David Cronenberg: Scanners

Last summer I read Theodore Sturgeon’s science fiction novel More Than Human (my thoughts here), an early novel exploring the potential destruction visited on the world at the onset of humanity’s next evolutionary stage, an evolutionary stage that doesn’t necessarily entail physical change as much as mental progress: the terror of unleashing the mind’s hidden powers. We’re familiar with such stories today, especially given the popularity of the X-Men series, but it’s a concept I always find interesting. One iteration, perhaps most famous because of a certain special effect that takes place in the first fifteen minutes, is David Cronenberg’s first international hit, Scanners (1981), which has just been released in a dual-format edition by The Criterion Collection (just look at this fantastic, perfect on many levels, cover):

Scanners Cover

Review copy courtesy of The Criterion Collection.

The film opens with Howard Shore’s sci-fi synth score before we are placed in a decidedly mundane world: the food court in some generic shopping mall. A derelict man (Stephen Lack) is walking around, eating food he finds at recently abandoned tables, looking ill.

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Two older women are ashamed to be in his vicinity, though he is not all that close to them. Despite that, he can clearly hear every insult they whisper to each other. Suddenly, the more vulgar of the two women starts to have a kind of fit. Discomfort turns to worry and then fear and panic. The woman is getting worse. The derelict man watches with some worry of his own: he knows he’s doing this, but he doesn’t understand it. He leaves. Meanwhile, two men watch the fit with detached curiosity before chasing the derelict man, whom they’ve apparently been looking for all along. Here he is, tranquilized, as the escalator takes him up.

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It’s a nice opening followed by a bit of exposition. The man’s name, we soon learn, is Cameron Vale. He’s brought into custody by an older man named Dr. Paul Ruth (played with wonderful distaste by Patrick McGoohan). Dr. Ruth asks Vale why he is run down, outcast, poor, a “piece of human junk.” Then he answers his own question: Vale is a scanner. That’s the source of all of Vale’s agony, but, Dr. Ruth promises, that can be “a source of great power.”

That power — a kind of psychic connection, though it’s actually much more — is about to be displayed, graphically, in the film’s most famous scene. A rather inauspicious man, who works for the security firm ConSec, is holding a kind of conference meant to demonstrate the power of scanners. Louis Del Grande is the fated ConSec Scanner, the bald man who will inadvertently ask for a volunteer whom he can scan.

Unfortunately for the ConSec Scanner, the volunteer is a much stronger scanner named Darryl Revok (the always sinister-looking Michael Ironside), and Revok is out to build a scanner army. You either join him or die. The ConSec Scanner has, perhaps implicitly through his job, chosen the latter.

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While Revok is taken into custody, he quickly escapes. He’s too strong and can make you do unspeakable things:

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Scanners doesn’t slow down as it tells its story of corporate espionage and bioengineering disaster — or, perhaps, only a temporary disaster before the world is cleansed. The story is good, complete with a nice cat-and-mouse game as Vale is recruited to find Revok and Revok looks to capture Vale.

Yet, for me, the pieces delight more than the already rather delightful whole. For sheer — but not mere — spectacle, we have Louis Del Grande’s demise. But there’s the quiet menace of Dr. Ruth, one of the only “normals” who sees promise in the scanners:

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And then there’s the creepy archival tape of an interview with the young Revok. Here he is, younger, obviously unhinged, though in some good spirits. See, he hopes he’s gotten some relief from the thousands of voices that enter his head and don’t leave, the pressure keeps building and building. So he’s drilled a hole in the front of his head. The hole, he’s covered with an eye, because that’s obviously the way to keep the thoughts from just re-entering.

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These scenes blur the line between good and evil, making Scanners a much more interesting film than others have made with similar premises. There’s Vale’s dependency on Dr. Ruth, brought on in part because Dr. Ruth gives Vale drugs that dampen his scanning abilities, allowing him some peace. We can’t pin down Dr. Ruth. On the one hand, he looks and sounds sympathetic. On the other hand, he works for ConSec, and besides all that McGoohan is a natural at duplicity. And how on earth does Dr. Ruth know Vale, as he says he does, though Vale seems to have been wandering around shopping centers?

And then there’s the third act, with the frightening implications felt in a gynecologist’s office and, of course, the pyrotechnics of the film’s grand finale. Much like More Than Human, we have reason to fear this evolution, and those evolving have every reason to stomp us out for the animals that we are.

Though I still remember the VHS cover from my childhood days wandering around video stores (one of many covers that drew me in and terrified me), this was my first encounter with Scanners. I am thrilled to have seen it finally, and particularly in this fine edition.

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The Criterion edition also comes with the following supplements:

First and foremost, the Criterion edition is actually two films in one, as it includes a new 2K restoration of Stereo, Cronenberg’s first feature film from 1969, which runs at 65 minutes. I haven’t seen it yet, as I wanted to get this review up, but from what I’ve read it’s a nice precursor to Scanners. Honestly, I can’t wait to watch it, and I will soon.

The edition also come with a few nice and relatively extensive interviews.

First is Mental Saboteur, a new 19-minute interview with Michael Ironside, in which he discusses his involvement in Scanners. Apparently he was initially supposed to do only the old black-and-white scene about a scanner who’d drilled a hole in his head, but he was called back a week later to become, well, the central menace. His presence is essential to the film, so it’s wonderful Cronenberg was able to bring him in on the fly.

Second, The Ephemerol Diaries, is a 14-minute interview with actor and artist Stephen Lack from 2012. Now, Stephen Lack is a weak spot in the film. Though he’s the protagonist, the leading man, Lack has a weak, stony presence. I had to wonder: is he this way because his character is an outsider? Or perhaps he’s so weak to surprise us in the end? Well, no: he’s just not a great actor. He knew this, and so did Ironside, who mentions Lack was out of his comfort zone. And yet . . . Lack’s strange detached, funky performance is memorable, not just for being weak but for being so strange. Not deliberate, but just unsettling enough, I guess. I was thrilled to hear him discuss his time with the film. In particular he talks about McGoohan’s misgivings about the film (he had a hard time trusting Cronenberg’s fly-by-night filmmaking). Lack as an interviewee has a lot of personality — more than he does as Vale — as he talks about his general feelings of inferiority, so don’t miss this supplement.

Third, we go further into the past to an 11-minute excerpt from a 1981 interview with Cronenberg on CBC’s The Bob McLean Show. Apparently Cronenberg didn’t consider himself much of a horror buff — “It chose me.” When he sits to write, this is what come out.

For me, the best of the bunch (I may change this after I’ve watched Stereo) is The “Scanners” Way, a new, 23-minute documentary on the film’s outstanding (even by today’s ostensible standards) special effects. Bringing back several of the collaborators, the effects artists talk about working with Cronenberg, including a nice long discussion of the trial-and-error involved in creating the film’s signature effects: Louis del Grande’s big moment and the psychic duel at the film’s climax.

There is also the red-band trailer and a few brief radio spots. The slim booklet features an essay by critic Kim Newman that talks broadly about Scanners, with some specificity about the tradition it fits into.

5 thoughts on “David Cronenberg: Scanners

  1. Definitely a classic film. Interesting points on the central performance, I think it does work in the context of the film but the portrayal is as you say stony and it’s fascinating to hear more about that.

    Fascinating too that Ironsides was such a late addition. It’s hard to imagine the film without him isn’t it?

  2. Lee Monks says:

    One of my favourites, Trevor, really pleased you’ve covered this (and liked it so much). I recently re-read Cronenberg’s thoughts on this in the Chris Rodley Faber book, and there was plenty in there about McGoohan’s misgivings (and some editing trickery needed to paper over alterations in narrative juxtaposition).

    Stephen Lack is terrible in the film: as you say, this is not entirely a bad thing! Ironside is phenomenal and strange: perfect (apart from when he screams ‘DARYL REVOK!’ at the end, for some reason). And of course, the effects are amazing: surely every VHS rental version at the time had a bit of a fuzz-band right around the head-exploding moment….

  3. Fascinating too that Ironsides was such a late addition. It’s hard to imagine the film without him isn’t it?

    Impossible! You know, had they not brought him back but simply kept the archival interview, I think he’d still be the best part of the movie.

    Lee, I’ll have to check that book out. While Cronenberg’s VHS covers have been with me since I was a child, I’m still new to venturing through his films. McGoohan is a favorite of mine, so I’d love to read more about him!

    Also, interesting you point out Ironside screaming “DARYL REVOK!” He talks about that in his interview too. He was pretty self-conscious about whether or not to go big there :-) . Perhaps he still is since he brought it up over 20 years later!

  4. Lee Monks says:

    Yeah, a must read. Cronenberg suggests that just before a take McGoohan said to him, “I’m scared.”

    I love that old cover, very exploitative but I’m happy to be exploited.

    It’s Ironside’s only bum note! He should’ve played it at least one quieter…

  5. bjjj says:

    I liked Stephen Lack for the reason he was so detached and removed from a social function. I always felt a detached empathy for him because of Vale’s unfortunate situation…he is like a serial killer minus the killing factor, devoid of ALL human function except for minute by minute survival. He is a ‘Veil’, while Revok is a ‘Kover (cover)’. Some say Lack lacked acting chops…and although he is not a trained actor (whatever that means, lol), go back and watch his performance again…his delivery is deceptively childlike and immediate, much as it should be based on a person so far removed from any societal function. It is a perfect counterpoint to the other performances. And it’s an unconventional move to see a lead protagonist as such a pawn in this power game.

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