Tuesday, October 6, 2015
Film Review: SCANNERS (1981, David Cronenberg)
Running Time: 103 minutes.
Tag-line: "There are 4 billion people on earth. 237 are Scanners. They have the most terrifying powers ever created... and they are winning."
Notable Cast or Crew: Michael Ironside (TOTAL RECALL, EXTREME PREJUDICE, CHAINDANCE), Patrick McGoohan (THE PHANTOM, BRAVEHEART, THE PRISONER), Jennifer O'Neill (A FORCE OF ONE, RIO LOBO), Stephen Lack (DEAD RINGERS, HEAD ON), Lawrence Dane (HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, BRIDE OF CHUCKY), Robert A. Silverman (EXISTENZ, NAKED LUNCH, JASON X), Fred Doederlein (SHIVERS). Music by Howard Shore (THE LORD OF THE RINGS, AFTER HOURS, VIDEODROME). Cinematography by Mark Irwin (THE FLY, VIDEODROME, WES CRAVEN'S NEW NIGHTMARE, DUMB & DUMBER).
Best One-liner: "You murdered the future!"
SCANNERS is an achievement in unrelenting atmosphere. It is perhaps (along with VIDEODROME) the purest filmic distillation of a particular paranoid, Philip K. Dick-ian, modernist sci-fi vibe. It is a film meant to be experienced, not quite digested; a sensory assault in varying modulations. Sometimes it comes to you as white noise, sometimes it careens with a metallic shriek.
If THE BROOD (Cronenberg's previous feature) is his most personal film (dealing with the fallout of his divorce), then SCANNERS might be his most "impersonal." This is a compliment. The writing, performances, set design, sound design, and direction conspire to keep you at an arm's length. (I would say it is Cronenberg at his most Kubrickian.) The future is now, and it has all the sterility and detachment of a doctor's office, a psych ward, or a chemical storage depot.
It settles around you, slowly but relentlessly, like silt collecting on a river bottom, suddenly pressing down, pressing down... invisible, a force field, a barely perceptible hum, like someone's thumbing through your mind, aimlessly flipping the pages... like you're being scanned––
OH DEAR LORD!
SCANNERS is perhaps an unusual film to kick off my Halloween season, but for all of its sci-fi trappings, I would say that it aims primarily to disquiet and unsettle. It is a horror film in the sense that ERASERHEAD is a horror film; it's not a "crowd-pleaser," but you stumble out of the theater afterward, staggering down streets you thought you knew so well, but now, under the film's spell, feel somehow different. Malevolent. This movie has a half-life. It lingers. Howard Shore's incredibly atmospheric electro-mayhem penetrates your mind; it sounds like early Wendy Carlos, the deep cuts, like the music they briefly use while torturing Alex DeLarge.
In one of the film's rare, human moments, an artist (played by character actor Robert A. Silverman, a favorite of Cronenberg's) confronts cold, sterile modernity through his sculpture.
"My art... keeps me sane," he says. "Art. Sane." In this moment, though you realize that the character is not quite reaching his goal of long-term sanity, perhaps it is Cronenberg himself making this confession.
The sculptor's art includes an enormous, walk-in head. SCANNERS is not unlike this sculpture; a sensory journey deep within the mind, evoking feelings of surprise, wonder, and dread.
You may have noticed that I'm going out of my way not to describe the plot of SCANNERS, which is a mystery best unfolded by a first-time viewer. I'm not even going to divulge what happens in the immediate aftermath of this screen capture,
an image that has likely been spoiled for you already by popular culture, even if you've never heard of SCANNERS.
Instead, I'm going to take my usual jaunt down Minutiae Lane, and place a few, out-of-context specifics under my microscope.
#1. I have seen your dystopian future... and it is a Canadian megamall from the 1980s!
I kinda love it... obviously.
#2. THE PRISONER keeps a prisoner.
At one point, THE PRISONER's Patrick McGoohan is holding Stephen Lack captive in a medical facility. McGoohan is always great, and here he's occupying an early Cronenbergian archetype––that of the semi-creepy, semi-fatherly techno-sage. See also: Oliver Reed's "Dr. Raglan" in THE BROOD or Jack Creley's "Brian O'Blivion" in VIDEODROME.
#3. Mark Irwin's Cinematography.
His lens captures that Canadian color palette so well. His framing is exceptional, glossy and sterile––he does much of the heavy lifting in building the aforementioned "paranoid modernist" atmosphere.
#4. Dick Smith's (and his team, who included Stephan Dupuis, Brigitte McCaughry, Constant Natale, Tom Schwartz, and a young Chris Walas, who went on to direct THE FLY II) incredible makeup effects. While not quite as intensely imaginative as what Rick Baker and Co. would create for VIDEODROME, the work here is exceptional––
creepy, veiny, and "new-fleshy," all the way.
#5. While SCANNERS is no action movie, "it ain't an action movie till they blow up a gas station" is still permitted to apply.
#6. Ironside, Ironside, Ironside! In his breakout role, the legendary Michael Ironside delights and terrifies as the mysterious Darryl Revok. In a film where the other actors proceed with nearly Bressonian detachment, Ironside is on the loose and off the chain (dance). He delivers all the best lines, things like "We're gonna do it the scanner way––I'm gonna suck your brain dry!" He even gets to be suave with a glass of scotch, like a Bond villain in the third act, and I approve of that.
SCANNERS could be described as a "film" or it could be described as a museum of frightening Ironside facial contortions.
At least one of these is Ironside's O-face, and now you can never wipe that thought from your mind.
I've often thought of Ironside as the Canadian Jack Nicholson (and the breadth of his talent is such that it's a shame he hasn't been cast in more Nicholsonian roles). There's one scene in particular of Ironside in mental hospital, and he feels very much like Nicholson's "McMurphy" from CUCKOO'S NEST
Ironside spills water...
...and so does Nicholson.
Furthermore, Ironside peels off that cryptic n' creepy third eye bandage
and I'm seeing shades of J.J. Gittes in CHINATOWN:
Coincidence? Or is it one of those weird, Busey/Nolte döppelganger-things that science can't explain? I'd also like to see Ironside as The Joker in BATMAN (though we kind of already have) or as Jack Torrance in THE SHINING. Then, I'd like to see Nicholson's take on FREE WILLY and HIGHLANDER II: THE QUICKENING.
#7. So, the SCANNERS end credits are done in the mode of a DOS terminal, which is stylistically and thematically appropriate to the film.
At the very end, the screen blips to green and then to black, but I was sure I saw some hidden text in there. I freeze-framed and saw this:
It says "MAX SECURITY SELF DESTRUCT SECONDS 1" and then blips out of existence. Perhaps some other movie has done this before, but so far as I know, SCANNERS is the only film to ever successfully self-destruct! (I'd seen SCANNERS three times before this latest viewing, and I'd never noticed this detail before.)