The Film: 2/5
Note: Most of this portion is taken from my review of a Region 2 DVD of Scanners released last year. The A/V quality and supplements are different on this release and those sections have been adjusted to reflect what upgrades are offered here.
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 seen David Cronenberg's Scanners three times in my life. 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 which 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
The highlight of Scanners' premiere on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection is an amazing new 2K digital film transfer supervised by David Cronenberg that was created from a 35mm interpositive. The film is presented in the director's preferred 1.78:1 aspect ratio, which is a modest compression from the original 1.85:1 ratio. The painstaking effort to restore the film to its greatest glory has reaped many rewards because Criterion's presentation is the best Scanners has looked on home video. With Cronenberg's supervision every unnecessary trace of dirt, grain, and other instances of print damage have been removed to create an image that is incredibly clean and sharp without looking like the beneficiary of excessive digital noise reduction. Skin tones are smooth and textured and the color and brightness levels have been both been balanced to heighten the film's uncomfortable atmosphere. The original mono soundtrack was remastered in 24-bit audio from the 35mm dialogue/music/effects magnetic track and is presented here as an English 1.0 track rich in balanced sound elements and lacking in audio distortion and signs of permanent damage.
Every single bonus feature on this Blu-ray was produced by the Criterion Collection exclusively for this release. Kicking things off is "The Scanners Way" (23 minutes), a fascinating documentary exploring the creation of the film's majestically gruesome visual effects through contemporary interviews with many of the artists involved in pulling them off. Director of photography Mark Irwin, special makeup artists Stephan Dupuis and Chris Walas, special effects supervisor Gary Zeller, and the legendary Rick Baker are all on hand to discuss the design and execution of Scanners' key effects sequences. Baker had nothing to do with the production but is here to talk about the role his mentor Dick Smith played in the classic "exploding head" scene and the climatic Scanner duel between Lack and Ironside's characters. The various pyrotechnical gags and production difficulties caused by Cronenberg forced to start shooting without a completed script are also brought up throughout this absorbing documentary. The interviews are illustrated with behind-the-scenes photos and production stills.
"Mental Saboteur" (19 minutes), my personal favorite of the extras, is an interview with actor Ironside recorded back in March. He has plenty of interesting stories to tell about his upbringing, the early days of his acting career, and how he came to be cast as Daryl Revok. According to Ironside the character of Revok was originally supposed to be only glimpsed in the grainy film Vale is shown early in the story and that Braedon Keller was to be the chief antagonist, but as the script went through many changes Revok was suddenly the main villain and Keller became a secondary threat. I could listen to these stories and more, so damn the brief running time.
"The Ephemerol Diaries" (14 minutes) is the last of the newly-produced features and is an interview with lead actor Lack that was filmed back in 2012 by a German company (hence the German language titles). Lack talks about his early days making underground films in Montreal, the circumstances that brought him to land the role of Cameron Vale, and his working relationship with Cronenberg.
The only interview with the director himself comes in the form of an appearance on the popular CBC talk show The Bob McLean Show (11 minutes) that was aired on March 10, 1981 (my 2nd birthday, and I was actually living in Canada with my family at the time - my parents could have watched this show....weird). The chat covers a variety of topics in brief, from Cronenberg's early films to the production of Scanners to the prevalent themes in his filmography. Clips from Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood are also played throughout the interview as well as a brief bit of the Scanner duel and near the end Cronenberg mentions his next project, a little thing called Videodrome.
During the TV appearance Cronenberg mentions his feature directorial debut Stereo, which first saw a domestic release on the DVD and Blu-ray editions of his obscure racing drama Fast Company from Blue Underground. Criterion has included Stereo as a bonus feature on their Scanners Blu-ray but this time they've gone the extra step and given it a fresh 2K restored digital transfer. The 63-minute film is presented in the director's preferred 1.66:1 aspect ratio as a single unbroken whole with no chapter stops or additional supplements. It's a little rough around the edges at the start but at least Cronenberg demonstrated a remarkable command of his filmmaking craft from the beginning of his career and many of the themes that would later become integral in his best films are presented in their embryonic stage here. In the end, Stereo is best regarded as an avant-garde curio in the director's celebrated filmography. Criterion's restoration work is first rate, with a mostly clean and vibrant picture and a English 1.0 mono audio track lacking in distortion and quite audible.
The disc-based extras close out with a series of radio spots (90 seconds) and the film's original red band theatrical trailer (2 minutes). The trailer is little more than a slightly edited version of Revok's explosive introduction scene so it can be regarded instead as a teaser. Included with this release is a slim collector's booklet featuring a new essay about Scanners by British novelist and film journalist Kim Newman, notes about the transfer, and production credits. Criterion has also included two DVDs with the film in standard-definition and all of the new supplements. Special mention must also be paid to the beautiful packaging artwork designed by Eric Skillman and Sarah Habibi and iillustrated by Connor Willumsen that also carries over to the insert booklet and is presented in animated form on the Blu-ray's menu screens.
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 the Criterion Collection has given them in the form of this new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. 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 latest Criterion release.