Friday, July 25, 2014

Scanners (Criterion Collection) : What Happens To This Psychic Will Blow Your Mind


According to our cynically calculated research of internet headlines, this guarantees people will come to this one in droves like lemmings...and now I wait.

In the meantime, I'll get started on discussing this release.

This is a bit of a different approach for release for me. I'd initially considered just doing a write-up on the movie Scanners all on its own. However, I've always liked  Criterion's releases and how they are made for a collector's market. The amount of effort put into their releases-both in terms of remastering and extras- is top notch.

So this isn't just a write-up on Scanners. We're looking at the whole package Criterion has put together for David Cronenberg's classic tale of telepaths and body horror: The movie, its extras, its layout, etc.

The Film

Before discussing this movie, I suppose we should get this moment out of the way. It's the scene everyone thinks of when discussing Scanners, so having a review without it just doesn't fly.

And oh yes, this contains some graphic content, so click at your own risk.

Yep. There it is. The famous exploding head scene.

Now for those who've not seen the movie before, some proper context:
Cronenberg's 1981 science fiction thriller concerns the rise of a particular type of people known as scanners – powerful psychics who at their most general can overhear thoughts in others, and with concentrated effort, can use their powers to harm, and even kill.

The film in particular centers around one scanner: Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) – a derelict with no understanding of his abilities, other than the fact that he can hear the thoughts of others without meaning it. After inadvertently using his powers to throw a woman into convulsions, he is picked up by the security organization ConSec. In their custody, he learns what he is and what he can do – as well as why he's been chosen by the company. Under the guidance of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan,) he is sent out to act as a spy and infiltrate what's believed to be an underground organization of scanners lead by rogue scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside.)

"and then, when Disney reboots The Muppets, they're going to hire someone else to direct and voice Miss Piggy."
(Yeah, I know it's not Frank Oz, but the resemblance still amuses me to this day.)

On paper, one can see a lot of storyline elements that one would recognize in other stories. Things like secret conspiracies to make superpeople, and said superpeople believing themselves to be the new master race are all pretty familiar territory. What makes this particular film stand out is how Cronenberg approaches the subject. His directing style- which by this point he had gotten the hang of and was now starting to hone- is a big part of what makes this film work as well as it does. Even more impressive given the problems filming and the knowledge that, like Videodrome after it, this was a movie that largely came together during production. Cronenberg is a director who developed a knack for thinking on his feet, and it's movies like this that really  show that. For one prominent example, Ironside was initially only cast for one scene. However, Cronenberg saw potential and  made him  the film's main antagonist. Besides his ability to improvise, this also contains two other distinctly Cronenberg elements, one of which will require another paragraph after this. The other of these being his own distinctive views on science fiction that are prevalent here. His view of how scanners would see themselves – particularly embodied in the organization lead by Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill) – is a view that carries some very strong transhumanist undertones, especially for a film of the era. This marks some of Cronenberg's more direct handling of the themes that he would also look at again in some of his later works (most notably Videodrome and, to a darker extent, his remake of The Fly.) The idea that Obrist and her followers see the potential in their abilities beyond the 'us vs them' embodied by ConSec vs Revok is a definite Cronenberg touch and not one that I can see many other filmmakers at the time would want to really explore much. For as standard as some of the plot can be, it also possesses an intelligent streak that's really helped it maintain its status over the years.

The other element, both as signature Cronenberg and this movie's legacy goes is (as the above video showed) body horror.With that fateful exploding head (Fun fact- that was initially intended to open the film before Cronenberg decided to recut some of the events) the movie's legacy was ensured. That single scene has so seared itself into the cultural conscious that even people who may have never heard of the movie would likely recognize that moment. This speaks well both to the scene itself as well as the effects employed therein. Between that sequence and the final showdown between Cameron and Revok, prosthetic specialist Dick Smith (best known for films like The Exorcist and Little Big Man) made some of the movie's most memorable moments. This is where I'll admit – as impressive as the exploding head is (and I do love the direction in the scene building up to it) I think the bigger effects coup goes to that final showdown. The tricks employed in watching the film's two leads attempt to psychically destroy one another as their bodies rupture and burn under the strain are still quite disturbing to this day. The most effective trick in this case being Smith's use of concealed rubber tubing designed to look like veins that swell and spray blood (which, according to some of the crew, was a bit of a happy accident.) Again, paired with Cronenberg's directing to ramp up the suspense and the two talents work beautifully together.

"...this thing's gonna start doing WHAT now?!"

Beyond the technical side, the movie is largely pretty solid. Cast-wise, Cronenberg has put together a good team. Lack's Vale is a little understated, but given the nature of his character – a man who has been living a life adrift- it fits the concept well. Meanwhile, in their supporting roles, McGoohan and O'Neill really help carry their weight in the movie – given the former's problems at the time, his ability to maintain that professionalism speaks well. And as the antagonist, Michael Ironside proves to be the high point, despite not having many scenes. What scenes he has he makes a strong impression with a blend of controlled intensity and, in his first scenes shown above, an eerily predatory air.

"Even with the killer psychics, this STILL beats life in The Village."

Finally, regular Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore proves why he's a good fit with the man's films with his score on this. A mix of eerie and atmospheric, it's well suited to the style Cronenberg is employing on this movie. In particular its main theme and the variation on it employed in the film's climax add to the memorable tunes Shore has made for Cronenberg over the years.

In all, Scanners has earned itself a pretty respectable place in Cronenberg's filmography. It's not as memorably out there as some of his other films, and admittedly the story isn't particularly inventive on paper. At the same time, its direction and execution more than make up for the shortcomings in the story's more standard approach. The result is an interesting take on the psychic superpowers theme – mixes of signs of a potential higher evolution also marked by the potential of a darker side that is distinctly Cronenberg.

That about covers the movie.

Now how well has Criterion done by it? Quite well, actually.

For starters, there's how the movie is treated. Once again, Criterion has done their best to do the movie  justice, providing a top notch remaster. As film cleanups go, this hasn't been their biggest challenge, but they've still done a great job restoring the picture and sound. Even when extras can be hit or miss, this is one area in which Criterion has fairly consistently delivered. There's a pretty solid selection of extras here. As in their previous two-disc treatment of Videodrome, this provides an interesting spread of 'then' and 'now' in terms of materials.

Past Material

Admittedly, with regards to the 'then' this one doesn't have quite as much as the prior release, but it's not without some interesting offerings. Besides some samples of the old theatrical teaser trailer and some radio spots (which, as mixed as I am on these in general, I have to admit are pretty good,) they also make two other great Cronenberg finds from back in the day. First of these, and the shorter, are excerpts from an interview Cronenberg did to promote the movie back in the day on a talk show for the CBC. This piece is technically not as focused on Scanners as it is on Cronenberg himself, but it's still worthwhile to hear him discussing some of his earlier works leading up to it, however briefly.

Which leads to a great acquisition by Critierion in general – a sample from Cronenberg's very early films, his 1969 feature Stereo. Besides being the same director, I can see part of why they included the movie on this release – while it goes in a different direction with the ideas, this movie features a lot of similar ground to Scanners. The film even invokes a particular piece of imagery that Cronenberg would later reuse in the character of Revok. On its own, it's a rather curious little experiment of film making: concerning an experiment at a Canadian academy in which several subjects agreed to have their telepathic abilities enhanced and their speech-making abilities diminished with the intent of enhancing their psychic abilities to communicate. With a premise like this – partly born out of Cronenberg not being able to record sound due to the noises the cameras he was using made – he's created a sort of variation on a silent film. Even devoid of music, it actually goes largely without any sound barring the occasional narration/commentary by unseen scientific authorities. The whole film is a sort of experimental pseudo-documentary, and one can see a lot of traces of later Cronenberg ideas being first tested out here.
It's a very different brand of film and potentially off-putting depending what you're expecting. If you're a fan of Cronenberg, it's worth giving a watch to see some of his first exercises in style. Personally, even though I liked it, I will also admit I may need to give it another watch or two before I can say I'll fully "get it."

and as fun facts go, this man would then go on to be in several of Cronenberg's other early films, including Shivers and Rabid.

Recent material

Probably the most interesting watch of these is a short feature called The Scanners Way – a twenty minute documentary exploring the effects of the movie. Even if you may not care for Cronenberg's stories, one would be hard-pressed to deny the man's films do some impressive things with visual effects and Scanners is no exception. In particular this focuses on the two signature effects employed by Dick Smith in the opening and the ending, with anecdotes that are equal parts informative and, at times, downright funny (the stories of how the exploding head technique was finally mastered are quite worth it. Let's just say a twelve-gauge shotgun is involved.)

We're also given two retrospectives from the movie's two leads. The Ephemerol Diaries is an interview with Stephen Lack that he gave on German television back in 2012. It's an interesting look at a man whose acting career has largely been on the fringes (and mostly with Cronenberg.) His experiences with the film are generally positive, even though he has said he doesn't feel like he was really cut out for acting. He still managed to work well with everyone all the same, and he also goes into why he chose to opt out of acting and focus on painting. I have to say, given how often a change like that usually comes with some horror stories, it was actually pretty refreshing to hear Lack's reasoning: he honestly didn't feel like he was suited for it and was just more comfortable with painting. It's rather light discussion, but makes for a nice look at the man since then as well as his experiences making the movie. Mental Saboteur, meanwhile, was an interview Michael Ironside gave the Criterion Collection just this year. Like Lack's interview, it's a good mix of memories of Scanners as well as just acting in general. It's actually a pretty interesting discussion with one of those actors most people recognize in various roles, even if they don't place him right away. For his part, and for a man who, in this film, plays a ruthless megalomaniac, it's kind of amusing to see the actor years later – a friendly, outgoing man who genuinely loves what he does, and still feels very strongly for both Scanners and Cronenberg himself.

and Lack's interview also provides probably one of the best behind the scenes images of the whole set right here.

Finally, the printed essay by Kim Newman makes for an interesting read about the movie's legacy and why it has endured. Starting from the already referenced exploding head and its role in pop culture, Newman expands to discuss why the movie is so much more than just that and why it's more important than first glimpses would initially suggest. It's the kind of passion for these titles that is part of what I love in the Criterion Collection.


This is a well put together set. It's less busy than the earlier Videodrome release (this isn't a bad thing, by the way - I loved the Videodrome set,) and the simplicity works. Both the cover art of the disc and the menus feature some wonderfully creepy artwork by Connor Willumsen. The crowning part of this art being rather nightmarish depictions of Cameron and Revok, their faces contorted in psychic fury and anguish. The front cover upping the nightmare element of it, feature a mix of both their faces in a sort of checkered pattern.

Another great sampling from the case art.

Any issues?

I only had one issue with this release, and it may have even just been a fault on my end. while watching the supplemental disc on my laptop, there were points where I would have to reboot the media player at the end of certain extras because the player would just hang rather than move back to the menu.
But, again, that may have just been on my end from watching it on a computer, and even then, it's really not enough to be considered a dealbreaker.

All in all, Criterion has delivered again on this one. They'd been hinting at acquiring this movie since last year and I've been looking at each announcement waiting for it. Now that it's out, I can honestly say this one was worth the wait: a great remaster paired with an informative batch of extras that do a great job fleshing out this classic.

...okay, I feel kind of bad about that accidental pun.
...not really.

Till next time.

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