Thinking about Scanners

Even though I have always liked the film Scanners (and, in fact, I even own it), I can’t remember the last time I had watched it or given it a spare thought.  Then, last week, I saw an article that the movie is being remade and will be directed by one of the “directors” “behind the Saw franchise.” That was depressing for a few moments, but more important things came along and I forgot about it.

That night, surfing on cable, once again IFC crushed Sundance, because IFC was showing Scanners.  I came in right at the start, where the guy who will be the hero, Cameron Vale, is eating a found hot dog and making some blue-haired lady have convulsions in a Canadian shopping mall food court.  Right on! (And if you’ve never eaten a “found” hot dog or other “found” treat, you’ve lived a better life than me).

As I watched the movie–and I stuck around to the end–I gained a new appreciation for it.  When Scanners first came out–in 1981–I was excited for the infamous exploding head and the climactic battle between Cameron Vale and Daryl Revok (will Michael Ironside EVER have a better role?)I don’t recall paying much attention to the rest of the movie, probably because compared to those two things, it was pretty boring.  Of course, even MMA action is “pretty boring” compared to heads that go off like thay have a pound of C-4 in them.

Like many movies I enjoyed in my younger days, I was wondering how this one would hold up in the harsh light of 28 years on (that is how long since the original Scanners came out, not the third sequel to 28 Days Later).

If you’re reading this, you either know the plot of Scanners, or you’re gonna look it up on Wiki, so I am not going to discuss that here.  What is interesting to me is the quality of the performances (one of which I have come to a 180 degree change of heart on) and the cleverness of Cronerberg’s filmmaking.

To me, one of the most genius moves ever in a horror film (one could call Scanners “sci-fi,” but tell that to the guy whose head blows up fifteen minutes into the movie), is, in fact,  having that guy’s head blow up fifteen minutes into the movie. 

I remember when Alien came out, in 1979, and watching Gene Siskel on a TV show )that was not Sneak Previews), talking about the “chest burster” scene and how nothing like it had ever been seen on the silver screen before, etc. etc.  Well, I think the same is true with the exploding-head scene in Scanners, but with one important difference.

As Scanners begins, we don’t know what “scanners” are or what powers they have or anything.  Our first clue is the aforementioned hot-dog-scarfing homeless guy who makes a lady have a seizure.  Apparently scanners can hear people’s thoughts, which is why the homeless guy was all messed up, he couldn’t shut out the voices.  So far, so good.

Then, there is the scene where a guy who says he is a scanner ask for a volunteer from a bunch of people in an auditorium.  No one volunteers, but finally some nondescript guy in a three piece suit volunteers to be “scanned” in front of the group.  The scanner who is doing the scanning is a bit supercilious about what he is about to do, and–in my favorite line of the whole movie–when prompted to think of something for the scanner to read from his mind, Michael Ironside ponders for a minute and then says, “Yes, I’ve got something.” and then leans in and asks “Do I need to close my eyes?”  30 seconds later, he blows up the other guy’s head with his super scanning powers.  Right on again!

I remember seeing this in the theater the weekend Scanners came out, and when the head blew up, the place was up for grabs.  There was yelling, and laughing and screaming.  But, and here is what I think was Cronenberg’s stroke of genius, from that point forward, EVERY SINGLE TIME a scanner started scanning someone in the movie, the audience was sitting at FULL ATTENTION.  Some people were wincing, some had their hands over their eyes, but everyone was paying close attention.  Now, through the rest of the movie, no one else’s head exploded.  But, boy were we sitting on pins and needles with the expectation that had been created. 

The other thing I noticed when watching Scanners again last week was the quality of the performances, all of which are exceptionally different.  Jennifer O’Neil is the top-billed actor, but she is really about 4th or 5th seat in this orchestra, and really doesn’t do much except look scared and smoke cigarette after cigarette.  Lawrence Dane, who plays the pot-bellied, rat-faced, two-timing “chief of security” is perfect in that role, although he looks so shifty, I wouldn’t trust him to take out the garbage, let alone be the head security guy for a multinational conglomerate.  Robert A. Silverman who plays the “crazy” artist Benjamin Pierce brings startling realism to his performance, seeming like a shorter Tom Noonan from Manhunter.

But, things get really interesting with Patrick McGoohan playing the “mad scientist” who had not only created the scanners, but also created the two most powerful ones, by experimenting on his pregnant wife.  In fact, one of the other great lines in the movie is when McGoohan, as Dr. Paul Ruth, is asked who he is and what he does and he replies, “I am a psychopharmacist.”  Only in a David Cronenberg film! (This always reminds me of the institute of “psychoplasmics” from The Brood.)

McGoohan spends much of the film hunkered down in chairs or muttering to himself.  To me, if there was a prototype of a “mad scientists” it wuld be this portrayal–not some cackling nutjob, but a really, really smart person who is so caught up in their own theories and ideas that they cannot see the evil of what they are doing or have done.  It is no wonder that McGoohan not only starred in, but also wrote and directed several episodes of The Prisoner. (Or, that he turned down the original chance to play James Bond in Dr. No.)

Michael Ironside I have already mentioned.  After seeing this movie, Iwas seized with a (mostly unfortunate) burning desire to see any movie he was in.  Even the big-budget movies he made were largely crap (Top Gun, Starship Troopers, etc.) But, you could count on Ironside to deliver, often being the best thing in some really bad movies.  In Scanners, he shouts half his lines, makes exaggerated faces and rolls his eyes menacingly for good measure.  However, it all works, since he is supposed to be so crazy he once drilled a hole in the middle of his head.

Which brings me to Stephen Lack.  For many years, I had thought this guy was one of the worst actors ever to be recorded on cellouid.  His inflectionless, pallid line readings, accompanied by the s-l-o-w blinking of his enormous watery blue eyes in every take made me wonder what on earth Cronenberg was thinking.  And, his classic deadpan delivery of “He killed Dr. Ruth.  He deserved to die.” was a longtime favorite of me  and my friends as the pinnacle of “bad acting.”  Not even Bruce Campbell in the first Evil Dead could dislodge Mr. Lack from our throne as “Worst Actor. Ever.”


In rewatching Scanners last week–28 years on, remember–I have come to a new viewpoint.  Remember, it is Cronenberg’s conceit that scanners are helpless in their own skulls, being drowned by the thoughts of others that they are unable to shut out, unless they have the drug Ephemerol.

(And, there’s the problem I had with the logic of the film–they give ephemerol to the scanners both as an aid to shut out the voices, and as a suppressant to stop their powers. According to the script, Cameron needs to take his regular injections of ephemerol or he will be overwhelmed by the voices as he was when the film began.  But also according to the film’s mythos, if he takes the drug, then he will have no scanner powers, since ephemerol supresses the scanners’ abilities.  But, in all the scenes where he is using his scanner powers, he is not hearing the voices, so presumably he is taking the ephemerol.  Maybe they will address that in the remake, but I am not betting on it).

So, Cameron Vale–Daryl Revok’s brother and Dr. Paul Ruth’s son, has been living “in the slop” until needed by Dr. Ruth.  So, perhaps that explains his deadly line readings.  It is almost like he is a super childlike character who is just now discovering who he is.  In fact, at one point Jennifer O’Neil tells him “You’re barely human.”  So, in fact, perhaps Mr. Lack was simply following Cronenberg’s direction perfectly. 

(Another interesting and somewhat ironic fact is that one of the greatest set pieces in the film occurs when Cameron Vale goes to visit the wacko artist Benjamin Pierce in Pierce’s studio, which is filled with curiosu and disturbing artwork, including a giant head with sofa cusions inside of it for people to sit.  Turns out that Mr. Lack acted sporadically after Scanners (again, perhaps he was too good!), and eventually became a successful artist.  Hmmmmm….

A lot of critics bemoaned the “James Bond” plot of Scanners, but it still is a pretty entertaining film.  Like many of Cronenberg’s film prior to the Dead Zone and The Fly (ones he wrote himself, like Shivers, They Came from Within, Rabid, and The Brood) Scanners is full of interesting ideas that one can tell he put a great deal of thought into.  This film, much like the Brood, is intensely personal, which makes me quire dubious about the planned 2010 remake.  However, thanks to CGI technology, I am sure there will be some serious body damage done by scanning in this one.

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