Review Date: April 25, 2004
Released by: MGM
Release date: 8/28/2001
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: Yes
After exhausting himself in the exploration of physical body terror, like parasites in Shivers, phallic armpits in Rabid and bloody fetuses in The Brood, Canadian auteur David Cronenberg decided to do something a little different for his next film. For Scanners, Cronenberg looked at the least physical aspect of the body: the mind. He was of good mind to do so, since Scanners ended up being his most successful picture before he went mainstream with The Dead Zone
. Over 20 years later and now on DVD, let's give this movie a good scanning.
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is homeless and alone. He roams around seeking solitude, but he cannot escape the voices in his head. These voices are not of his own making, but instead are the thoughts of the people around him. He is a Scanner. Able to both communicate telepathically as well as control people's minds, he is blessed with both a talent and a curse. He can manipulate others, but he is unable to escape the thoughts of others. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is homeless and alone. He roams around seeking solitude, but he cannot escape the voices in his head. These voices are not of his own making, but instead are the thoughts of the people around him. He is a Scanner. Able to both communicate telepathically as well as control people's minds, he is blessed with both a talent and a curse. He can manipulate others, but he is unable to escape the thoughts of others.
The doctor, Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who finds Vale and helps him notes: "with all those voices, how can you develop your own self?" Ruth works for a company involved in Scanner research, but the acquisition of Vale is the least of his problem. Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), himself also a Scanner, is leading a resistance against Ruth and against the society. He is trying to gather all the 237 Scanners that exist around the globe in order to payback society for the mental mutation they've been given. Demonstrating his strength and his purpose, Revok causes the head of Scanner researcher to literally explode. He will not stop until he gets all the Scanners under his wing, and those that refuse shall be killed.
Joined up with Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill), another Scanner, Vale attempts to get to the bottom of the Scanner mystery and stop Revok from materializing his vicious plan. A final battle ensues between Revok and Vale, as secrets unveiled and mysteries are put to rest. In a battle of the mind, only one Scanner will come out on top, and the resolve is not one you'd expect.
The fifth film in his canon, Scanners continues David Cronenberg's gradual shift from a focus on the body to one of the mind. Shivers was all about the vulnerability of the body, offering not a single character to identify with. Rabid moved more towards the mental, offering a female lead to sympathize despite its general focus still on bodily disease. The Brood, with its focus on psychiatry, moved increasingly towards looking at the mental aspects of the self, yet still made thoughts physical through those nasty little creatures. Scanners is strictly about mind over body, as the majority of the conflicts take place out side of physical space and instead inside the synapses of thought. Cronenberg would actually jump into mental subjectivity even further with Naked Lunch and The Dead Zone, but Scanners represents the first point in his work where emphasis is put entirely on the mind.
Focusing on the mind allows Cronenberg to tackle several intriguing ideas. The first of which is the exploration of art. One of the Scanners Vale meets midway through the movie who makes a living as a painter tells Vale, "my art keeps me sane." With the condition the Scanners are in, with all these conflicting voices and thoughts in their heads, art remains their only form of mental release. Painting a picture or chiseling a facial sculpture or the only ways that a Scanner can externalize their ideas in a positive manner. The antithesis to this is Darryl Revok, who instead physically drills a hole into his head to allow the voices in his head to escape. And instead of outing those voices peacefully through art, he instead resorts to mental violence to gratify himself.
Another theme that Cronenberg uses the mind to explore is homosexuality. There is no female love interest in the film; Kim and Vale merely acquaintance themselves to fight the evil. Instead, the main connection in the film is undoubtedly between Vale and Revok. They engage in a largely homoerotic battle at the films climax. They mentally penetrate each other, moaning and gyrating. Several shots are devoted to close-ups of their arms and their veins literally swelling up, which draws a similarity to an erect penis. The two penetrate each other, and ultimately become one, in the most private of places, the mind.
Both are males who are outsiders in a society that generally condemns their existence. More than that though, Vale, Revok and the rest of the Scanners (who are overwhelmingly male) must guess whether or not others are Scanners not by asking them, but merely by assessing them mentally. The whole Scanner mythos can be taken as a "gaydar" allegory. Outcasts in society, they must draw on inferences of the mind to communicate, rather than openly express who they are in a very conservative 80s society. There is a gay subtext that runs throughout Scanners, and this subtext is one that Cronenberg would later explicitly develop in Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers.
Scanners plants one more seed that would be developed later in Cronenberg's career, and that is the relationship between mind and technology. Near the end of the film there is a scene where Vale gets information on all the Scanners by mentally tapping into the computer mainframe that houses all the data. As a character notes, Vale's nervous system has been linked with the computer's nervous system, and at that moment it is tough to distinguish the two. Cronenberg has a fascination with exploring where, in our technologically driven society, the mind begins and technology ends. This is a theme that he looks at in great detail in his next film, Videodrome, as well as eXistenZ.
So it is clear that Scanners fits well within Cronenberg's overall work as a film auteur, but the question remains: is it any good? The simple answer is, hell yes, but it is not without its flaws. Cronenberg has always played on puns with the names of his characters (Marilyn Chambers' character, who grows a thorn in her otherwise beautiful body, is named "Rose"), and in Scanners he seems to be pulling a joke even with the names of his cast. As Cameron Vale, Stephen Lack definitely does "lack" any sort of acting prowess. His character is so flat and distanced that he removes energy from even the most intense scenes. The lovely Jennifer O'Neill, who was solid in films like Summer of '42, is also a disappointment, as the story totally wastes her presence. Other than these two acting concerns and perhaps a few dragging scenes, the film is very entertaining.
Michael Ironside (Total Recall, Prom Night II) makes one hell of a bad guy, and he steals every scene he is in. Notable mention must also be given to Dick Smith, who delivers some gruesome effects that rival his best work in The Exorcist and Taxi Driver. The head exploding scene in which the film is probably best remembered, is truly shocking and arguably even better than Savini's head explosions in The Prowler and Maniac (which were all on screen coincidentally in 1981). The climactic battle too is brutally gory, with exploding eyes, veins and skin shooting all over the screen. Of all the gore-driven films of the 80s, this ranks right up there with the best of them.
As good as Ironside and the effects are, the true draw to the film is its unique and original story. Despite looking like splatter films, all of Cronenberg's earlier films spend considerable time developing themes about the mind and body in considerable detail. Cronenberg lets his characters talk, and often isn't afraid to slow the plot to accommodate his characters philosophical ramblings. The discussions between Vale, Ruth and Revok are captured in detail and give the film a layer of depth that is rarely found in horror films of the 80s. The idea of men fighting with their minds alone is also a great concept, and Cronenberg does a good job of keeping things intense despite not being able to physically show the minds facing off. Although no masterpiece, Scanners is yet another strong film in the oeuvre of Cronenberg. It won't blow your mind, but it will be sure to titillate it.
Like MGM's transfer for The Brood, Scanners is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen, and looks fine. Colors are not as vibrant as they could be, although the general palette of the film is unappealing browns and grays. Since most of it takes place in the day, the image looks very deep and without much grain, although it can be a bit soft at points. MGM has used a nice clean print though, with only a few little specs here and there. It is a noticeable improvement over the VHS tapes and it will be sure to please the fans.
The English mono mix included here actually sounds very good. Voices are sharp and Howard Shore's pulsing soundtrack comes across with a lot of life. Sound separation is also surprisingly strong, evident in the scene where Vale hears all these different voices. Although it is only coming from one channel, it certainly sounded a lot crisper than most of the mono mixes out there. But bottom line is though, that this is a mono mix, and nothing more.
The only thing we get is a short European trailer. Like The Brood, and most of MGM's budget releases, there is no insert included.
Scanners is a thoughtful (literally) and well-made look at the mind and the stigma of being an outsider. If the plot doesn't draw you in, Dick Smith's special effects certainly will. The audio and video are fine, and considering this is can be had for $14.95, the lack of significant supplements isn't all that hard to take. Hopefully some day this Cronenberg gem will get the special edition treatment it deserves, but until then this will serve us fans just fine. .
Movie - B+
Image Quality - B
Sound - C+
Supplements - C
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Dolby mono
- French Dolby mono
- French subtitles
- Spanish subtitles