DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Scanners, Blu-ray (1981/2014)

Cronenberg’s first big feature, which still is compelling.

Published on August 8, 2014

Scanners, Blu-ray (1981/2014)

Scanners, Blu-ray (1981/2014)

Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Michael Ironside, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Stephen Lack
Studio: Trading Films/ Janus Films/ The Criterion Collection 712 (3 discs—1 Blu-ray, 2 DVDs) [7/15/14]
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: English DD mono
Music: Howard Shore
Extras: “The Scanner’s Way” – documentary on the special effects; “Mental Saboteur” – a new interview with Michael Ironside; “The Ephemerol Diaries – interview with Stephen Lack; 1981 CBC interview from The Bob Mclean Show; Cronenberg’s entire first feature film (in b&w): Stereo; Theatrical trailer; Radio spots; Illustrated booklet with essay by critic Kim Newman (all extras in both formats)
Length: 103 minutes
Rating: ****1/2

Considering the age of this feature, the special effects make-up is very good. There is a mention in the note booklet about the original film they showed to a test audience having a head explode at the very beginning, and then as a result of the feedback moving it until a quarter-hour later in the film, because it shocked the audience so much they had trouble paying attention for the rest of the rather complex film. (Perhaps Scanners is where Emo Philips got his line about staring at someone trying to make their head explode.) While sci-fi fans value this film as one of the best examples of the Cronenberg viewpoint about the synthesis of man and machine not working out—about man going into dangerous experiments without concern about the possible fallout from them—horror fans love Scanners for the exploding head—possibly one of the most gory scenes in film history. The original exploding head just didn’t look right (this was way before CGI), and a re-shoot of the scene with a new special effects person was done months later.Though obviously the plot stretches the premise quite a ways, it seems like this could possibly happen—it’s not like a film made from a comic book. Keep in mind the LSD testing on military personnel and others in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Cronenberg is interesting in examining the effects of man questing for always better technology and its effect on humanity. (His first feature film, Stereo, is in the extras and also deals with this. I was wondering what happened to the sound, but soon realized that Cronenberg didn’t have any sync sound equipment then, so he just shot the whole black & white film silently and later added a boring voice-over explaining some of the medical/psychological things going on.)

The story begins with Cameron Vale, who roams the streets hearing voices in his head. It turns out he is a scanner and doesn’t know it. He ends up in the care of Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan of Prisoner fame) who is a “psycho pharmacist” working for the evil CONSEC corporation, who make the drug Ephemerol, which causes people to become scanners. But the worst villain of all is the psychotic Revok, played most convincingly by Michael Ironside. Dr. Ruth orders Vale to find Revok and kill him, since he is in the process of recruiting all the scanners to serve his megalomaniacal plans to take over the world, and kill anyone in his way. There is also the beautiful scanner Kim, who seems to keep a foot in reality, which aids this wild film. Some critics have called Stephen Lack’s performance as Vale completely wooden (he is really a fine artist, not an actor), but in a way that seems totally appropriate for the role he plays in the film. The final conflict between Vale and Revok provides the other all-stops-out special effects masterpiece after the exploding head.

It’s certainly a most provocative film and in spite of its sometimes-dated appearance—such as the green letters on the computer screens, the slow typing, and the huge rooms for the gigantic computers—it still is a great melding of the visceral and the cerebral.  The only technical part that bothered me (and many others) was Vale’s being able to easily get into the giant computer at CONSEC via an ordinary telephone to destroy it, and the phone booth blowing up afterwards.

—John Sunier




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