January 14, 2016 Scanners – Still Blowing Minds After 35 Years
Back on January 14th in 1981, Writer/Director David Cronenberg (Videodrome 1983, The Fly 1986) released Scanners, his follow-up film to 1979’s The Brood. Unleashed onto the unsuspecting masses of North America, the film starred Stephen Lack (Rubber Gun 1977, Dead Ringers 1988), Jennifer O’Neill (Rio Lobo 1970, Summer of ’42 1971), Patrick McGoohan (Dr. Syn/Alias The Scarecrow 1963, Escape From Alcatraz 1979), Lawrence Dane (Happy Birthday to Me 1981, Bride of Chucky 1998), and Michael Ironside (Top Gun 1986, Prom Night II 1987). With a budget of approximately $4.1 million (CAD), Scanners was shot in various parts of Quebec between the dates of October 30th and December 29th two years prior to it’s official release. Unfortunately the shoot was reportedly very chaotic and rushed due to the end of the fiscal year nearing for the film tax write-off. In fact, Cronenberg was not even completely done writing the script when shooting began and had to finish on the fly. Nonetheless, Scanners has become a classic Horror/Sci-Fi film fans continue to talk about thirty-five years later.
For a brief lesson in education, scanners are people with extraordinary telepathic powers; some use their powers for good, and some for evil. With that in mind, the film opens in a mall food court where a Cameron Vale (Lack), seemingly a homeless person, stumbles in, sits down at a table, and begins eating food someone had left behind to the disgust of two older women sitting at a nearby table. Under their breath, they begin making comments about him, but Cameron can hear them clearly and starts “scanning” them, which is sending a telepathic frequency into someone’s mind. The one woman begins convulsing on the floor. When Cameron leaves, he is pursued by two men through the mall, who shoot him with a tranquilizer dart and take him into custody. Cameron awakens in a bed, cleaned up and tied down in a makeshift safe haven. Dr. Paul Ruth (McGoohan) walks in and explains to him what a Scanner is and how Vale can use his power. Dr. Paul Ruth brings in a large group of people, and although they do not speak, Cameron can hear the cacophony of their thoughts and begins struggling. After a bit of time, Dr. Ruth administers a shot of Ephemerol, a drug that dulls the powers of Scanners.
At a company called Con Sec, there is a conference being put on by a Scanner (Luis Del Grande), who explains that he wants to scan every member in the room and asks for volunteers. After a moment, Darryl Revok (Ironside) raises his hand and sits next to the man at the table. The scan begins normally, but the Scanner starts to contort in anguish until his head literally explodes. Some men take Revok into custody, but he escapes using his scanning power to control other’s actions, causing the security detail to get in a deadly car accident and the survivors in the other shoot each other.
The next day at Con Sec, it is revealed that the company was openly working with Scanners, but after the catastrophe caused by Revok, a new security leader, Braedon Keller (Dane), is put into power and wants Dr. Ruth’s Scanner program shut down, but Dr. Ruth is convinced that Revok is an assassin that was planted. Also, there was a rather large group of Scanners that Con Sec was aware of, but that list has dwindled as Scanners have been disappearing. Dr. Ruth is convinced that Revok is the leader of a Scanner underground and proposes a plan to use Cameron to stop him.
Dr. Ruth puts Cameron through training which consists of him controlling a man’s heartbeat all the while Keller is watching the whole process. Cameron is shown an archive video of Revok, who, at the time, had just drilled a hole between his eyes and drew a third eye on the bandage and goes into a violent outburst. Cameron is understandably frightened by his current task, but reluctantly goes along with Dr. Ruth’s plan. Along his journey, Cameron meets another Scanner named Kim Obrist (O’Neill) and together they uncover a program called RIPE at a company called Biocarbon Amalgamate, who manufactures Ephemerol. Although, what is the RIPE program and are Cameron and Kim strong enough to take down Revok before he can execute his mad plans?
All of the characters showcased in Scanners are interesting and play very well by the cast. Stephen Lack is an artist and was not formally trained as an actor, so his somewhat dazed portrayal of Cameron Vale can be excused. On the other side of that coin, it is that same lack of experience that makes the character work because, he was basically thrust from the street into a whole new world of telepathic powers and good vs evil. Who would not be dazed by such a change? Patrick McGoohan’s Dr. Ruth was a sage-like Obi Wan type character who brought Cameron in and showed him how to use his powers all while imparting his years of wisdom. The beautiful Jennifer O’Neill’s Kim Obrist is visually striking on screen and a good counterpart to Cameron. The standout character, though, was Michael Ironside’s Darryl Revok, who was almost not even a main character. Ironside was initially brought in just for the black and white archive film that Dr. Ruth shows to Cameron, but he brought so much life to that character, that Cronenberg rewrote the part to be the main antagonist. His intensity is a stark contrast to the subdued nature of the other characters.
The special effects used in Scanners are still to this day nothing short of spectacular. This is evident from the opening iconic exploding head sequence at the beginning is known world-wide by every Horror fan, whether they have seen Scanners or not, they have seen that particular scene on some sort of list or compilation on YouTube. The funny thing is that it came about as a sort of desperation move. The crew was advised that the head explosion was not going to be the high point of the film, so the crew tried various ways to make it look realistic: they tried a plaster head, but it looked too unrealistic, they tried a pneumatic method, but the head just expanded like a balloon, and they were running out of options. In a last ditch effort, the wizard of the effects crew, Gary Zeller, decided to mount a shotgun down behind the head, and with a high pressure shell loaded with kosher salt. He pulled the trigger and made Horror history. Zeller is a chemist and created “Zel-Gel,” which is a shielding agent so an actor who is set on fire won’t get burned, which is still used today. The initial final battle between Revok and Vale was shot, but Cronenberg was not happy with the result, so he sent the footage and script to the legendary Dick Smith (FX: The Godfather 1972, The Exorcist 1973) for the re-shoots, where he used bladders for the first time on screen to get the vein effects.
Though Scanners grossed approximately $14.2 million in US currency, and well received by fans, it received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert gave Scanners two out of four stars and wrote, “Scanners is so lockstep that we are basically reduced to watching the special effects, which are good but curiously abstract, because we don’t much care about the people they’re happening around.” In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, “Had Mr. Cronenberg settled simply for Horror, as John Carpenter did in his classic Halloween (though not in his not-so-classic The Fog), Scanners might have been a Grand Guignol treat. Instead he insists on turning the film into a Mystery, and Mystery demands eventual explanations that, when they come in Scanners, underline the movie’s essential foolishness.” Despite that, it was the first Canadian film ever to be at the top of the Variety movie chart. Howard Shore’s (The Brood 1979, Videodrome 1983) score is a mix of electronic and orchestral and suits the quasi-futuristic goings on of the time. The sound effects of the Scanners tend to get under one’s skin; they start with a low warble, then crescendo to a high pitch sound.
With so much history involved, Scanners was David Cronenberg’s first full-on Science Fiction film not dealing with bodily or creature horror, and though the technology used in the film, pay phones, reel to reel computer systems etc, it still holds up to the test of time with its engaging story, wonderful special FX, and one hell of a villain. With that, the film’s tagline of 10 Seconds: The Pain Begins. 15 Seconds: You Can’t Breathe. 20 Seconds: You Explode. still shocks audiences thirty-five years later.