Thursday 4 July 2013

Scanners [1981]

SCANNERS is a Canadian sci-fi thriller that was written and directed by David Cronenberg and originally released in January 1981.  It stars Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O'Neill and Lawrence Dane.  The plot, such as it is, concerns a young man who discovers he possesses extraordinary telepathic powers which bring him to the attention of a shadowy corporation who want to harness those powers for their own ends.  SCANNERS is best known today for a couple of startling images and for being the penultimate film Cronenberg made before he went big time.  It's less well known for being almost certainly the best film ever made to feature not only the cover of a Japan LP but also one by The Jam.

A lot of my early film memories are stills from the big hardback horror movie books I had as a kid but often the most vivid recollections are from posters for films that I was way too young to be able to get into the cinema and actually see.  One image that stood out for me was the terrifying, snarling face of the beast from AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON [1981].  I can picture the poster right now and I can even remember where I first saw that poster: outside the Midland Arts Centre in Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham.  I would have been 9 years old.

Another such image is a drawing of a Michael Ironside from the climax of SCANNERS.  I can picture that poster too.  Ironside is standing sort of side on with his arms down by his sides, wearing black trousers, a black waistcoat and a white short with the sleeves rolled up.  I know they're rolled up because you can see the veins on his arms bulging out; not only that but the veins on his head are bulging out too, obscenely so. His mouth is wide open as if he's releasing a roar of aggression or pain.

Thinking about it now, you have to wonder about a film classification system that rated films as being unsuitable for children but permitted posters to be displayed to the general public - including kids - that carried some of the most extreme images those films had to offer.  Anyway, the posters were obviously very skilfully designed because those images, among many others, have stuck in my mind for over thirty years.

I can't remember whether any of the posters for SCANNERS also carried the notorious image of that bloke's head exploding but I'm sure I was aware of it well before I ever got to see the film itself.  It's possible I saw the image in one of my movie books but however I first came to lay eyes on it that image too was burned into my memory.  I imagine I first saw the film sometime in the late 1980s, almost certainly on video.  I can't really remember what I thought of it but the fact that I'd not bothered to watch it again until today probably means I didn't think that much of it.  So how does it bear up to a second viewing after all that time?

The first thing to say is that I saw it on a lovely big widescreen TV on blu-ray and with surround sound so that instantly makes it a better viewing experience than first time around.  The second thing to say is that I'm probably a much tougher sell as a viewer than I was back in the 80s: I'm not so easily swayed by blood and guts as I used to be and I've seen an awful lot more films - good and bad - since then too.  Any film re-viewed under those conditions is going to have to be very good to appeal to my more mature taste.

A superb still to illustrate how good SCANNERS looks on blu-ray
I'm afraid SCANNERS doesn't fall into that 'very good' category.  I'm not even sure that it scrapes into the 'good' category.  More than anything it reminded me of a cheapo rip-off of Brian de Palma's THE FURY [1978], which wasn't very good to start with.  Instead of Andrew Stevens you get Stephen Lack, a gormless looking guy who doesn't have anywhere near the level of acting ability required to cut it as a leading man.

Stephen Lack as Cameron Vale
And instead of John Cassavetes you get Patrick McGoohan who recites his lines very slowly in that deep voice of his in an attempt to imbue them with some significance.  At least it does have Michael Ironside - one of the great genre actors - who in Darryl Revok plays the film's most interesting character, a guy so tormented by his powers that he drilled a hole in his forehead to try to relieve the pressure on his brain.  It's Revok who 'scans' the bloke whose head explodes and it's Revok who is the guy I remember from the poster.

Michael Ironside as Darryl Revok
Aside from the ropey acting, the main problem I had with the film is that it doesn't go anywhere.  It's essentially a long chase with a showdown at the end.  Very little is made of the Parallax-lite ConSec organisation, who want to exploit the scanners, and very little is made of the dangerous drug 'ephemerol' that is being prescribed to pregnant women, two interesting ideas that aren't developed.  The showdown, when it comes, is also a disappointment, being a bizarre mix of the climax from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK [1980] and one of those gurning contests.

Cameron Vale about to get inside Ben Pierce's head, in every sense
It isn't actually a bad film - the action sequences are well handled, the photography (by regular Cronenberg collaborator Mark Irwin) is excellent, the production design is good and there is obviously a strange sort of intelligence behind it - but somehow it never quite comes together.  Except, of course, for the special effects, which were supervised by Hollywood legend Dick Smith.  Even though the film itself isn't that good it's still worth watching for these superb sequences.  One of the guys in Dick Smith's team was Chris Walas, who went on to handle the effects in THE FLY [1986] and won an Oscar for it.  Less creditably, Walas directed the sequel which came out three years later and was a total dud.

Darryl Revok scans a scanner...

...and makes his head explode
Patrick McGoohan is known the world over for his TV work but had a strangely unfulfilled film career; he made some good movies (SILVER STREAK [1976] and ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ [1979]) but I think ultimately his range was too narrow and he always gave the impression of being magnificently bad tempered.

Patrick McGoohan as Dr Paul Ruth
Stephen Lack was only really moonlighting as an actor and made just eleven films; he's now a reasonably successful artist.  Jennifer O'Neill, who despite star billing is only in half the movie, was on the cusp of stardom in the early 70s but never quite made it, perhaps because she chose some poor projects.  Fans of delirious cinema will know her for her appearance in the Lucio Fulci movie SETTE NOTE IN NERO / THE PSYCHIC [1977]. Lawrence Dane is a prolific Canadian character actor who I wouldn't have known from Adam a couple of months ago but I then saw him in a fairly obscure but interesting backwoods-slasher flick called RITUALS [1977] in which he made an impression.

Lawrence Dane as Braedon Keller
Robert A. Silverman, who plays the criminally insane scanner-turned-sculptor Ben Pierce, is an occasional actor who functions as something of a calling card for David Cronenberg, having appeared in five of his films to date.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Coolerking,
    1981 is the beginning era of using scanner. This is a great story written by Mr. David Cronenberg. This is very thrilling story. I enjoy it very much.