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Scanners (1981)

by on 2012/08/06

“My art. My art keeps me sane. My art. Sane.”

* * *

Rarely have I heard so much and often about a title while simultaneously retaining so little. When I wasn’t confusing the B-movie Scanners with the later B-movie Screamers, I only knew it involved a head exploding.

As far as that bit of foreshadowing goes, I was given reasonable warning, for somebody’s head does indeed explode . . . and how. Also two others’ skulls appear to boil, and one of them peels his own face off.

Still interested?

These shocking — yet unrepresentative — scenes are rare islands in a decent sci-fi adventure. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, it stars Michael Ironside (Starship Troopers, Total Recall), Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan (Danger Man, The Prisoner), Jennifer O’Neill, and a cameo by Louis Del Grande (Seeing Things). Together, they create a reality similar to our own, but with “telepathic curiosities known as scanners”.

The byproduct of 1940s drug tests, a small number of these paranormals navigate the mainstream population. Some of them join a well-intentioned group of refugees managed by Kim Obrist (O’Neill). Some are enlisted or killed by the evil Darryl Revok (Ironside). Protagonist Cameron Vale (Lack) is instead recruited by Dr. Paul Ruth (McGoohan), who trains him to use his powers . . . but for what exact purpose?

I don’t want give away all of the various twists and turns. I will however cut to the chase with the issues which plagued me throughout. Why exactly would Vale have stayed in a city like Montreal or Toronto? If the “sound” of others’ thoughts drove him crazy, then why not get out of town? In a related vein, why don’t the scanners seem to know when they have or haven’t killed someone? Shouldn’t they sense their victims’ absence or presence?

And, I’m sorry, but . . . scanning computers because an electronic infrastructure constitutes a nervous system? No. Just no.

But when lines caught fire, phones began melting, and their booths spontaneously combusted, I realized we had suddenly crossed a line of expectations. Nowadays, we’re spoiled for quality, even in “genre” pictures, and I didn’t expect this psychic thriller to go all Strange Brew on me. Still, aside from the smallest handful of lapses, I found it engaging and solid.

Perhaps I was helped along by the vintage Canadian mise-en-scene, the malls, the food courts, the TTC subways . . . I was reminded of The Silent Partner.

I was also rather taken with the sound design, which subbed for any shortfall in the visuals. What seemed at first to be out-of-synch audio put us in the place of a telepath. Disembodied voices are layered and processed through an echoing liquid effect. “Normal” thoughts are treated in a familiar, fluttering manner. Scanners have a different, menacing tone, a growling or low-volume shouting.

Similarly innovative, especially for the era, the music by Howard Shore blends outright electronics with more traditional orchestral sounds. Despite certain aspects grating — the brass instruments, for example — the overall ambience formed a satisfying backdrop. Then every time I noticed the score had swelled to a ghastly crescendo, it was already too late to escape the imminent shock.

For shocking it is . . . admittedly gory at points, but not quite the slasher flick I had expected. That conclusion may be a matter of opinion, however. Gru sat beside me for some of the screening and ultimately declared: “It’s a yucky movie for yucky people, just gross.” Personally I felt Scanners was more of a low-budget, action-packed mystery, set in a world like that of Marvel’s X-Men.

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Rated R

103 minutes

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