Scanners (1981)

My recollection of this film is hazy, though I know I watched it on a Sunday immediately after church (yes, really–back when I used to attend as a youth) and kept falling asleep over and over throughout. As such, my retrospective remembrance was that the film was slow an intolerably boring. Still, it’s a David Cronenberg film and my viewing experience of most things has changed a lot since the time I first watched this, and I wanted to see it with more refined and generally different eyes as I have now. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also now know Patrick McGoohan is “that guy from The Prisoner” and a bit more about him in general. Previously, the always just-a-touch-hammy Michael Ironside was my only visual connection to prior film experience–and there it was a drawback to my love for Starship Troopers (if you look at a large list of my favourite films or the ones I review well, this may cause your head to explode,* but it’s true–it’s the first movie I ever owned on DVD).

A vagrant man (Stephen Lack) wanders into a mall food court and sits to eat food left at one of the tables. Two men look at him with disgust, while one begins to mentally comment on how it’s awful he’s even allowed in. The man is struck with a paralytic look, filled with tremors as he stares at the critical woman, who begins to choke and then convulse. Clearly attempting to tear himself away, he finally succeeds as she hits a full-fledged convulsive seizure. Two men see him leave and begin to follow, finally shooting a feathered tranquilizer dart into him. He comes to tied to a bed, a bearded man (McGoohan) standing over him and asking for a group of fifty people to enter and sit in the chairs surrounding his bed. The man struggles violently, clearly disturbed by these presences, represented by endless overlapping murmuring in multiple languages at various volumes. The bearded man, Dr. Paul Ruth, introduces himself as a psychopharmacist as he injects the struggling telepath with a drug. He calls the drug ephemerol and tells the vagrant, Cameron Vale, that his vagrancy and distaste for other people–sourced in their constant mental babbling–comes from his telepathy, which makes him what is called a scanner. Ruth works for ConSec, a security firm interested in using scanners for espionage and similar purposes. At a demonstration of their powers, a volunteer (Ironside) accepts a request to be scanned by their demonstrator. The demonstrator quickly finds himself surprised and fighting as the volunteer grimaces back at him, leading to a sudden assassination. The volunteer escapes quickly, even five armed guards are no match for a scanner. This man is Darryl Revok, a long-time scanner who is slowly assassinating anyone associated with Ruth and ConSec. ConSec’s Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane) attempts to shut down the scanner research, but is himself shutdown by Ruth, who suggests the assassination was a clear attack by Revok on ConSec. Vale is sent out to infiltrate the scanner underground that Revok represents, and finds himself followed by violence and murder wherever he sets foot, all in the service of slowly discovering just what Revok plans to do, after finding there are indeed other scanner elements, like a peaceful group led by Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill).

I was surprised by my second viewing (perhaps third, I can’t be completely sure, but I know I only tried to watch it once before) as I actually really liked the film. What previously felt slow was now clearly a redhot, boiling intensity kept definitely below the surface and outside of the action in most scenes. This only makes sense, of course, because the greatest power in the film is purely internal. Cronenberg easily represents it, most famously with the physiological responses to scanning, but often with distinct shots and emphases that successfully create tension around psychic powers without settling for the more simplistic telekinesis or optical/CGI visual representation of them. Even moments where the voices of the scanner and scanned are not being heard are successful, though this is often thanks to a Howard Shore that is typical of his earlier, more peculiar work. It’s something like a combination of a horror film and a 1950s sci-fi film, with just a touch of the avant garde or crazy (closer, then, to his work with Saturday Night, and resembling, in some ways, things like the early work of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo), rising with the increased use of any scanner’s powers and climaxing with a sound that is just shy of ear-piercing to achieve that right element of teeth-on-edge tension and emapthy with the physical and mental pain involved.

What is easily, commonly and rightfully criticized, though, is the casting of Stephen Lack, an unfortunately named soul that apparently even Cronenberg regrets casting. I’m still tempted, despite the ease, to make a joke about lacking, because Stephen does just that: he lacks charisma, character and emotion, as a flat, banal performance with a flat, banal look and a flat, banal voice. He’s stunningly unspectacular and unnoticeable in some respects. It’s been suggested (and I had guessed this myself as I was watching the film) that Cronenberg cast him for his eyes. This is the one thing that can be said for Lack’s otherwise generic face: he has bright and wide but piercing eyes that seem to fit the image one would expect of a scanner, and he’s actually quite good at acting out the use of his powers. The mix of confusion, lack of control and alien fascination that even Obrist suggests Vale has (calling him “barely human”) are utterly appropriate to the character and a sad mirror for the abysmal performance outside them. Most voices sound a bit off in terms of recording location, but only Lack sounds as if he was completely dubbed in ADR (whether by himself or someone else is neither noticeable nor important).

On the flipside (with Ironside’s always slightly hammy and clumsy intensity somewhere in the middle) is the reserved McGoohan, who is clearly filled to the brim, much like the film, with emotion and response to it and response to events, but who refuses to show any of it by virtue of his nature. He’s quiet and calm, but speaks with great force and intelligence whenever he does, always with a dark look about him, slightly harrowed and even worried, but always too strong for the worry to be apparent. McGoohan is an absolute professional in this role and it’s quite stunning to find him here with Lack across from him. He even works in the unnecessary but interesting note of what seems to be the ghost of a continental European accent (sounding likely German), though I suppose this may be natural at this point for him, it is never overbearing or goofy and only slides in here and there as an actual one does when buried by a more recent (or more native) accent like McGoohan’s own English one.

This is actually up to snuff as Cronenberg films go in terms of plotting, effects (many under the hand of the great Dick Smith, whose innovations are still common today, and his students work is the kind I love best–like Rick Baker), score (that strange off-kilter, occasionally atonal Shore score really is very good) and writing. It’s only let down by Lack, and that’s something easily overcome and, as some have noticed, even possibly explained by the plot itself, or at least the characters in it. Obrist’s description of him almost reframes his performance and makes it at least one that is recognizable to the characters in the film, re-integrating it to the story. It’s not something that perfectly succeeds or erases the flaws and shortcomings of a pretty bad performance, but it at least gels the film into its own consistency that can hold its head above it.

Oh, and who can forget those brilliantly disturbed and insane sculptures made by Benjamin Pierce (Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman)? Undoubtedly the work of longtime collaborator Carol Spier’s art design–though credit should go to sculptors Peter Borowski, Tom Coulter and Peter Dowker, too, I’m sure!

*Sorry, I couldn’t help it.

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