Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Stars: Jennifer O’Neill (Kim Obrist), Stephen Lack (Cameron Vale), Patrick McGoohan (Dr. Paul Ruth), Lawrence Dane (Braedon Keller), Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok), Robert Silverman (Benjamin Pierce), Lee Broker (Security One), Mavor Moore (Trevellyan), Adam Ludwig (Arno Crostic), Murray Cruchley (Programmer 1), Fred Doederlein (Dieter Tautz)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1981
Country: Canada
Scanners Criterion Collection Blu-ray
ScannersScanners, David Cronenberg’s fifth commercial feature film, was the genre auteur’s breakthrough in the United States. The visceral nature of his films—particularly Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979)—had already confirmed his notoriety in his native Canada, where he was nicknamed the “Baron of Blood” (at the time, he was a rare Canadian filmmaker to work in the horror genre). And, while all of those films had been distributed in the States, they had been marketed as B-movie schlock, with sensationalist advertising campaigns that focused primarily on their gore and shock value while paying scant attention to their philosophical and political undertones. Given that the signature moment in Scanners is a man’s head exploding in slow motion, it is little surprise that it was marketed in much the same way, although the film’s science fiction genre and less immediately repulsive subject matter made it more attractive to a mainstream audience, which allowed it to climb briefly to the top of the box-office charts.

The film’s protagonist is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), who we first meet as a vagrant wandering through a gaudy shopping mall looking for leftovers in the food court. It turns out that he is a “scanner,” one of a small group of genetically mutated people who are able to read other people’s thoughts and, when focused, use their telekinetic abilities to inflict pain and physical violence. He falls into the hands of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who works for ConSec, a massive technology and weapons manufacturer. While Dr. Ruth, with his Freudian beard, shifty eyes, and low, menacing voice would seem to be the villain, he is actually recruiting Cameron to infiltrate a group of renegade scanners led by the vicious Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), who is intent on creating a new world order led by himself. Cameron’s mission brings him into contact with another group of scanners led by Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), who is dedicated to fighting Revok’s plans, which puts Cameron in the literal and telekinetic crossfire.

The ideas in Scanners were actually quite old, deriving from one of Cronenberg’s student features (1969’s Stereo), a futuristic script he had written called Telepathy 2000 that had briefly interested Roger Corman in the early ’70s, and a script called The Sensitives that he had set aside in order to make The Brood. The motivation for the film’s production was primarily fiscal, set into motion at the last minute to take advantage of Canada’s tax-shelter laws, which meant that Cronenberg had minimal pre-production time and had to start principal photography without a finished script. That lack of preparation isn’t nearly as evident in the finished product as you might imagine, although the flow of the story isn’t always smooth, leaping from incident to incident with only the thinnest of connective tissue, and the acting is decidedly uneven. This is particularly true of Stephen Lack, a gifted visual artist and fixture of the Montreal art scene who had written and starred in several underground movies in the mid-’70s. An experimental artist by nature, he was clearly not comfortable with the requirements of straight acting, and many of his lines are notably flat, which takes some of the air out of what should be high dramatic moments.

Nevertheless, even with these weaknesses, Scanners is an intriguing and (by Cronenberg’s standards, at least) fun movie. It is certainly one of his most action-oriented, as it is punctuated regularly with shootouts, car chases, and telekinetic fisticuffs. And, while Lack is something of a dud as a protagonist, Cronenberg found in Michael Ironside an imminently memorable villain. Ironside plays up Revok’s mystery and menace, and when he finally gets to unleash in the final act, he puts that signature gravelly baritone to fantastic use, conveying his character’s relentless thirst for power and deeply ingrained bitterness in one thick, coiling burst of rage.

The infamous exploding head aside, Scanners is not nearly the kind of visceral gross-out that viewers had come to expect from Cronenberg, even as it builds on and expands the themes and ideas from his previous films, particularly the breakdown in the Cartesian mind-body split (here, thoughts can truly kill) and a fascination with cults and underground movements. Scanners is arguably his most political film to date, dealing as it does with nation-state militarism and the struggle to maintain control over powerful individuals who would have it otherwise. The film climaxes with a memorably protracted telekinetic battle between Cameron and Revok that draws much of its effectiveness from Cronenberg’s ability to conflate interiors and exteriors. Thus, their mind-power sparring takes on the grisly physical manifestation of popping veins and spurting blood, courtesy of make-up effects maestro Dick Smith (The Exorcist), who was brought in late to the production when they decided to reshoot the ending. Given the problems and struggles that plagued its production, it is not surprising that Scanners is not on par with Cronenberg’s best work, but it still works on its own merit and is notable for giving the Baron of Blood a foothold in Hollywood, where he has grown over the past three and a half decades into one of the most provocative and challenging of filmmakers.

Scanners Criterion Collection Blu-ray / DVD Combo Set

Aspect Ratio1.78:1
  • English Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • “The Scanners Way,” a new documentary
  • “Mental Saboteur,” a new interview with actor Michael Ironside
  • “The Ephemerol Diaries,” a 2012 interview with actor and artist Stephen Lack
  • Excerpt from a 1981 interview with Cronenberg on the CBC’s The Bob McLean Show
  • New, restored 2K digital transfer of Stereo (1969), Cronenberg’s first feature film
  • Trailer and radio spots
  • Essay by critic Kim Newman
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateJuly 15, 2014

    Criterion’s new high-definition presentation of Scanners far surpasses the previously available DVD from MGM. The transfer, which was supervised by writer/director David Cronenberg, was made from a 35mm interpositive, and digitally restored. The image looks excellent throughout, with good contrast, detail, and color, although the overall presentation is a bit darker and more subdued than you might expect (the overall palette leans toward the bluish, which feels right given the cold, clinical nature of its sci-fi subject matter). It certainly has that slightly flat early-’80s look to it, but that is precisely what we should expect. The original monaural soundtrack was mastered at 24-bit from the 35mm Dialogue/Music/Effects magnetic track and digitally restored to remove any aural hiss or artifacts, leaving a clean, well-balanced track. Howard Shore’s appropriately bombastic score, which alternates between classical orchestrations and electronic music, sounds great.
    Criterion offers some useful and entertaining contextualization to the film with their supplements, starting with “The Scanners Way”, a new 23-minute documentary about the film’s production, with special attention paid to the various special effects (who knew that realistically blowing up a prosthetic head would be so difficult?). It features interviews with cinematographer Mark Irwin, make-up effects designer Chris Walas, and pyrotechnics designer Gary Zeller. There are also two new video interviews, one with actor Michael Ironside and one with actor Stephen Lack (Ironside’s interview was recorded for the Criterion disc, while Lack’s was recorded for a German disc in 2012). There is also a trailer and several radio spots, as well as 10 minutes of excerpts from a 1981 interview with Cronenberg on the CBC’s The Bob McLean Show, which provides a nice overview of Cronenberg’s career up until that point. It is also quite entertaining to watching McLean trying to summarize the director’s grisly early films while not describing their phallic and fecal creatures. Another major supplement is the inclusion of Stereo (1969), Cronenberg’s first feature film. And, while this has been available for some time (Blue Underground released it on their DVD special edition of Fast Company back in 2004), Criterion gives us a newly restored 2K digital transfer that looks exponentially better than previous versions (the transfer was made from a 35mm composite fine-grain print).

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    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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