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Scanners
Tonight's Feature Presentation

SCANNERS (1981)

Starring: Michael Ironside, Stephen Lack, Jennifer O'Neill, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane

Written and Directed By: David Cronenberg

The Short Version

David Cronenberg finally gets a budget… and the results go splat.

You will definitely remember the exploding head, and it’s most of what you’ll want to remember.

Michael Ironside laps up the bad guy role while the good guy barely shows up.

It is very hard to give a damn about this movie.

Scanners takes an interesting idea and makes it as uninteresting as possible while still blowing up someone’s head.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

MICROWAVED CURDS.

Not only was the cheese unfinished, but then it got nuked and ended up being half-baked.  It tastes kinda funky.


Pairs Well With...

NATURAL LIGHT.

The cheap beer of choice for people who simply do not give a shit.

“You?  You’re barely human.”


Once upon a time, writer/director David Cronenberg called Scanners the most frustrating film he’d ever made. 

I have to say that I sympathize.  Scanners is incredibly frustrating.

It’s frustrating because the potential is there for Scanners to be an excellent movie.  The premise is interesting.  The ideas are thought provoking.  The budget is there to do it right.  And yes, a head blows up in spectacular fashion, which is always going to grab the attention of the audience.  Despite all of these things going for it, the intensity is not there, most of the performances are languid, and the lead actor especially doesn’t look like he could give a damn one way or the other, so that by the time the movie hits the halfway mark, no amount of exploding heads is going to keep Scanners exciting to watch anymore.

Our story begins with a homeless derelict wandering through a shopping mall in what is pretty obviously Montreal.  (French language storefronts with English signage are a pretty good clue.)  Eventually, we will come to know this man as Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, Dead Ringers), but don’t worry if you forget his name, because it’ll get repeated in full about six thousand times over the course of the next hour and forty.  While grabbing a meal thanks to a food court patron who decided to abandon his dinner halfway through, Vale can’t help but hear the voice of a disapproving woman sitting a few feet away.  It doesn’t matter that her lips aren’t moving; he can hear her thoughts, and those thoughts are hurtful… so hurtful that he starts to hurt her back.  As he concentrates on her mind, the woman starts to have a seizure, and worse…

This catches the attention of two trenchcoated figures nearby, and they rush after Vale.  These guys aren’t mall security, though; they’re security of a different sort.  After a brief chase through the mall, they bring him down with a dart.  When he awakens, Vale finds himself cleaned up and tied down to bed.  Standing over him is Dr. Ruth (no, not that Dr. Ruth; it’s Patrick McGoohan from “The Prisoner”), who tells him that the secret to good se- er, who tells him that the reason that his life has sucked up to this point is that he is a “scanner” – a man who can not only read the thoughts of other people, but who can actually join his nervous system to someone else’s and control their every action… or destroy them.

Dr. Ruth informs Vale that he is one of 237 known scanners, and that one of that number, a certain Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, Total Recall), is gathering the others together for some evil purpose that bodes ill for the rest of the world.  Fearing the worst, Dr. Ruth wants Vale to infiltrate Revok’s group, and if possible, thwart his plans before it’s too late…

I want to like Scanners.  I really do.  The premise is there.  The potential is there.  The execution, alas, is not.

However, one can at least say that it is not entirely David Cronenberg’s fault.  In order to get the nifty budget he was being allowed to work with – a first for him – he was forced to rush film’s production, to the point where shooting actually had to start before he’d even had the chance to finish the script.  This meant that in the end he was not able to give his full attention to either task, which may help to explain why the creepy atmosphere he is obviously trying to create doesn’t fully materialize, and why so much of the story comes across as being half-baked.

Anyone familiar with Cronenberg’s work knows that his signature atmosphere is one that might be termed “unsettling,” and one can tell that he’s trying to go for it here.  There’s usually something slightly “off” about every scene, and even crowded areas like the record store (remember those?) have a minimalist feel to them.  The character of the artist played by Robert Silverman (Jason X) allows Cronenberg to add his signature neo-Lovecraftian/organic visuals into the mix, as well (and I must say that the giant head with interior seating area is quite cool).  However, even though what’s being reached for is obvious, Scanners never actually gets there.  Rather than being unsettling, the film instead simply feels unfinished, relying far too much on sudden cues of loud synthesizer notes from the score to accomplish what direction should have done on its own.  Instead of getting the creeps, audiences are instead left sighing and wondering if there’s actually a point to anything, and by the time it’s all said and done, they’re still wondering.  What should be shocking reveals provide no shocks even when they’re unexpected, and what should be a killer ending instead feels like it was just a convenient point to say “to hell with it” and cut short.  “Wasted potential” doesn’t even cover half of the disaster here.

Cronenberg doesn’t exactly get help from most of his cast members, either.  Unfortunately for him – and for the audience – the worst of the bunch also happens to be the lead, Stephen Lack, who looks and sounds like he’s tranquilized and reading from cue cards for the entire duration of his performance.  I hate to make the joke, but after watching him here, one has to wonder if the guy’s last name is a shortened form of the Irish “Lack O’Tryin’,” because he truly looks like he just doesn’t give a damn one way or another.  There’s little wonder that he never got the phone to ring off the hook with offers for leading roles; the only real surprise is that David Cronenberg ever bothered to hire him for anything at all again, up to and including being a bus boy at the craft service table.  As it stands, he pretty much murders any shot that Scanners may have had at overcoming the obstacles set in its way.

Speaking of, it’s sad to note that one of those obstacles turned out to come from costar Patrick McGoohan, who apparently tormented actress Jennifer O’Neill (A Force of One) to no end behind the scenes because she’d been married three times at that point (now it’s five; I say good on her for recognizing when something didn’t work anymore), calling her a “whore” and a “slut.”  I don’t care how much groundbreaking work one has done in one’s career; that kind of behavior is completely unacceptable, and there is simply no doubt that it further sabotaged an already troubled production.  Even while expressing frustration over McGoohan’s actions off camera, Cronenberg generously credits him with an excellent performance; but having seen what McGoohan is capable of elsewhere, I’ll say that he did a good job of phoning it in.  As for O’Neill, she looks uncomfortable most of the time she’s on camera, but in that kind of hostile work environment, it’s hard to blame her for it.

Rising above it all, however, is Michael Ironside, delivering one of his most memorable performances with great gusto.  Since the powers exhibited by scanners are mental, the only cue the actors can provide that they’re using these powers comes in the form of facial expression, and Ironside decides to make Scanners into an episode of Ultimate Facial Contortionist Cage Match Theatre.  The exploding head is impressive, but after watching Ironside’s face in the lead up, one marvels that his victim’s whole body didn’t go splat from the inside out.  Always one to bring intensity to his roles, Michael Ironside is definitely playing his “A” game here, and as such, serves as the best part of the entire movie.

Well, okay.  Him, and the exploding head.

There are certainly other gore effects to be found in Scanners, but everyone remembers the exploding head.  Even thirty years later, it is still one of the most spectacular executions of that specific effect ever put to film, and let’s face it, there have been hundreds if not thousands of other contenders.  If you’re a gore hound, Scanners may be worth watching for that single scene alone.

Sadly, save for Cronenberg completists and connoisseurs of “cinema of the weird,” I can’t think of many other reasons to recommend it.

Bottom line, Scanners is a movie that could have been outstanding, but which instead comes across as a languid yawner, even with its interesting premise and exploding head.  With its half-baked atmosphere, too-convenient story, and horrible lead actor, Scanners can only be recommended to genre die hards, David Cronenberg fans, and people who will go to any length to see one of the most amazing exploding heads in the history of film.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, November, 2011


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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