Scanners (1981)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #397

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Number of Views: Three
Release Date: January 14, 1981
Sub-Genre: Sci-Fi/Thriller
Country of Origin: Canada
Budget: $3,500,000
Box Office: $14,225,876
Running Time: 103 minutes
Director: David Cronenberg
Producer: Claude Héroux
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Special Effects: Dick Smith, Chris Walas, Tom Schwartz, Stephan Dupuis
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Score: Howard Shore
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Studios: Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC), Filmplan, Victor Solnicki Productions
Distributors: Avco-Embassy Pictures, Manson International
Stars: Jennifer O’Neill, Steven Lack, Michael Ironside, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Robert A. Silverman, Lee Broker, Mavor Moore, Adam Ludwig, Murray Cruchley, Fred Doederlein, Géza Kovács

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Suggested Audio Candy

Howard Shore “Scanners”

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Carrie White ain’t all that. Sure, drop a pail of pig’s cruor on her pretty little head and she had the telekinetic know-how to wreck a prom in minutes. But, much of the madness she courted can be put down to simple menstrual cramps. Not at any point did she have the capacity to make a man’s head explode like a primed pimple. If the scanners were looking to recruit then maybe, with a little training, she could cause an embolism or two with the power of thought. However, should she have gone toe-to-toe with Daryl Revok then there would be more than a little harmless ovulation excess to plug up.

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That’s right; this motion picture is preceded by its reputation for one outlandish set-piece which shocked audiences down to their marrow when released in 1981. The infamous scene has no doubt seen more freeze frame, slow play, and rewind than practically any other in eighties history, alongside greats such as John Hurt’s stomach upset in Alien and the glorious insight into why defibrillator paddles should be used with extreme caution in The Thing. Influenced by a chapter of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch about senders, David Cronenberg’s Scanners arrived as the meat in this particularly appetizing sandwich and demonstrated his first step away from the body horror flicks that helped cement his reputation as one of the true innovators of horror.

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His deranged trio of Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood were all excellent movies in their own right and Scanners is no different. However, it’s ironic for a film most memorable for its exploding head, that Cronenberg was likely on the verge of spontaneously erupting trying to get this made in the first place. He had over three times the budget to play with than he did The Brood but, to quote Puff Daddy (and I try not to make a habit of that), it was a case of mo money, mo problems. His script wasn’t even completed by the time he was informed that he had two months remaining to “get her done” so that the financing could qualify as a tax write-off which left him spinning plates furiously in attempt to complete his most ambitious project yet. His agony was compounded by animosity between cast members and it all chalked up to an experience he would be forgiven for wishing only to forget.

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However, this is Cronenberg we’re speaking of here. In a career spanning six decades and almost fifty years I have yet to watch a film by the Canadian master which could be accused of being a failure. As with any director, there have been peaks and troughs, but he’s the closest horror has to its very own Coen Brothers and there are two of them so, if anything, he’s even more remarkable. If there were a single cranium that Keeper was permitted to slather with his tongue then I’d be on the next flight to Canada before you could say “lickety split” and it would be absolutely worth the injunction order. Scanners may not have been his best movie but, considering the hardships endured in making it, it was one of his most challenging and his challenge generally equates to our wonderment.

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The concept for Scanners is ripe with possibility. Of the billions of humans mincing about our planet, less than 300 are gifted with this exclusive endowment. Even Uri Geller with his magnificent spoon-bending act, would struggle to learn their secret knock. You can see now why I gave Creepy Carrie such a hard time right? Nobody messes with a scanner as results vary from uncontrollable convulsions to the obvious head popping show stopper. I’d pay to see Phil Helmuth desperately endeavoring to maintain poker face when grasping a royal flush if one of these mind fuckers went all in before the flop with Howard Shore’s pulsating score on incessant loop.

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Down on his luck scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) has no real aspirations beyond the next dumpster but all that changes when he is taken in by weaponry and security systems institution ConSec and meets doctor Paul Roth (Patrick McGoohan). Alongside fellow scanner Kim (Jennifer O’Neil), Vale is tasked with tracking down loose cannon Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) before his own conglomerate commences its bid for new world order. Espionage is the order of the day and the notion of two opposing factions with the ability for ESP doing battle is downright fascinating. This would later be explored in more depth with countless sequels the first of which, Christian Duguay’s Scanners II: The New Order, whilst clearly not in the Cronenberg division, is actually pretty decent.

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Anyhoots, after a powerful persuasive opening and first act containing that pivotal scene, Scanners settles into a more relaxed rhythm for its middle section before picking up the reins for a rousing final thirty. For as much as the pace may be more languid during these lulls in activity, it is also where certain stars begin to shine. Lack is often criticized for being a particularly wooden lead, and he is admittedly a little out of his depth at times, but it would be hard not appearing a little lackluster when facing off against Ironside. Where Vale suffers from an inability to harness his powers, spiteful sociopath Revok is in absolute control and the actor is chillingly convincing in every single exchange. When you hire this man, you get what I like to refer to as “full face”. Every muscle functions independently and here he gets to showcase his diverse repertoire to perfection.

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Had Cronenberg have had more time then maybe he could’ve coaxed a more channeled performance from the callously named Lack but, if nothing else, he has the right look for the part. Alas, the chemistry with O’Neill is a little redundant and chemistry is something the great Cronenberg ordinarily majors in. It is evident that the director was harried and Scanners falls short of Videodrome, in my opinion, on account of not having sufficient gestation. You can’t rush a Cronenberg, you must nurture and cherish a Cronenberg, afford him the time to incubate his idea and, should that be the case, then there are no safer hands when the time comes for delivery. Despite its failings, if you can really justify calling them that, this is a powerful film with punch and still far better than nigh on anything else doing the rounds in 1981. And no, Daryl Revok did not make me say that.

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Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 8/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers: Let’s start with the head pop shall we? Anything else would be simply unforgivable. I’m sure Tom Savini would have applauded like a skittish seal when that prop head crammed with mutt meal and bunny liver was blasted from close range with a 12-gauge and would’ve offered his left kidney to be the one snatching the trigger. You could watch it a thousand times, and I would assume my current tally rivals that, and it still won’t ever be culpable of growing old. The wizardry of the wonderful Dick Smith and team is on full exhibit come a masterful vein-bulging, eye-popping, final face off which still looks youthful over three decades on. Violence is something Cronenberg has a history of and he regulates it here beautifully.

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Read Shivers Appraisal

Read Rabid Appraisal

Read Videodrome Appraisal

Read The Fly (1986) Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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