Scanner Cop 2 (1995)

So, we come to the end of the “Scanners” series, which has been…alright? I didn’t love Cronenberg’s original (although it’s clearly the class act in this field), part 2 was terrible, part 3 was great, and the first “Scanner Cop” was dull. So what of the final entry?

“Scanner Cop 2” has, perhaps, the most Aggressive Staring (TM) of any of the franchise. There’s one scene where the villain is doing his thing (which involves sucking the life force out of another scanner, a hitherto unknown power) and it goes on for what feels like three or four minutes – just him staring at another guy, and that guy gradually turning into a skeleton. I think I’ve officially reached my limit of watching movies where people just stare at each other, and you know who’s winning via whose musical sting is loudest.

It’s an unwelcome return for Samuel (Daniel Quinn), the only person to appear in more than one “Scanners” movie, now an LAPD detective (whether he’s still got the same ludicrous mansion he had when he was just a trainee is never mentioned). He’s getting called on by his superior officer, Captain Jack Bitters (Robert Forster, just before Quentin Tarantino briefly saved him from obscurity), to do all sorts of scanner-based crime-solving, and for those of you who remembered him taking Ephemerol at the end of part 1 to control his powers, it’s handwaved away rather magnificently by Bitters saying to an underling “he’s got a special new sort of Ephemerol which allows him to use his powers with no side-effects”. Never mentioned again, never paid off.

There’s a subplot about him searching for his birth mother, which involves the Trans Neural Research Center, and their lovely employee Carrie Goodart (Khrystyne Haje). She distributes Ephemerol to people who can’t afford a prescription for it, and although it’s never mentioned at this point, she’s a scanner too. “Hey, sexy doctor lady, I have this special new Ephemerol that allows you to still use your powers, if you’d like to try it” – NO. This doesn’t happen. Anyway, despite his mother not giving him up, so there being no issues of privacy, and him being a damn cop, he needs help to find her.

The sole bright spark is the villain, one Karl Volkin (Patrick Kilpatrick). His motivation is terribly boring (revenge after Samuel tried to arrest them, and scannered Karl into shooting his own brother), but he realises how silly all this is and goes with it. His scenes from when he’s in the mental hospital are hilarious, and he appears to be doing an impression of the Tasmanian Devil (animated version) – despite them saying he’s getting crazier the longer he goes without Ephemerol, he never reaches those wild heights of overacting again.

Pretty much everything about “Scanner Cop 2” is just sort of okay. There’s dumb logic holes everywhere you look, and the plot is completely standard, but there’s an occasional spark of comedy, or a decent performance from a b-movie regular (such as Ellen Dubin or Eugene Robert Glazer), to elevate things ever-so-slightly. And some of the effects are really quite gross, but I got a bit bored of the camera focusing on them twice as long as was necessary.

I do have one more weird thing to mention, though, and that’s the fact his mother is in a retirement home. How old do you think Daniel Quinn is? (serious question, he doesn’t have it listed on IMDB). Let’s say, at the outside, 35. His mother appears pretty sprightly, she runs down a corridor, doesn’t look frail at all…so why the hell is she in a retirement home? I’d expect her to still be working, looking like she does! Why didn’t they just have her in a mental hospital, trying to deal with her scanning powers?

Ultimately, though, it’s so bland I can’t even be bothered to write a full-length review of it. Cut every EXTREME STARING scene down to 20 seconds (which is about as long as they ever lasted in the original), remove the scenes they just re-used from the first “Scanner Cop” (cars pulling into hospital – the scene is a straight lift) and you’ve got a reasonably punchy hour-long movie. As it is, thumbs down for the last of the series. See you when the remake comes out!

Rating: thumbs down

Scanner Cop (1994)

After a part 3 that was chock full of comedy, head explosions and OTT acting performances, it’s sort of sad that we’re back down in the dreck for part 4 (for that is what “Scanner Cop” is in the “Scanners” franchise). I guess all you really needed to make a tidy profit in the era of VHS rental was a name and a few snappy images for the back of the box.

This is the directorial debut for Pierre David, who was the producer who very cleverly secured himself sequel rights to “Scanners”, way back in 1981. Clearly. Paying an actual director would have cut into his profits, so he took the knowledge and experience of being around movie sets for so many years, and…well, it looks exactly like a movie, I guess? And he must have called in some b-movie favours, as the late great Brion James shows up for 2 minutes near the end, Richard Lynch is the bad guy, and “that guy / gal” actors such as Gary Hudson, Hilary Shepard and Darlanne Fluegel play large roles.

In a filthy apartment lives a father and son – any other movie, you’d assume he was a junkie, but he’s obviously a scanner trying to block out the incessant noise in his head with some Ephemerol (the sole through-line of these movies). Now, I’d probably throw away the empty pill-bottles, as it makes it a lot easier to find the one that still has some in it, but then I’m not a scanner who’s been driven half-mad, so what do I know? His son Samuel also has the scanner gene, and is having just as bad a time of it as Dad. Into this chaos walks cop Peter Harrigan (Stacy Keach-alike Richard Grove) and there’s a few of the “classics” – Dad wobbles his head at the cops, they struggle as if they’re about to turn their guns on each other…Dad almost kills one of the cops, he gets shot, and Samuel is about to do some head-exploding when Peter manages to talk him down.

Because Samuel saved his life (eh, okay I guess?), Peter adopts him. Is this something that cops do as a matter of course? Anyway, the Harrigans are just childless with lots of love to offer, so they bring up Samuel right, and…15 years later! He’s just graduated from police academy – but presumably the boring, normal sort of police academy, with no roommates who can make any sound at all with their mouths.

The villain, one Karl Glock (Lynch) and his assistant Zena (Shepard) are kidnapping people and brainwashing them into attacking cops – like, whenever they see anyone in uniform, the cop transforms in their heads into a weird monster. Herein lies the first problem – if you saw a giant zombie wandering towards you, would you attack it with whatever you had at hand, or run like hell? Perhaps some offscreen brainwashing got rid of the “flight” part of “fight or flight”. So, random people start butchering police officers, and it’s up to Harrigan to stop them – he’s the only person who knows Samuel is a scanner, keeping him supplied with Ephemerol, but he asks him to stop taking the drug and use his psychic powers to help him get to the bottom of things. Oh, and fans of “Aliens” will appreciate seeing the great Mark Rolston as Harrigan’s underling Harry Brown (not that Harry Brown), aka “the world’s dumbest skeptic”.

Leaving aside the head-wobbling, it’s a very standard mid-90s straight-to-video thriller with a few grotesque touches. At the beginning, we see a brief glimpse of a mental hospital and it’s straight out of a Victorian nightmare – a corridor full of people tearing their hair out and gibbering and rocking back-and-forth. Surely, not even the worst 90s-era hospital has stuff like that?

I’m not sure what to make of some stuff, like Samuel’s home (he moved out of his adopted parents’ home some time ago). It’s a gigantic place, with an incredible view, high up in the hills of LA, and must have cost – even in the mid 90s – a solid $500,000. Where does an orphan who’s not even started his first job yet afford a place like that? And there’s also the thing of how Samuel’s a super-fast reader, able to get through every page of a massive series of crime reports in the time it takes Brown to get him a cup of coffee. When did that become a scanner power?

Because it’s filmed in a blandly competent style, credit due to the professional Nu Image behind-the-camera team, it leaves us much more time to talk about the bizarre script choices. We see inside Zena’s head at one point, and it’s like a cliché of what the dark parts of someone’s psyche are like – an even grimmer mental hospital than the one in “reality”. Zena appears to fund the brainwashing operation with her tarot card reading storefront, but the curious thing is, she seems to genuinely be psychic, and not in a scanner-y way either. They perhaps ought to have elaborated on that a little, as it’s just confusing.

The first resistance of any sort our villains face doesn’t come til about 1:10 in, and honestly I was getting a bit bored by then. There’s only so long you can spend watching a series of plans be executed smoothly while the people you’re supposed to be cheering for stand around with puzzled looks on their faces! You might also expect to see a relationship develop, but Samuel and Doctor Joan Alden (Fluegel) just aren’t a good visual match at all. In the grand tradition of Scanners stars, Samuel (Daniel Quinn) has a sort-of-unappealing face, while Joan just seems a lot more mature than the apparently-in-his-early-20s leading man. Luckily, the movie realises this, and while there’s an odd scene that implies things are going to happen between the two, nothing does…but that leaves an empty space where the emotional connection ought to be.

Factor in a steel plate in someone’s head apparently being able to block psychic powers, and a main actor who’s scanning face is identical to his constipated face, and you’ve got yourself a movie. While it’s not horrible (lots of b-movie professionals, technically fine) it’s just a bit boring. The only movie that’s really been able to forge a path between the seriousness of the subject matter and the inherent silliness of staring at someone until their head explodes is part 3; this is probably the dullest of the series so far.

Rating: thumbs down

Scanners 3: The Takeover (1992)

These people aren’t in the movie

After a part 2 which starred a man who we know from his TV appearances is a strong comic actor, but was almost entirely serious, we come to a part 3, with a guy who isn’t a strong anything actor, that fully steers into the ludcrousness of the whole enterprise and is almost entirely comedic!

Despite having the same director and one of the same writers, this movie couldn’t be any more different. Perhaps a quick “Scanners” history lesson will be handy. While the first movie was being made, producer Pierre David bought the rights to make sequels, and then waited ten years (presumably for a time when exploding head special effects became cheaper). So, much like “XTRO” had two sequels in name only, because the director had the rights to the name but nothing else, “Scanners” has two sequels pretty much entirely because some guy had paid for it years previously.

In further timeline fun – you may remember the children of the guy from part 1 showing up in part 2, both in their 30s, despite the movies being ten years apart – it’s so long since the scanners from part 2 did their thing in front of a bunch of TV cameras, that they’re now creatures of myth, eliciting only vague amusement from a birthday party full of whatever the Canadian 90s equivalent of hipsters was. Alex (Steve Parrish) is asked to show off his scanner powers, and is happy to do this little parlor trick, pushing his friend backwards with just his mind, until he’s distracted and accidentally shoves him out of the window, killing him.

He’s found not guilty, pretty luckily, and decides to go to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand and find himself, learn to take control of his powers, whatever it is. Alex’s girlfriend Joyce (Valérie Valois) and stepsister Helena (Liliana Komorowska) remain friends, until a couple of years later, when a gang attacks them in an alley and Helena uses her scanning powers to mess them up. She’s struggling with the same problems Alex had, the incessant din of human thoughts being beamed into her head, but rather than going to meditate, she decides to hassle her stepdad, famed neuroscientist Elton Monet (Colin Fox). He’s invented EPH-3 (the only link between this and the previous two movies), but it’s super-experimental; she offers to be the guinea pig but he refuses.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Helena just steals the supply and applies an EPH-3 patch (which is a large circle of plastic with a little blue light on it, stuck behind her ear) and immediately turns evil; she takes over a worldwide media company and her Dad’s company, by the “traditional” method of advancement (murdering everyone). Alex eventually turns back up and after a while, it’s on. There’s a whole weird subplot about a group of scanners that Helena liberates all dressing and acting like 1930s gangsters, but I’ve got no idea what that was about.

The first thing to notice about “Scanners 3” is that it has a similar structure to part 2, in that the alleged star of the movie drops out of it for a significant portion of the early running. This is very definitely a movie about the villain, rather than the hero, and it’s all the better for it. She has an interesting plan and she’s not afraid to go after it. There’s perhaps a good reason for this assignation of screen time though.

Liliana Komorowska is amazing, and Steve Parrish is terrible. She fully understands just how silly the plot and script are, and really runs with it. Every scene she’s in is full of scenery-chewing magic; whereas not only does he have a face that’s sort of annoying to look at, he’s just not a good enough actor to relax and have fun with a movie that’s clearly intended to be a comedy. I mean, there’s a scene where he has an underwater scanner fight (underwater! This is brilliant!) and he’s just there, playing it straight. It’s quite curious that in three “Scanners” movies, the lead actor has been a wooden non-presence in two of them, and it’s not like David Hewlett gave the best performance in part 2 either.

I feel like this movie really ought to have been rediscovered by the bad movie brigade by now, but quite a lot of reviews of it seem to treat it moderately seriously, like the comedy is unintentional? Well, watch the autopsy scene and tell me that’s not supposed to make you laugh – some fine comic timing from a character with only a few lines. Or the TV broadcast where Helena puts her plan into effect, which is so crazy there’s no possible way you coul take it seriously. On that note – the plot of the movie hinges on scanning powers being something you can record on videotape and broadcast via TV, which indicates someone involved with it would rather have been remaking “Videodrome”.

Any Buddhists reading this review will be pleased to note that, after spending years in a monastery, he’s progressed a great deal as an individual. Oh, sorry, I meant to write that as soon as he gets home, he starts murdering people with his mind – okay, they’re bad guys, but I’m pretty sure the Buddha never said “murder’s cool, as long as the victim is a dick”.

They throw in a completely wild, OTT ending, and a set of closing credits with no music behind them, as if they wanted to creep you out right at the last minute. It’s often hilarious, and while the plot is just as dumb as part 2, they at least acknowledge that (even the head-wobbling “fights” are done with tongue slightly in cheek).

This has been one of the most thoroughly entertaining b-movies we’ve covered on this site. Recommended with no problem whatsoever.

Rating: thumbs up

Scanners 2: The New Order (1991)

While I’d have quite liked to see long, gory franchises based on “Rabid” or “Shivers”, if you held a gun to my head I’d have probably suggested “Scanners” had the most sequel potential of all David Cronenberg’s early movies. I’m not sure why you’d have done that, of course, but then I’m not sure why they chose to make sequels to Cronenberg movies and then make the director some guy who’d only ever made a few episodes of TV, either.

Starring in this is David Hewlett, best known for “Stargate Atlantis” but a genre TV regular these days. He’s David Kellum, and he’s a scanner, one of the very small number of people born with ESP / telekinetic powers. He seems able to control it, by and large, and is even able to start a relationship with fellow veterinary student Alice (ISCFC favourite Isabelle Mejias – “Meatballs 3”, “Heavy Metal Summer”). A fellow by the name of Drak is slightly less able to control himself, and eventually finds himself in the orbit of Dr Morse (“that guy” Tom Butler), who’s got a whole lab full of scanners, none of whom use their powers as they’re all numbed by / addicted to a drug called EPH-2 (the next stage of the first movie’s Ephemerol), originally developed to help dampen scanner powers but also a super-powerful narcotic.

There’s a few creepy images, early on – Morse employs a couple of scanners as drug dealers, to continue funding his experiments, and EPH-2 had a pretty horrific effect on both of them, leaving them looking like zombies. The movie doesn’t play it up, and it’s a nice effective bit of business. There’s also a head, not exploding as such, but a section at the back coming open and blood and brains gushing out, which is pretty well done (criminals, don’t try and hold up a convenience store when there’s a powerful psychic in there trying to do his shopping).

It’s sort of the same thing as part 1, though. Good scanner gets training; evil scanner tries to recruit, then kill him (although the evil scanner is just a goon for the Big Bad here). But it really struggles to make sense. The principle villain is cop Commander John Forrester, and he – for reasons which I’m still not sure about – persuades David to take over the Mayor’s mind and have him made Chief of Police, the day after he arranged the death of the old chief of police. He doesn’t threaten David (not at this point, anyway) so…no, I still got nothing. He immediately realises he did the wrong thing, but surely he ought to have twigged to it before? Like, at the beginning, Forrester kills a criminal as part of an operation and then loudly screams at the TV reporters that he’s delighted the criminal is dead and a “New Order” of concerned citizens should rise up and take over. What?

There’s a weird join, as he leaves Alice with a cute puppy and goes off to find the truth. But before we get to that, spoilers. If you’re the sort of person who’s worried about spoilers for a 25 year old straight-to-video horror movie, that is. Anyway, he goes off to meet his parents to get some answers about his birth, and discovers that he’s the son of Cameron Vale, aka the star of the first movie; oh, and he has a sister who also wants to take down the Forrester / Morse group. Now, bear in mind there’s 10 years between the two movies and his sister, Julie, was played by a woman who was 38 at the time of filming…I’d say “maybe it was set in the future” but there’s a newspaper prominently displayed in one scene with the date on it.

So, Alice sort of drops out for most of the movie and Julie takes her place. But when it occasionally cuts back to Alice looking sad for her boyfriend, check out her apartment, an insanely luxurious, gigantic place, which is apparently well within the reach of a first year veterinary student in whatever city this is set in.

There’s a couple of head explosions which aren’t quite as good as part 1’s, but the special effects seem focused on the ability of scanners to twist other peoples’ bodies, and make them end up looking like the Elephant Man. They’re pretty good, and it’s obvious some decent money was spent here, but it’s still a bit…silly.

If you think about it, this is “Aggressive Staring: The Movie”. Because it has to have a crescendo like the original, you get a good scanner and a bad scanner facing off against each other, and they just stare as the camera spins about and some special effects are shown. But it’s still just staring.

Moving on the conclusion, which is again spoilers. Do you think the authorities would just let two ridiculously powerful psychics stroll away at the end without questioning them? Their activities were filmed by the assembled media, and the Chief of Police turning into a hideously deformed man right in front of their eyes while David is off in the corner staring really hard must have raised a few eyebrows. He has a “we just want to be left alone” speech, but is he directing it at Forrester or the cameras? The angle makes it difficult to tell.

Given the difficult circumstances in which Cronenberg made part 1, this feels much more unfinished, with a script that cries out for a rewrite. I watched it pretty closely, and I’ve got no idea why certain scenes played out the way they did – they certainly don’t make any sense as they’re presented. Ah well.

It’s technically fine, the effects are okay, it’s not boring, it’s just pointless and a little empty. Barely worth thinking about, certainly not worth tracking down. Let’s see if the remake of part 1, due out this year (apparently) gives us a good modern version of the story.

Rating: thumbs down

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