David Cronenberg made six movies before Scanners, and it felt like all of them were a precursor to a great coming out. Critics were shocked with what he put onscreen. Nobody knew what to make of it. They only knew that they were seeing something strange and disturbing, something that resembled nothing else in movie history. They were disgusted by the groundbreaking visual effects, and disturbed by the paranoid fantasy lying beneath them. But the film became a big hit and with it, the career of one of cinema’s most distinctive auteurs had well and truly begun. The new Criterion Blu-ray edition is everything any fan could possibly hope for. Hit the jump for my full Scanners Criterion Collection Blu-ray review.
One look at the profoundly unsettling artwork on the cover gives laymen a good idea of what awaits inside. Similar images can be found on the Blu-ray box itself, leaving no doubt as to what gruesome beauty the film carries. The story concerns a secret war between nascent telepaths or “scanners,” created by accident with an experimental drug used on pregnant women. They have the ability to “scan” other people: reading their thoughts and inflicting violent neurological harm should they wish. The bulk of the film focuses on one particularly powerful scanner named Vale (Stephen Lack), living as a vagrant before being abducted and recruited by one side in this secret war. They hope to use him to stop their biggest adversary Revok (Michael Ironside) from destroying anyone who opposes him.
Cronenberg unfurls the specifics with his usual clinical detachment, trusting the great Patrick McGoohan to handle the exposition as Vale’s sympathetic contact. The minutia of the scenario can seem obtuse at times, but none of it comes without a purpose and the director’s intense, unrelenting style cloaks it all in an air of fascination. He refuses to settle for comic-book pulp, instead investing Scanners with a self-seriousness that suppresses the theoretically ridiculous moments. His leads reflect that detachment, with Lack viewing this world like insects through a microscope and Ironside delivering one of his most memorably over-the-top performances in a career full of them.
But the real draw of Scanners is the visual effects, created by the late, great Dick Smith and on par with anything he’s ever done. They lack the subtlety and pedigree of his other work, but this is not a subtle movie, and his uniquely horrifying creations become a selling point in and of themselves. The scene where Ironside causes an unsuspecting scanner’s head to explode remains one of the greatest Grand Guignol moments in movie history, as unforgettably brutal today as it was when it first released. Thanks to Cronenberg’s steady hand, the money shots punctuate the narrative rather than overwhelming it, providing bursts of shock and awe to convey the stakes involved.
Horror fans will likely find it irresistible, and its success put Cronenberg on the map for good. He responded with the even more bizarre Videodrome before (comparatively) returning to earth with The Dead Zone and The Fly, but the spirit of Scanners never entirely departed from his canon. Cinema is a better place for it, thanks to the director’s unparalleled elegance and an intellectual rigor that more horror films could benefit from. Cronenberg reminded us that even the grindhouse could aspire to art, and while Scanners will never win over the more squeamish among its viewers, horror fans know a gem when they see one.
And of course, there’s no better way to enjoy it than through the Criterion Collection. The video quality betrays a little graininess, but also a lot of depth, while the sound quality benefits from a simple and straightforward master. The real goods are in the extra features, which includes a second full-length film: Cronenberg’s feature debut Stereo which explores similar themes. The disc also contains a brilliant look at the film’s special effects, with Rick Baker joining many of the film’s crew; a pair of new interviews with Ironside and Lang (Ironside’s is not to be missed); the original trailer and radio ads; and a rare interview with Cronenberg from the CBC’s Bob McLean Show. The accompanying booklet includes an essay on the film from the always insightful critic Kim Newman. It’s an irresistible package and an ideal way to experience a film as unique as this one.