Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Film Review: SCANNERS (1981, David Cronenberg)

Stars: 5 of 5.
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."
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––


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.)

Five stars.

–Sean Gill


J.D. Lafrance said...

Wow, I never noticed that bit at the end of the credits! I'll have to pop in the Blu-Ray and check it out. Good find!

Love this film! Perhaps after VIDEODROME, this is my fave Cronenberg. True, it has that icy detachement thing going on but it also has a bit of pulpy feel to it... as if Cronenberg saw THE FURY and decided that he could improve on it... which he did.

Sean Gill said...


Very glad you enjoyed!––my favorite Cronenberg has to be VIDEODROME, but the number two slot seems to revolve between SCANNERS, THE FLY, and eXistenZ. It's funny how Cronenberg has never done an official Philip K. Dick adaptation, yet this and VIDEODROME come closer to nailing his vibe than anything else I can think of. (Similar to how Carpy never adapted an H.P. Lovecraft, but IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS fits the bill better than most official adaptations.) I love THE FURY, but often on a (unintentionally?) comedic level... SCANNERS never gives you the chance to crack a smile; it just presses down on you. I could see people having panic attacks during SCANNERS. (And that's a compliment!)

J.D. Lafrance said...

Good point about SCANNERS vs. THE FURY (which I do enjoy by the way - I mean, Cassavetes' death scene is worth the price of admission alone). And yeah, SCANNERS does have that clammy, uncomfortable vibe as a lot of early Cronenberg does - his stuff gets under yer skin..

Good call on EXISTENZ, which I would rank right up there among my Cronenberg faves. Very much a spiritual sequel to VIDEODROME.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

Certainly one of the best Cronenberg's of which there are many. I liked how you described the film as something that subtlely penetrates our psyche, because its true, you feel unsettled after you watch this movie...it lingers you are right! I like that about early Cronenberg films. His more recent stuff doesn't have that quality anymore. The sequels were interesting yet never reached the level of quality that Cronenberg brings...in fact, they are cheesy and funny affairs. I recommend the second and third sequels for a laugh.

Mike Bradley said...

Ah yes, Halloween time again! And what a start -- I only saw this once, maybe about 6 years ago, so I'm very much due for a revisit. I think it will be one of those that's much more intriguing on the 2nd pass, when I can just let it "be." Say, is there any chance of more melancholy this month? I'll stay tuned!

Sean Gill said...


Thanks, man! I really have enjoyed a lot of Cronenberg's more recent work (MAPS TO THE STARS and A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE especially, though I think A DANGEROUS METHOD is possibly the worst film of his career), but it doesn't have the "feel" of his early stuff. I think this can be chalked up to the fact that he hasn't written an original screenplay for a feature since eXistenZ. I hope he eventually does another original screenplay––I'd love to see what he'd come up with! I never saw SCANNERS 2 or 3, but they're on the list (I'll have pretty low expectations).


Thank you, sir! And I do think SCANNERS continues to improve with subsequent viewings. I'm not even completely sure what much of my Halloween lineup (and overflow) will entail, but I think it's safe to say some melancholy horror will be on the menu!