Like a proto-cinematic take on Stan Lee's X-Men, David Cronenberg explored the potential of mutated outsiders with freakish super-powers.
340Like a proto-cinematic take on Stan Lee's X-Men, David Cronenberg explored the potential of mutated outsiders with freakish super-powers fighting to gain acceptance in a society that fears and shuns them, and the nefarious attitude that big and nasty organisations would have in recruiting and exploiting such individuals for their own nefarious aims. When it becomes clear that one faction of these so-called "Scanners" have turned to an extremist leader, a telepathic war threatens to deconstruct civilisation as we know it in order to create a new world order.
Cronenberg had already carved a uniquely clinical strain of body horror with Shivers, Rabid and The Brood - what with their potent sexualised angst and hyper violence – but he would gain that first nebulous rung of the intellectual ladder with Scanners, and create a genre highpoint that would resonate with fans of the fantastique, the cognoscenti of carnage and those who craved a little bit more intelligence from their filmic fix. All of which were ingredients that would serve the Canadian auteur very well over the burgeoning decade of the excessive 80’s.
“My art keeps me sane.”
When I was very young, my obsession for movies was already hugely developed. By virtue of knowing the owners of the Phoenix Cinema in Wallasey – as well as their daughter, who was in my class at Primary School, and my best mate’s mother, who worked the ticket booth – I was already semi-sneaking into movies, night after night, and seeing things (that I was far too young to legally see) that would shape my outlook on each and every genre for the rest of my life. And, back on the Home Front, whilst other kids were recording Top of the Pops off the telly, I was recording broadcast films on audio cassette and having to shush everyone in the vicinity to get as clean a reproduction as possible. Things like Carpenter’s Halloween and Assault on Precinct 13, and the awesome Zulu Dawn (very much more on that in a forthcoming review) were huge hitters in my little audiophonic collection. When home video began to hit home, my mum knew implicitly that she would have to fork out for a machine to satisfy this urge. So, one Christmas, she bought me a Sanyo VTC5000 video recorder and a couple of films that I written up on a list of HUGE WANTS. You couldn’t just walk into a store and buy video films in those days, and there was obviously no internet for downloading or online purchasing. So my poor mother had to use the nefarious aid of the local video library to order two titles off my list.
Christmas morning, I opened my presents – that spangling new video recorder (it was bloody Betamax – something I moaned about before learning that the format was much superior to VHS), and two large-cased movies. They were James Glickenhaus’ The Exterminator (on Intervision – slightly cut but still hugely impactful) and, of course, Scanners (in a lavish package from Guild Home Video). The two films had cost £140 alone! I was, ahem, eleven years old. And a very, very lucky boy indeed.
Thanks, Mum. And I am sorry for throwing a tantrum because of the Beta nature of the material. I soon learned.
I have since reviewed the full, uncut version of The Exterminator on Blu, and I still adore the movie. Scanners, though, has always occupied a place in my ever-shifting top twenty movies of all time. You ask anyone seriously into films and this list will always contain a host of the same titles, year after year … as well as a regularly morphing selection of “rapid-response” modifications to pander to the passing whims and tastes. Its concepts were, and still are, highly resonating with the plight of social misfits, the impulsive will of the super-ego, the compulsion for acceptance and revenge, and the basic battle between good and evil. It is cleverly written, challengingly performed and deliciously gory.
“Last night, we at ConSec chose to reveal to the outside world our work with those telepathic curiosities know as “Scanners”. The result was six corpses and a considerable loss of credibility for our organisation.”
We’d had extreme head-violence already. There had been a swivelling noggin in The Exorcist, a Grand Guignol decapitation in The Omen, and despite the hundreds of bullets blasting through skulls in Dawn of the Dead, it remains the total cranial eruption via SWAT shotgun that celebrates the theme most spectacularly in Romero’s second zombie epic. They were getting bitten off in American Werewolf, and mounted on spikes in Escape From New York. And then, of course, along came David Cronenberg with something new to add to the manic mix. Admittedly, he still wasn’t the first to have deadly psychic powers wreak havoc upon a hapless human form. The teenage Damien Thorn fried his foster brother’s mind in the second Omen movie and, most pertinently, John Cassavetes was blown to slow-motion, multi-angle smithereens in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of John Farris’ The Fury, with his head literally taking off and hitting the roof. But it was Scanners that really made heads turn and eyes pop with his flamboyantly visceral illustration of a man’s entire bonce turning into a lumpy, glistening rainbow of brain-stew. The showboating conclusion to a fabulously tense set-piece show-of-strength from nasty Scanner, Darryl Revok (the awesome Michael Ironside), as he plays cunning assassin and ethical game-changer in the confines of ConSec Security’s no longer impregnable headquarters, is one of the entire genre’s grisly highpoints. On videotape, this was a sequence that was invariably worn thin with endless repeats, slow-motion and frame-by-frame advances. It is still immensely wowing even now, when CG tends to decorate screens more often than gelatine head-moulds filled with apple cores, BBQ sauce, fake blood and leftover chicken nuggets, all held together with good old stringy latex, and this is also down to how well Cronenberg stages the whole elaborate shebang.
Although the first few attempts failed to impress, due to poorly constructed heads, bland fillings and all-too-obvious explosive squibs, makeup FX men Stephan Dupois and Chris Walas, and special effects propmaster Gary Zeller finally hit upon the solution. More yucky offal inside, and a sawn-off shotgun to the dummy-head on the outside. The result was a roiling brain-rain that opens-up across the lens like a volcanic flower of gore. If we are pedantic, then the gloopy remains of this skull tsunami should litter the desktop and the first row of anguished spectators, and not seemingly vanish into thin air – but then the overall effect is so stunning that I’m sure most people do not notice that the poor victim has disappeared in the long-shot.
It was an effect that swiftly became infamous, but it also came during the zeitgeist of special gore FX, a veritable turning-point for the art, what with the astonishing prosthetic transformations of The Howling, American Werewolf and The Thing, and the beautifully revolting mutilations fawned-upon in little Lucio Fulci’s classic vomiters. Dupois and Walas (who would go on to create the Gremlins for Spielberg and Joe Dante, and even direct The Fly II) were tasked with the messy stuff, coming up with the fast-food filled brain-splatter. But it was the great Dick Smith who came in with the popping-veins, face-gouging and eyeball-expulsions that would pulsate and drip throughout the climax. Smith was the man who turned both Dustin Hoffman and David Bowie from youthful beauty to insanely wrinkled old age in Little Big Man and The Hunger, respectively, cut noses off in The Sentinel, blew ballistically accurate bullet- holes through people in The Godfather and Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter, regressed William Hurt to a primate in Altered States, and gave Linda Blair that rotating owl-head in The Exorcist. He was not, therefore, a man whose talents should be taken lightly.
In fact, one of the more surprising elements of what is usually considered to be a coldly clinical and rather static chiller, is the overall bodycount. There are assassinations aplenty and plenty of assassinated assassins to keep things all pretty lively despite its reputation for being quite slowly paced. There are even car chases and a couple of spectacular explosions. But then, even when things are at their quietest, the imagery and mood are pervasively off-kilter. A giant moulded head in an artist’s studio that doubles-up as a den, for example. A phone melting in the searing heat of full-bore Scanner vitriol of good guy, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), who has been recruited to infiltrate Revok’s hard-line activist group and, ultimately, eradicate his threat and prove the value of these mutant talents. Or a middle-aged woman writhing in the agonised throes of a Scanner-induced fit on the floor of a shopping mall, her skirt riding uncomfortably high up her stockinged legs.
“Cameron, you and your kind can transform the nature of humanity.”
Having grown up with Scanners, I am perfectly used to Lack’s performance (or Lack of performance, you could say) and simply accept it as part and parcel of the oddball entity that is Cameron Vale. However, there is no disputing the fact that newcomers will immediately notice how wooden and stilted he is in the role. I hardly think it does the film a disservice though. I mean he is up against the always intense and brilliant Michael Ironside and the unpredictable powerhouse of Patrick McGoohan. I find it doubly ironic that one of the world’s worst actresses in Jennifer O’Neill, who is simply appalling in the Wayne/Hawks Western Rio Lobo and apparently an absolutely unjustified diva off-camera (guard-dog and boyfriend in-tow, refusing to be lit a certain way, demanding a grand piano in her room), is his co-star, as a fellow Scanner from the underground movement, and comes across as immensely better than him. With her grey streaks – one of those brilliant little devices that seems to herald the passage through darkness and abject turmoil and shock (to wit, the Mallen Family, Mad Max 2, and Ash in Evil Dead II) – she does look achingly alluring and potently sensual, which is a fine counter-thrust to her latent and suppressed psychic abilities. And she is pretty damn good here in what is an outwardly bleak role as Cam’s ally, Kim Obrist. I love her reaction to being scanned in the doctor’s waiting room by an unborn child. She may not have understood the screenplay any better than Lack, but she certainly imbues Kim with a lot more surety and grace.
Now, back to Stephen Lack for a moment.
We probably all agree that his line delivery is actually woeful, but his soul-searching eyes and his bend-your-scan expressions are simply magnificent. Perhaps because he was already something of a social and “recreational” experimentalist in real life, he immediately and implicitly understood the physical reactions that his character would undergo in both uncontrolled and then fully focussed scan mode. His expressions of combined pain, shock and power when he scans the mature lady in the shopping mall are perfectly exemplary of the untapped strength he has and the terror that he feels at such an unprovoked attack upon his nervous system. And then, once his potential is rapidly becoming assumed, when he turns on the quartet of inept assassins in the studio of tormented Scanner-cum-modern artist, Benjamin Pierce (a bizarre and affecting turn from Robert Silverman), his eyes taking on almost Elijah Wood-like dimensions. When he duels with the ConSec super-computer over the phone-line and traitorous inside-man, Keller, orders the cerebral connection shattered with a total system shutdown, Lack superbly illustrates Cameron’s rage and volatile response. Finally, his mento-et-mento face-off with Revok acts as a stupendous run-through of his entire repertoire of expressions as his body erupts and disfigures, finally settling on upon a totally in-tune and serene calmness that conveys far more than Lack could ever deliver with dialogue alone.
“Okay. We’ll do it the Scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry!”
Michael Ironside has been one of Hollywood’s great unsung villains for many years now. Often seen with a death-spraying Uzi held brazenly at groin level (V, Extreme Prejudice and Total Recall), he would become a memorable screen presence with his unusual looks, loquaciously menacing brogue and sheer, unflinching intensity. That it all started with Cronenberg is somehow fitting. Darryl Revok, however driven and demented he may be, is a quirkily sympathetic character. He has not been dealt a great hand by society and he has suffered in his time Therefore, his radical growth to extremist avenger is perfectly understandable. He is the superego of the drama – the Bondian villain with megalomaniacal zeal simmering in his eyes. If he doesn’t fit into the world, then he’ll change the world to fit his needs. Revok has a dream, but it is constantly thwarted by his own fury. He might have one of the strongest minds on the planet, but he has never fully grown up ... and this childish greed and arrogance is his weakness. Whereas Cameron is the Neo/Messiah of this pre-Matrix mind-manipulated landscape, Revok is the enraged flipside, the fallen angel. Ironside does well to give Revok a personality that probably wasn’t there on the scripted page or, at least, not as fully formed as he enables it to be.
His turn as Darryl Revok heralded a boom-time for him. After Scanners, he would appear as a psychopathic hospital stalker in Visiting Hours, a blue-skinned monstrous mutant in Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, the stern fighter-jet trainer, Jester, in Top Gun, then a raging immortal in the otherwise irredeemable Highlander 2: The Quickening, and the super-tough Mobile Infantry warrior in Starship Troopers, that voice and those coldly gleaming eyes bringing true gravitas even to the most hackneyed of personas, and the most mutilated of characters. In more recent times, he brought deceptive intimidation and unease in The Machinist, and, starring opposite Christian Bale for a second time, some walk-on support in the naff Terminator: Salvation and, poetically, X-Men First Class. There is a surging power to his performance as Darryl Revok that suggests a vast internal struggle and a jolting, primordial anger.
I love that scar in the centre of his forehead from when he put a drill into his skull to release the voices and the people who had invaded his brain. It looks like the remnant of a third eye or, if you prefer, the location of the long-dormant pineal gland that some scientific thought, and especially Stuart Gordon with his flesh-contorting Lovecraftian opus, From Beyond, like to propound as being the font from which Man’s evolving psychic skills will ultimately sprout. It links Cronenberg’s film to Gordon’s and seems to umbilically connect the scientific rationale at the time the film was made to more fantastical realm of 50’s SF comic-book art.
Although one of the actor’s most instantly recognisable traits is his throaty and intimidating voice, Ironside is, like Lack, immeasurably good with his roster of facial expressions. His scanning countenance is amusingly scary – he is clearly emulating sexual and orgasmic gurning to announce the vigour and satisfaction of his escalatingly cruel abilities, which is a deliberate conceit on the actor’s part, I believe. But look, also, at how he smiles with absolutely satanic glee at the ConSec enforcer who has a gun on him in the back of the limousine, and how he threatens to break into a similarly evil grin after despatching the entire contingent of security men, teasing the camera and the viewer for the longest time as hellish flames cavort behind him.
“Right now, Vale’s nervous system and the computer’s nervous system are coupled. I want to cripple them both. I want to kill them both.”
As badass as Ironside is, the film has another villain in the guise of ConSec security chief Braedon Keller, who is fabulously played by Lawrence Dane. Now this guy is pure 70’s paranoia bottled-up in a suit and given the authority of a judiciously brandished automatic. The Cold War burns deep in his eyes and even if Cronenberg doesn’t specifically intend to meddle with politics, Keller is the sure embodiment of its starched and unyielding tendrils of distrust and discrimination. He underplays the character’s ultra-right-wing views with chilling conviction, and even turns a polite question and answer session into a tyrannical explosion of cold-hearted male empowerment.
And positioned unnervingly between all of these characters is the ever-screen-dominating presence of the great Patrick McGoohan. At first, it seemed odd that the stalwart of British film and television should crop up in this screwball pseudo-intellectual Canadian splatter picture, but with McGoohan’s track record in eccentric SF-tinged adventures like Dangerman and The Prisoner, and even the paranoid Cold War thriller Ice Station Zebra, this isn’t really the radical departure that critics at the time believed. As the quietly obsessive Dr. Paul Ruth, the man who recruits Cameron Vale to the cause – and he certainly sees his quest to hone and train Scanners for the betterment of Mankind as a “cause” – he brings a severely edgy flavour to the pot. Whenever he is onscreen, bushy beard obscuring that lean face, but never interfering with those cold, implacable eyes, you get the impression that everyone else is walking on eggshells.
A proven wildcard and an incorrigible drinker, the story goes that they could only film him in the morning because he would be too damn drunk and troublesome in the afternoon, and considerably worse in the evening. You can see in the sequence when we are first introduced to Keller in the ConSec boardroom that McGoohan’s Ruth is slouching almost horizontal in his chair at the table. This hardly seems in-keeping with the character’s rather more dignified demeanour, and it is certainly interesting to think that maybe, just maybe, he is already under the influence. Not that his performance suffers in any way because of his irascible tendencies. Quite the opposite, this intense personality lends a darkly maverick aura to the good doctor, who has vastly more knowledge and understanding of the Scanners than anybody else could conceive. I like the fact that he parades about in black clothes, subverting the villainous fashion in a similar way to Yul Brynner’s heroic gunslinger in The Magnificent Seven. Off-screen, McGoohan got on very well with Stephen Lack, both of them sharing an unorthodox approach to life and a cavalier attitude to the tantrums and pragmatics of the film-making business that found them residing on the same page.
Elsewhere, Cronenberg was already working with an already established family of colleagues. His regular producer, Pierre David, was along for the ride of course, but there was the art design of the great Carol Spier, who provided the undeniably disturbing sculptures that Benjamin Pierce is supposed to have created out of the angst-ridden recesses of his troubled mind, and the immaculately composed photography of Mark Irwin, who revels in more exterior and location set-ups than the director had attempted previously.
And then was composer Howard Shore, who was to David Cronenberg what Bernard Herrmann was to Hitchcock and Danny Elfman still is to Tim Burton. He was the musical voice of the writer/director’s profoundly imaginative and outrageously visual psyche. His scoring during this period, commencing with The Brood and Scanners and evolving through Videodrome and The Fly was deeply ominous and unmelodic, strongly pitched a level of perpetual disquiet. He crafted tonal landscapes of humming electronica, spiked stingers and doom-laden, soul-spewing bass. His soundtracks were hypnotic, distressing and inhuman.
Shore would completely turn over a new orchestral leaf with his mightily impressive and hugely acclaimed scores for Peter Jackson’s LOTR and Hobbit trilogies and the lavishly mounted Hugo for Scorsese. Indeed, it is hard to link the two ends of the spectrum, they are so thematically opposed in mood and character. His work on Scanners is no less inspired or clever than his monumental tableau for Middle-earth, though. You can imagine him sitting there in a mini-studio just experimenting with sounds and effects and tones, totally unimpeded by the pressure of a quest to find a rich array of themes and set-piece action, yet still completely engrossed in the bizarrely complex and highly intimate drama that Cronenberg’s drama revolves around. The Scan-tone that develops with such a tremendous one-beat repetitive thump is a marvellously mesmerising motif. What the film fails to make clear is that once a Scanner begins doing their party-trick with serious conviction, the sound we hear on the soundtrack is actually supposed to be audible to the characters as well ... and the more deadly and determined they grow, the more high-pitched and whining the Scan-tone becomes. Since The Brood, Shore has worked on every one of Cronenberg’s pictures.
Although I have always loved this film, I was well-aware that many people I had introduced it to had found it cold, weird and all rather dull. Part of me understands this opinion quite easily, but I just don’t see Cronenberg’s cerebral head-scrambler that way at all. There are some terrific notions at play here – empowerment, psychic evolution (a quasi X-Men stance if ever there was one), the underground rebellion against oppression, seen in everything from Kubrick’s Spartacus to Carpenter’s They Live and Verhoeven’s Total Recall, a reflection upon the superego and the manifestation of the monstrous id – and Cronenberg plays them calmly and unsensationally, yet imbues them with all manner of disturbing pervasiveness. He would possibly argue otherwise, but there is a distinct lack of beauty to his freakshows unlike, say, the imaginative perversions of the flesh that Clive Barker creates. He keeps the clinical edge sharp and, therefore, much more speculative and feasible, documentarian rather than theatrical. Cronenberg’s early horrors, as outrageous as they could become, were deeply rooted in scientific plausibility. Shivers and Rabid dealt strongly with venereal disease and, obviously, the extremes of fantastical rabies.
The Brood was a brilliant exercise in Jungian/Freudian conflict, the emotion made flesh and the ultimate horrors of guilt and desire given life. Scanners was, perhaps, his most positive concept to-date. In his adaptation of the Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, he extolled both the strengths and the torments of having the dubious gift of precognition, maintaining this pragmatic understanding of the yin and yang of every physical and psychological break from the human status quo. The Fly was born out of human endeavour’s proud success – a supreme example of how Man’s arrogant conceptual growth is derailed by, quite literally, a fly in the ointment. Seth Brundle’s teleportation pod actually works and we can taste the potential of its revolutionary triumph. At the heart of Scanners, is the wonder-drug, Ephemerol, which was devised as a pain reliever for pregnant women. But it has a hidden side-effect that can be either wonderful or terrible, once those afflicted with it can learn how to control it – it creates Scanners. Dr. Ruth is justifiably proud of the good that these extraordinary individuals can offer the world if they can be taught to accept their abilities and channel them productively. So much of what Cronenberg did during this early phase of his career looked at the darker side of medical exploration, although he is quick to dissuade us from the belief that these stories are in any way cautionary tales. As he has said many times, these more monstrous examples of experimentation gone awry are merely unlooked-for results of groundbreaking techniques, throwing-up more phenomena and consequences to study. It is only our perception of such eventualities that make them seem vile or evil.
In this way, the filmmaker seems to embody the opinion of Robert Cornthwaite’s Arctic Dr. Carrington in the classic ’51 version of The Thing From Another World from Howard Hawks and Christian Nyby. “In Science,” the boffin declares, “there are no enemies ... only new phenomena to discover and to study.” This is precisely how Cronenberg views his subjects too.
Thus, Cronenberg’s terrors can also be profoundly beneficial to the expansion of the body and the mind and, consequently, an ever-altering society. His films may have become more mainstream in cause and effect – A History of Violence, Eastern Promises – or less body-horrific and more psychologically complex – Spider – but, at heart, they are always about awakening something dormant in the aura, the condition or the “being” of Man. Scanners represents, in probably the most overt and obvious fashion, the possibilities of the human mind and the resolute determination of the exploitation of such development. But, as always, it is the human, and the supposedly ordinary, that is more inherently evil than the monstrous thing that it encounters or creates.
“Brothers should be close ... don’t you think?”
The film is certainly outrageous – and would have been even more so if Cronenberg’s original series of head-explosions had made it to the screen, as well as the provocative image in a scanned guard’s tortured mind of the world coming apart in a welter of cosmic blood ‘n’ guts – but it leaves things at a tantalisingly vague conclusion. Re-filmed after the scripted finale proved lacklustre, the duelling Scanner set-piece is bold and cunning, blending cerebral warfare and soul-trafficking (almost an unconscious nod to Seth Brundle’s dreams of teleportation) with splashy gore and mutating flesh. Perhaps influenced by the shock parental revelation in The Empire Strikes Back, the script pitches us a now quite-obvious curve-ball, but still manages to muddle its twist about the primal connection between Vale, Revok and Dr. Paul Ruth, coming across as a little too trite and, thus, lacking the true impact that Cronenberg probably would have wanted.
To be honest, when Revok details his background knowledge of the bond they all share, I have trouble actually believing him. To me, it seems like just another trick, although it clearly isn’t ... and, either way, as good as the dialogue is, I always feel that the exchange falls short of making you actually care one way or the other. Cronenberg’s early scripts have a habit of airbrushing over their innate brilliance, the filmmaker possibly making the mistake of assuming that his audiences are as bright as he is. In this way, Scanners does seem to end rather too abruptly, leaving us with the impression that this was all just a storm in a teacup, rather than a précis to a potential world takeover. Which is where the unwanted sequels would inevitably come in. Personally, I quite like the first follow-on, Scanners II: The New Order, but producer Pierre David, who ran with these continuations when Cronenberg expressed no interest in pursuing the saga, does not have the vision, nor the integrity of the original creator, and the series would degenerate into a simple excuse for crowd-pleasing splatter effects, and none of them would hold a candle to their illustrious forebear.
Ultimately, the film moves on from the insidious theme of the horror within of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist and the director’s own Shivers (aka They Came From Within), takes onboard the conspiracy and distrust of Phil Kaufman’s bleakly excellent Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake and expands royally upon concepts birthed in Carrie, The Medusa Touch, Patrick and The Fury. Yet it coalesces into its own being, both literally and metaphorically, and becomes a definite force to be reckoned with.
“Scanners are our very last hope for humanity.”
David Cronenberg would define his own personal visions with far more finesse and conviction in the likes of Crash, Dead Ringers and A History of Violence, some would say. But I will always prefer his audacious, slightly rushed and understandably unfocussed expressions of human capability and culpability in his early smorgasbord of weirdly cerebral and wantonly visceral genre chaos. With Shivers, Rabid, The Brood, Videodrome, The Fly and, naturally, Scanners, he boldly took the Horror Film into wacky new directions that appealed to both the lover of the gross-out and the proponent of the more psychologically challenging. He incubated and fostered the term Body Horror, something that David Lynch would explore with Eraserhead and The Elephant Man, Clive Barker would totally embrace with his fiction, and Shin’ya Tsukamoto would gleefully adapt with his Tetsuo movies, and he has steadfastly refused to pander to convention and the tastes of either Hollywood or the often spoon-fed audience.
Some prefer The Brood to Scanners, and it is certainly the better “horror film”, and the only genuinely frightening movie in Cronenberg’s canon. But I regard his bigger budget, more sophisticated tale of crusading telepaths as being the best of his opening phase of intensely personal odysseys.
Scanners certainly provides food for thought ... possibly even enough for the mind to burst.
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