Scanners Blu-ray Review
Like a proto-cinematic take on Stan Lee's X-Men, David Cronenberg explored the potential of mutated outsiders with freakish super-powers
PictureThere is something of a cavalcade of horror films arriving on Blu these days. From the classic Universals and Hammers to the boldly over-the-top latex-stretchers like From Beyond, Phantasm II, Evil Dead II and Lifeforce. It warms the cockles of my own dark heart to see them getting, by and large, such fine transfers too. And this is one of the better ones so far.
Another good solid entry from Second Sight, after the raw but unmolested Southern Comfort. Available in a nice limited edition steelbook, Cronenberg’s classic SF chiller has been given an AVC encode and it retains its original 1.85:1 aspect with a nicely film-like appearance that retains its grain and ensures that it is mostly respectfully resolved and doesn’t devolve into noise. I will say, though, that some moderate digital tinkering seems to have taken place. There is little to no print damage visible, but then the film has always looked clean and sharp. But there can be a waxiness to faces at times that actually seems at odds with the considerable detail and clarity that close-ups offer with consistency throughout. If DNR has been committed, then it certainly hasn’t detracted from the level of finite information, as far as I am concerned.
Although the story and the mood, like so much of early Cronenberg, is purposely bleak, cold and somewhat clinical, the cinematography from Mark Irwin is dramatic and alive, and the film is surprisingly colourful. I have seen the film at the flicks, plus I have owned (and still have) the original Betamax tape release, and several other home video incarnations of it, bar the current European Blu, and this transfer is, by far and away, the best that I have encountered on the small screen, and if not exactly revelatory still represents a considerably re-energised experience.
This transfer now appears to have a more authentic and true-to-source colour timing. Flesh tones are more naturalistic, contrast is less overt and more convincing, and the palette now reflects the original photography with far greater adherence. Lighting indoors is less harsh and exterior skies are clearly more genuinely toned. A sunset is now very definitely a sunset, and a sunrise is clearly a sunrise. Contrast, although the best maintained that I have encountered it, can flatten out during some of the interior scenes in the ConSec building or the bio-chemical plant, but never damningly. Exterior moments are consistently well handled. The battle down the phone-line with the computer has depth and vitality around the gas station and the surrounding environs. The scene when the taxi comes down Sycamore Street to bring Cam and Kim (sounds naff, doesn’t it?) to the doctor’s surgery is nicely three-dimensional, believably lit and, at such times, boasting of plenty of detail in the autumnal trees and colours that play about the frame. Clothing is also well textured and coloured, with strong reds and greens, and a good foundation of browns and yellows.
Black levels are good and help to give the image stability. This is not a film about things lurking in the shadows and, consequently, the majority of the action occurs in brightly lit rooms. However, the sequence when Revok plays havoc with the ConSec guard team on the rain-slicked roads, is suitably moody with deep blacks and nicely rendered headlights, reflections in the rain and dancing flames. Details that were once lost in the darker portions of the image are now much more discernible.
Do the big effects gain vigour from the hi-def image?
Well, the spectacular head explosion looks fantastic. Full of juicy, thick offal and detailed globules of beautifully oozy, moist red chunks, this is all you could possibly ask for in its presentation. The glistening quality of the erupted brain-meat is captured, and the level of delineation to all that splattery excess is sure to please even the most jaded gorehound. I will say that with the more accurate contrast and colour-timing, the scene now looks a little bit darker, and not as garish as I have seen it before. However, the greater definition and clarity does not really add much grit or realism to the final telepathic duel, simply because the added benefits of higher resolution make the now-primitive latex flesh bubbles and protruding veins, head casts and squishy eyes all the more apparent. The blood-blisters can look a bit silly, but the gouged forehead on Stephen Lack is still hugely impressive. Just like the torn-open throat on David Emge in the ’78 Dawn of the Dead, I find the depth to the wound astonishingly well-realised. FX men build up the actor’s flesh in order to create the illusion of it having been ripped away – but these two effects from Dick Smith, here, and Tom Savini in Dawn, are tremendously effective. Detail in the charcoaled body on the deck is much more apparent than ever before, and Ironside’s egg-white eyes almost literally pop from the screen during his slow-motion roar of defiance.
The image is a definite improvement over all that I’ve seen before. There is no edge enhancement and no aliasing. Panning shots of the outside of the warehouse facility that Dr. Ruth uses as a base always used to judder a little. They do not here in this transfer.
Overall, I am very happy with how the film looks on this Region B disc, and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
Sound“You sound just like him. Like Ruth.”
“No. Not like him. Like Revok! DARRYL REVOK!”
Second Sight give us the choice of two audio tracks. We can listen to heads erupt and computer systems fry in faithful PCM stereo or in slightly more elaborate, yet also slightly more restrained 5.0 DTS-HD MA. Basically, the surround track adds nothing to the rears, but it does manage to maintain a better balance with Shore’s unnerving, droning and electronically unhinged score, as well as keeping some effects from becoming too strained. The infamous sequence when Ironside’s Revok trumps Consec’s “head” scanner doesn’t sound as fuzzy, or as clipped when the Scan-tone intensity reaches its zenith, and the warbling scream from a female attendee in the audience now sounds much more concentrated, and less shrill. These restored, or cleaned-up elements, and others, aren’t exactly revelatory game-changers in the grand scheme of things, but the surround track certainly enables material that had always been problematic to sound far better and more naturalistic than ever before.
Dialogue has its ups and downs. It always did, and it would have been hoping for too much to have expected it to suddenly balance out now. Certain elements are painfully looped after the event, and there is no way to mask Stephen Lack’s unenviable lack of vocal range. Occasional dips in volume do not prove distracting and although I haven’t gone and checked with previous versions I am sure they are inherent to the source. For the most part, of course, speech sounds just fine, if a little flat. I could listen to McGoohan and Ironside all day, and they breathe iconic and idiosyncratic life into the track whenever they open their mouths. Robert Silverman, too, as the tortured and doomed Benjamin Pierce, has a unique voice – a sort of Sesame Street brogue that is both appealing and disconcerting.
I love Revok’s bellicose screech at the conclusion of the scanning-duel, and that comes over well.
Without much in the way of bass clout to speak of, it is nice to find that the subtleties of the mix are still observed. Weaponry has plenty of metallic clicking and clacking. The scuffle of the ConSec agent’s shoes on the road as his body hits the deck is a little more vivid. The movement of telepathic voices during the communal scan is nicely observed, as is the warbling mental vocals that afflict a scanned guard. I like the little feathered impact of the tranquiliser darts, even if actual gunshots sound quite hollow and submerged. The shotgun blasts possess more detail, but they still lack solid, meaty impacts. A “nice” Scanner getting smacked over a banister, and the wonderful bash that Cameron delivers to Revok with the paperweight do sound quite hefty, though.
Where the mix properly scores and comes into its own is with the big, deep thrummm! on the soundtrack every time that Cameron Vale commences his scanning. This is a terrifically ominous effect and the mix, here, bestows it greater depth and a cleaner, more undulating sense of floating reverb. You can almost hear a sampled choral element filtering through it.
Once we are in the midst of a serious scanning, there is an increased aural presence about the soundscape, but I would not go as far as to describe any of this as being “surround”. I noticed nothing of note emanating from any of the speakers except the front. Here, however, the stereo spread is reasonable, and depth, when called for, is moderate. By far, it is Shore’s score and the Scan-tone that dominate the mix.
ExtrasSome good stuff here, folks. We sorely miss any input from Cronenberg, Ironside or Shore, but the selection of mini-docs certainly delivers enough production history and insight to please any fans until we get a release from the likes of Criterion.
My Art Keeps Me Sane is a wonderfully quirky and meandering little 23-minute interview with the wonderfully quirky and meandering Stephen Lack, who is never less than engaging, informative, opinionated and amusingly oddball throughout. He has some great tales to tell about his co-stars and about working with makeup supremo Dick Smith, and he is honest about his lack of versatility and performing chops.
The Eye of Scanners interviews regular early Cronenberg cinematographer Mark Irwin, who proves to be a fine raconteur. Having transitioned from lensing porn movies to the unique body horror of the talented maverick filmmaker, Irwin found his focus gaining stature and ingenuity. Once again, we learn a lot about the production, with several juicy anecdotes and informative opinion about the film, its actors and the people responsible for unleashing it. Sadly, he didn’t get on at all well with Jennifer O’Neill, who sounds like a real old diva to work with, but he did manage to get her back ... in a way.
The Chaos of Scanners lets us hear from the garrulous producer Pierre David. Once again, we get a personal take on the conception and execution of the movie with copious enthusiasm and insight. Inevitably, the same material comes up – exploding heads and test reactions - but each of these individuals has a slightly different take on what went into the shoot.
Exploding Brains and Popping Veins brings us into contact with Special Makeup FX artist Stephan Dupois. Naturally, he spends his time analysing the efforts that went into that head-eruption and the trials and tribulations that it caused. He also tells us of the last-minute contributions that the celebrated Dick Smith made to the film’s flesh-twisting finale. Smith was actually the film’s SFX consultant, but he only really came onboard for this segment of the production, when the original ending was nixed and a much improved and far messier new one brought in.
Bad Guy Dane has Lawrence Dane recalling his time as the treacherous ConSec security chief, Keller. The production is still vivid in his mind, and he discusses working with Cronenberg and the crew, as well as acting opposite the likes of Patrick McGoohan and Jennifer O’ Neill.
All in all, this is a fine roster of material that tells us a great deal of what it took to make Scanners one of the most unusual of cult gems that the genre has up its sleeve.
VerdictSome people will say otherwise, I’m sure, but I maintain that Scanners has aged incredibly well. The theme of man-made freaks and weaponised super-powers are now so intrinsically seeded throughout popular culture that Cronenberg’s ideas may seem old-hat now, but his story of destructive telepathy still boils down to a plain old battle between good and evil. And that is the ageless concern of all drama. Whereas the evil can be seen as the greedy, unfeeling vastness of big corporations or the personal obsession of Man, it is the nature of “Good” that is the most enigmatic and thought-provoking in this quirky, perverse and intellectualised treatment of the SF thriller. As a treatise on how to function in society with a mental illness, the film makes some important observations, and its stark accusations of the arch right-wing interpretation of hijacked science is no less relevant today as it was back in the turbulent and conspiracy-torn seventies.
But, be all this as it may, Scanners is much more notorious and highly regarded by fans because we see a head explode into a million gloopy dollops of gore-drenched cranial debris.
I can’t, and won’t disguise my strong personal love for the movie, but beyond my own nostalgic affection, I definitely regard it as a unique and important groundbreaker within the genre, and a supreme stepping-stone for the incredibly creative mind residing within David Cronenberg’s own bulging skull. I am also very pleased to see the film shine in such a great transfer from Second Sight. The image is fine and detailed and the colour-timing is much more faithful and relevant. With an interesting slew of special features that chronicle the production from an entertainingly personal set of recollections, it remains frustrating that the film’s creator has abstained from participating, as well as its leading villain, Michael Ironside. But, rest assured, this is a terrific release that its fans should all find very rewarding.
It did so back in 1981, and I think you will find thatScanners will still blow your mind.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £14.99
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.