end just mere seconds after they begin, while others are allowed to play out far longer than they should. The pacing is also a major problem as scenes are haphazardly slapped together with little or no connective tissue and characters are brought into the story with zero development and then disposed of just as quickly. There are the makings of a riveting thriller in Cronenberg's script and the ideas they present, but they are mostly disposed of in favor of more chases and bloody shootouts. Not that I would ever have a problem with those things unless they were working to undermine a movie that could have been so much more than the sum of its parts.
Due to the poor build-up and the miscasting of lead actor Stephen Lack, our own hero Cameron Vale never seems like much of a hero, or even a remotely interesting character. Lack's performance is so wrong for this movie, or any movie for that matter, because at no point during the Scanners is he anything but aloof and stiff. His line readings are also flat and without affect. Cronenberg usually had a good eye for casting, but in this case he clearly wasn't thinking straight. Maybe Lack really was a Scanner and this is how he got acting jobs. I smell a conspiracy....wait, my head is starting to hurt. Never mind. Sorry for wasting your time, dear readers. Veteran actors like Patrick McGoohan and Lawrence Dane are more dignified and credible injecting charm and depth into their thinly-sketched characters. Top-billed Jennifer O'Neill doesn't enter the story until almost forty minutes in and makes for a decent supporting player, but she adds very little to the proceedings. It seems very ironic then that the most fully-rounded character in the movie is the villain Darryl Revok, and Michael Ironside gives Scanners' best performance. Revok is the only person you can really empathize with because you are allowed to see the mental anguish he has been subjected to by his destructive powers and those who would seek to exploit them for personal gain. Therefore his rebellion against those he sees as inferior seems very reasonable in context and you almost find yourself rooting for Revok to win. Admirably, Ironside doesn't feel the need to chew the scenery here as he would with many of his later performances. His thousand-yard stare, quietly menacing voice, and intense physicality are deployed in a very muted fashion for the majority of the film, but at least Ironside really gets to shine in his show-stopping final confrontation with Lack. As further proof that Lack is hopelessly outmatched by Ironside in the acting stakes, all Ironside has to do to blow Lack off the screen is smile. Robert Silverberg, a fixture in Canadian genre who appeared in several of Cronenberg's films, impresses with a few fleeting moments of screen time as a fellow Scanner with a complicated past who becomes unwittingly embroiled in Revok's machinations.
Next to Ironside's iconic performance, Scanners' other memorable virtue is those sparsely used visual effects created under the supervision of the legendary Dick Smith. The exploding head scene near the beginning is rightfully lionized as one of the effects highlights of the 1980's and was a video freeze frame classic for many years, but it is the epic Scanner battle between Vale and Revok where Smith and his talented crew really pull out all the stops with pulsating bladders under the skin, popping eyeballs, and fountains of authentic stage blood erupting as if the veins that blood once ran through were screaming for mercy.
Scanners is presented in an anamorphic 16:9 widescreen transfer. I am assuming the film's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio is being preserved here because it doesn't say on the packaging, but the overall picture quality is pretty terrific. The movie was previously released on DVD in the U.K. by Anchor Bay in a box set with the two unrelated sequels from the early 1990's, and my first encounter with Scanners came courtesy of a used copy of the 2001 MGM DVD, also featuring an anamorphic transfer, procured from the Previously Viewed section of Blockbuster Video. The previous releases featured transfers that were relatively low on grain content but also soft in the presentation of picture detail. Second Sight's transfer is very clear and sharp with even less grain and greatly improved clarity. The light levels on most of the scenes is balanced and not a frame seems washed out. This transfer is so clean the rain-soaked streets shimmer and the brilliant practical effects seem more eye-popping than ever. This is the best I have ever seen Scanners on home video. Thanks to the English Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.0 audio tracks the movie sounds its best as well. There isn't really any discernible differences in the two tracks outside of a slight muffled quality in the dialogue on the 5.0 track, but both are strong sound mixes with great volume balance. The Howard Shore soundtrack sounds positively operatic on the 2.0 track. English subtitles are also provided.
Second Sight has topped previous home video releases of Scanners by producing over an hour of new interview featurettes with various cast and crew members. In "My Art Keeps Me Sane" (23 minutes), lead actor Stephen Lack discusses how he became involved with the film, his acting career, and shares some interesting stories from the production, including one about how the final battle between Vale and Revok was actually a reshoot after it was determined the original ending was too dull. Cinematographer Mark Irvin is the focus of "The Eye of Scanners" (14 minutes) and he talks about his early years shooting Canadian exploitation movies, his many collaborations with Cronenberg, and his work on Scanners. "The Chaos of Scanners" (13 minutes) features producer Pierre David reminiscing about the production of the first movie, how it became a franchise, and is refreshingly candid about making Scanners. According to David the film went into production without a completed script because it had to start before a certain date in order to secure the necessary funding, and top-billed star Jennifer O'Neill tended to be a diva on the set when it came to the amount of violence and gore in the story. Apparently she insisted on the number of exploding heads be cut to just two and that a grand piano be installed in her living quarters. Make-up effects artist Stephen Dupuis talks about creating the many memorably gruesome moments in Scanners and working with effects legend Dick Smith in "Exploding Brains and Popping Veins" (9 minutes). Finally, actor Lawrence Dane shares a few fond remembrances of his time playing the villain of Scanners in "Bad Guy Dane" (5 minutes).
Scanners may not even be close to a good film, but its success allowed Cronenberg to keep on making the kind of movies he wanted to make instead of becoming a Hollywood studio pawn. From here it was on to classics like Videodrome, The Dead Zone, and his celebrated 1986 remake of The Fly. Plus a lot of people really love it. Those same fans will love the extra features and audio and video quality upgrade Second Sight has given them in the form of this new DVD. Scanners has its precious few moments but although I could never in good conscience recommend the movie I can definitely give high marks to this DVD.