Starburst No. 33, Volume 3, Number 9,  p. 24-27


A review of the latest science fiction based horror movie from Canadaīs David Cronenberg by John Brosnan

David Cronenberg Scanners

David Cronenbergīs The Brood was one of the most original and interesting movies of 1980. It worked not only as a horror movie but said more about parent/child relationships, and more honestly, than that other 1980 movie about a father fighting with his ex-wife over the possession of their child, Kramer vs. Kramer. (Of course it was the schmaltzy latter film that reaped all the praise and attention while The Brood, because it was a genre film, was automatically dismissed.)

The Brood confirmed David Cronenberg as one of the film industryīs  most exciting and innovative new talents, going further to fulfill the promise he showed in Shivers (They Came From Within) and Rabid, and naturally led one to have high hopes for his first big budget movie Scanners.

 Unfortunately, Scanners is something of a disappointment. Itīs not a failure by any means and there is much to enjoy in it but after The Brood, itīs a definite let-down.

First of all, for the benefit of the science fiction readers out there, let me say that Scanners has nothing to do with either Cordwainer Smithīs classic 1950 short story Scanners Live in Vain or Philip K. Dickīs 1977 novel A Scanner Darkly. Instead it has more in common with George Palīs 1968 movie The Power both in theme and in plot construction.

Both films begin with a super-mind revealing its existence during an ESP demonstration (in The Power the manifestation is merely a piece of paper twirled on a pin while in Scanners itīs a head exploding) followed by a middle section where the renegade super-mind eliminates his enemies one by one and climaxing with a telekinetic duel between the two protagonists (the battle in The Power was fairly spectacular, ending with the hero, George Hamilton, mentally stopping the villainīs, Michael Rennie, heart but Scanners far outdoes it, at least in terms of graphic horror if not in visual imagination.

Itīs this lack of real originality thatīs most disappointing about Scanners. The theme of telekinesis,  and related mental powers, has been used a lot recently, in films like Carrie, The Medusa Touch and The Fury, but Cronenberg doesnīt do anaything new with the idea or take in as yet unexploited areas as one expected he would. There is nothing in Scanners that we havenīt already seen in The Fury and I must admit that of the two I prefer the De Palma film (for  all his talents Cronenberg canīt compare to De Palma as a pure film maker).

In many ways Scanners doesnīt resemble a typical Cronenberg movie because its emphasis is mainly on action and pyrotechnics instead of the usual Cronenberg territory of bizarre psychological and physiological manifestations. There is really only one section in the film that can be described as vintage Cronenberg and thatīs  the one dealing with the mentally tortured scanner, Pierce (Robert Silverman, who also appeared in The Brood). Pierce copes with the telepathic agonies by producing sculptures of a grotesque and profoundly disturbing nature, the most impressive of which is a giant hollow head into which he can retreat - the perfect visual metaphor for his state of mind.

The other Cronenberg ingredient thatīs missing from Scanners is sex - or rather Cronenbergīs usual rather highly individual interpretation of the nature of sexuality, and one that is invariably tinged with self-loathing and physical disgust. It has been a powerful underlying theme in all of his films since his avant garde productions, made when he was a student, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, and its absence in Scanners is noticeable.

The picture is flawed in other ways. The overall construction of the screenplay is slipshod and there are several clumsy lapses. Apparently this is partly because Cronenberg had to start shooting, for various financial reasons, before he had even finished the screenplay. "There was a time," he said, "when no one knew what was going on. Times when everyone went to lunch and I wrote the scene that was comingup." That may explain why the narrative flow is far from smooth and why pieces of the story seem to have been left out completely but it doesnīt explain lapses like the fact that the scanners, who are unable to block the unwanted thoughts from other people unless they take a special drug, are always being caught unaware by people sneaking up on them (I lost count of the times the scanner hero was surprised by the villainīs  gunmen).

But the biggest flaw of all is the aptly named person who plays the lead, Stephen Lack. Lackīs lack of acting talent seriously damages the film and the flat reading of some of his lines, particulary in the crucial sequence when he and the villain finally confront each other, provoked laughter from the audience when I saw it. Apparently Cronenberg cast him on the strength of his unsual eyes (and they are unusual - they seem to point in two different directions) which seems a silly thing to do. But then the Bond producers cast George Lazenby as James Bond on the way he walked ...

Everyone else in the cast is good, especially Michael Ironside as the villain Revok who looks a bit like Jack Nicholson and suggests the same manic energy just below the surface. Also good to see Patrick McGoohan again, though his character, Dr Ruth, is simply thrown away towards the end of the movie (another of the screenplayīs many faults).

But for all its flaws Scanners is certainly worth seing. The plot-thread connecting the set-pieces may be tangled, if not completely severed at times, but the set-pieces themselves give value for money. Thereīs the nail-biting exploding head sequence near the start (trimmed before the release of the film - a shor of the decapitated body slumping forward after the explosion has now gone); the battle in the sculptorīs studio between the scanner protagonist and the villainīs gunmen; the car chase during which the side of an innocent-looking panel van suddenly opens up like a Man-o-War sailing vessel to unleash a broadside of deadly automatic gufire; the sequence where the hero mentally infiltrates, via a telephone, a computer system (unfortunately the interior resembles a 1930s wireless set) and sparks off a telekinetic holocaust when the computer operators attempt to trap him by shutting down the computer; and, of course, the mental duel at the climax of the movie where make-up expert Dick Smith achieves some really gruesome effects with bulging veins and bursting eyeballs (I heard that someone fainted during this sequence at the screening I attended).

Not destined to be a classic, nor even the best Cronenberg so far, Scanners is nonetheless an entertaining and often exciting horror-thriller. One just hopes that with his next production Cronenberg will return to his more unique and individual style of film making rather than simply remake what has gone before.