Scanners was one of the films that made the film industry recognise David Cronenberg as a unique voice in filmmaking. But by all rights and laws, it most certainly should not have been. In fact, one element aside, what is a unique and interesting story is all but pissed away by several elements that have a uniquely Ed Wood-ian feel to them. In the interests of giving Cronenberg his proper due, I am going to talk about what went wrong first. This will also give a better sense of what went right in the film.
The manner in which Scanners was financed left it open to some serious interference with certain aspects of the production. One such element was the casting of Stephen Lack (pictured) as the primary protagonist, a man going by the name of Cameron Vale. I will not link to Mr. Cranky’s review here because for reasons that have persisted for far too long with a site that is meant to be a commercial enterprise, loading the site usually brings a continuous stream of coding errors. But Cranky points out, correctly, that Scanners‘ claim to fame mostly rests on two things. The first is a scene in which a man’s head explodes (and this scene is awesome beyond words). The other is Stephen Lack‘s performance, which has caused acting tutors all over the world to redefine the art of acting by using Stephen as an example of what it is not. You can defend Stephen in many scenes by stating that his flat, emotionless performance is pretty consistent with how the mentally ill felt whilst under the influence of many of the medications designed to “stabilise” them. Melaril being a particularly cruel example thereof. But Lack is completely emotionless even in scenes where he should be roused to anger, or more.
The scene in which a tamed scanner played by Louis Del Grande is divested of his head by explosive scanning also introduces the character we all end up emotionally invested in as the film goes on. We do not invest ourselves emotionally in Daryl Revok because he is a nice man, or even a particularly sympathetic man. No, we invest ourselves emotionally because he is played by an awesome man called Michael Ironside. In a duel of acting skill, Stephen Lack and Jennifer O’Neill have brought toothpicks. Ironside, on the other hand, has brought a nuclear warhead the size of Jupiter. Although he gives a stock performance much like the entirety of Jack Nicholson‘s storied career, the stock character he portrays suits the part of a man with unusual and terrible psychic abilities who is determined to resist attempts to make a housepet of him by any means he can.
The scene is set up in a fairly straightforward manner. Louis Del Grande‘s scanner proposes to give a demonstration of scanning by scanning every person in the audience one at a time. Among the rules he gives, nobody can leave the room once the demonstration begins. As the audience supposedly consists of military men who have some decision-making responsibilities, this is clearly an attempt to demonstrate that the program has some viable uses worth funding. So when Daryl Revok puts up a hand to volunteer to be the first to be scanned, well, we did not know at the time that it was all going to go to shit, but looking back we ask ourselves how we could not know.
After some preliminary instruction, Del Grande begins to attempt to scan Ironside. At first, Ironside appears to be playing along, but as makeup effects and some acting on Louis Del Grande‘s part soon make clear, Ironside is scanning back. And as a subsequent scene makes clearer, Ironside‘s character, Daryl Revok, is known to be one very powerful scanner. So after a fairly minor jump cut necessitated by special effects technology of the time, Del Grande‘s head explodes.
Well, sort of. What really happened is that Cronenberg‘s people put together a dummy of Del Grande, filling the head with some deliciously icky-looking meat products before letting the camera roll whilst someone shot the dummy head from behind with a shotgun. The result is one of the most-talked about scenes captured on film, even after thirty years. Put simply, it defines how much awesome one can achieve with what we refer to as practical special effects.
This scene is quickly followed by an attempt to apprehend Revok that ends with Revok scanning all of the people in the car he is driven away in. In turn, he makes all of them kill themselves and each other before simply departing. Never does he actually make any contact of his own in the physical sense with his captors. He just “scans” them, an act symbolised in the film with some sound effects and some mean looks pulled by Ironside (and when you want a mean facial expression, he remains one of the best men to go to). If the entire film had been structured like this, scanners escaping norms by using their powers in storytelling ways, it would be a masterpiece.
Unfortunately, after a brief discussion of the events, we go back to Stephen Lack‘s character. And a pattern is established. Whenever Ironside is onscreen, the film is awesome. Whenever Lack is onscreen, it sucks dog shit through a straw. I think that Cronenberg, who has said in some places that Lack only had the part at the insistence of money-men, recognised this. Because approximately halfway into the film, he introduces a secondary protagonist in the form of Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill). Together, Cameron and Kim meet up with various scanners who are not allied with Daryl Revok in an attempt to find a way to fight Revok and his merry little band of people loyal to him. Important to this plot point is that the psychic abilities of the scanners can be controlled through the use of ephemerol, a drug that seems to resemble a synthetic hormone in function.
What we do not learn until near the end of the film is that ephemerol was originally given to certain women as an experimental supplement during pregnancy, and many of the resulting children are now scanners. Most of these plot revelations, in the manner of a film that has not been thought out in advance properly, are advanced through dialogue rather than in storytelling scenes that properly explain anything. And then we get one sequence in which we are told that a computer has a nervous system, too, so it can be scanned. Not to be a wet blanket, but even in 1981, this would not have flown with audiences.
But the point here is that whilst visiting a general practitioner clinic, Kim receives some weird signals that the shots in the film telegraph as having originated from the uterus of a pregnant woman. In a subsequent dialogue, Jennifer O’Neill gets the line I hear quoted the second most frequently from this film: that baby scanned me!
The line I love most from Scanners is one delivered by Michael Ironside. Quick, everyone, act surprised! In one exchanged between Revok and one of his moles inside ConSec (the agency for which Vale is working), there is a discussion between Revok and the mole concerning Vale. At first, Revok issues a simple little command, “kill him”. This prompts some argumentative expression of doubt from the mole, to whom Revok repeats the directive: “Kill him… really”. Like all good lines that consist of two or three words, the manner in which the actor enunciates each word, and the faces he pulls whilst doing so, make all of the difference. And Ironside proves his mastery of both in this exchange.
In the early 1980s, discrimination against the mentally ill was tolerated, and ridiculous fact-bereft portrayals of mentally ill individuals in the media were commonplace. If this sounds familiar, well, yeah. Given that mental illness in some form is estimated to affect at least twenty percent of the populace, the statistics available on the number of chronically mentally ill individuals who are even charged with violent crimes are quite interesting. The number of people in prison for murder or other forms of violence who have been proven to be mentally ill is astoundingly low considering how common mental illness is in the general populace. But I digress. The point here is that Scanners is to the chronically mentally ill what Blade Runner is to the autistic. Except that it can be inferred that Scanners made a deliberately effort to portray the mentally ill, as opposed to merely doing it by accident.
Scanners is apparently available on Blu-ray Disc in parts of Europe (particularly Germany) already. So how about it, distributors? You know you already have one guaranteed sale if you do a good job with a release in America or other English-speaking territories. And if you have not seen the film already, go and find it on any medium you can right now. Trust me, you will be glad that you did.
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