Review: Scanners / Cert: 18 / Director: David Cronenberg / Screenplay: David Cronenberg / Starring: Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside, Jennifer O'Neill / Release Date: Out Now
Much talked about at the time, Scanners (1981) was Cronenberg's move into the mainstream and out of the low-budget shocker genre that had so far served him so well. It was also his contribution to the cycle of psi thrillers that began with Carrie (1976), but, as you would expect with Cronenberg, there is a twist. Here the telepaths, or “scanners”, are a man-made phenomenon, the result of a mutation-inducing antenatal painkiller. They're monsters not of the supernatural but of science.
One such telepath is Cameron Vale (Lack) – a crusty hobo driven half-mad by his ability to read thoughts until he is taken under the wing of Dr Ruth (McGoohan), who doses up with a drug called Ephemerol and teaches how to control his powers. Ruth is running a research programme into scanners for ConSec, a large pharmaceutical company, but it is under siege from the murderous “scanner underground”, and Vale soon finds himself a key player in the battle.
The whole thing is presented in Cronenberg's trademark early manner, with chilly visuals (ugly brutalist architecture, gloomy winter weather, neutral-toned outfits) and flat performances (the astonishingly monotone Lack and the fey Jennifer O'Neill). But it's also galvanized with some truly iconic moments, such as the literally eye-popping scene where Darryl Revok (Ironside), the scanner underground's messianic leader, makes his presence felt at a dull seminar. And then there's that final, climactic duel. Even today, it stands up as a triumph of SFX, but it's much more than that – enigmatic (what exactly is going on?), beautiful, part battle to the death, part sublime coming-together.
Less convincing, though, are the linking sequences, bits where the movie slumps to the level of your average thriller, delivering humdrum corruption subplots, sluggish car chases and lethargic gunplay (and by the way, why do scanners need gats?). And Lack really is a constantly jarring presence. True, he gives off a weird, born-yesterday vibe which suits the near-alien Cameron Vale, but apart from that it's hard to know what Cronenberg saw in him.
Still, uncomfortable melange though it is, Scanners remains one of the most intelligent and provocative psi-fi movies around, and it's a powerful commentary on a post-war epoch which thought pharmaceutics was science's brave new world and a pill would be the answer to everything. Although it's never going to win any beauty contests, Second Sight have done a marvellous job of cleaning up the print for this HD release, which comes with a brace of fascinating interviews including one with Mark Irwin, Cronenerg's cinematographer throughout what was arguably his most fertile and inventive period. Also out on Blu-ray are the two trashy but fun direct-to-video sequels.
Extras: Interviews with star Stephen Lack, cinematographer Mark Irwin, executive producer Pierre David, makeup effects artist Stephen Dupuis and actor Lawrence Dane