Scanners (1981)

“Wait, what?” I can hear you ask already. “What’s this about, reviewing a film that people have heard of and seem to like?” Well, a few weeks ago we decided to run a series of reviews of movies that have “Cop” or “Cops” as the last word in their title – in fact, our newest advertising slogan is “ISCFC – The Place To Come For Reviews Of Movies With Cop Or Cops As The Last Word Of Their Title”, and we’re coming to the end of that – in fact, the only two I have left are the “Scanner Cops” series. I really really doubt we’d need to have seen the three “Scanners” movies in order to appreciate those fine works of art, but they claim to be part of the same series and we’re nothing if not thorough here, so let’s journey through them together.

This review might be a little different, too, as real genuine scholars have written about David Cronenberg and I feel my powers of analysis, such as they are, will not be equal to theirs. So, I’ll try and crack a joke or two, get as in depth as I can, and hopefully entertain – don’t worry, we’ll soon be on to straight-to-video 90s trash.

Stephen Lack is an interesting guy – never really acted much, a full-time artist these days (actually pretty good too), but he’ll forever be best known for this starring role. He’s Cameron Vale, living as a hobo due to his “scanning” abilities making interacting with people impossible. He’s captured by ConSec, although their motives are surprisingly pure – Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, delightfully unhinged) is apparently forming a Scanner underground, and killing anyone who won’t get involved. They just want Vale to stop him, is all, and to that end they give him some training and clean him up.

Of course, this comes after one of the most famous early scenes in movie history, the gif seen round the world, which…well, why mess with success? Here it is:

It’s a surprisingly “straight” movie, for Cronenberg anyway, where Vale digs deeper into the world of scanners, meets a group which is just trying to live their lives, including the sort-of love interest Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill); and there’s a mole inside ConSec, jeopardising their plans. Even though it seems extremely dark and unpleasant these days, that’s just the result of a relentless dumbing down over the last 35 years – this was pretty mainstream for the guy who created “Rabid”.

What I always love about his early movies is how cold they look. I’m sure there’s sunlight in Canada but you’d never guess it from this, and there’s something unique about the colour palette of an early Cronenberg movie that really appeals. And, of course, he’s a master of music, with early collaborator Howard Shore matching the images and mood perfectly with a fantastic soundtrack.

There’s a political element in there somewhere, about human beings and working together. The scene where the scanners are using their powers together to become one feels like a reference to hippie communes and socialist ways of organising the world; it’s also the only time Vale looks remotely happy in the entire course of the movie. This bliss is interrupted by forces from Revok, who’s similarly revolutionary but whose endgame is him at the top, and ConSec is society, with its left and right leanings, good people and bad people.

My desire to see layers in this undoubtedly fascinating film may be giving it too much credit, though. Filming was extremely difficult, with an oddity of Canadian tax law meaning filming needed to be completed inside two months, leaving Cronenberg writing the script at 4am every day to start filming at 7. This left no time to build sets, meaning production designers would drive the streets trying to find cool places to film – although they clearly had time to build the props for the artist’s retreat, which is a brilliant scene. Apparently, the stars (particularly Patrick McGoohan and Jennifer O’Neill) didn’t get on with each other or the director, leading to a particularly tough working environment for everyone.

We can perhaps be grateful that the early treatment Cronenberg wrote in 1976, featuring a character called Harley Quinn telepathically raping someone in a subway, didn’t get made; but this version is far from perfect. The “telepathic head-wobble” looks far too camp (an opinion I had the first time I watched this film, in the 80s) and Stephen Lack is a curious choice for leading man. He’s not the most charismatic guy, I guess? Although perhaps that was a deliberate choice to reflect the sort of life you’d have to lead if it turned out you had ESP. But, probably not. Jennifer O’Neill, on the other hand, is fantastic, and looks stunning. I miss the days when women with greying hair could get romantic lead roles in movies.

If they’d had more time to have a few more runs at the script, and perhaps hired a slightly more interesting star, I think “Scanners” would be up there with Cronenberg’s best. Perhaps it’s got something to do with the initial inspiration? “The Naked Lunch” features a chapter on “senders”, telepaths who have a plan to take over the world, and given Cronenberg made a film of “The Naked Lunch” a decade later, the link seems pretty clear. Maybe this was too difficult to do in the early 80s so they had to drastically limit the scope of things? The idea about being able to link with computers, while responsible for a great scene, is still a bit “really?” when you think about it.

It’s still very good, though, and absolutely worth your time if you decide to go on a tour through his early output.

Rating: thumbs up

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