Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jennifer O'Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Michael Ironside
Written by: David Cronenberg
Directed by: David Cronenberg
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 103
Date: 01/14/1981

Scanners (1981)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Heads Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Everyone remembers it for that cool exploding head, but David Cronenberg's Scanners (1981) is an early masterpiece that showed the filmmaker beginning to explore the connection between the human body and its environment.

Homeless and lost, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) stumbles into a shopping mall and accidentally sends a lady into a seizure just by looking at her. Some men in suits go after him and he wakes up in a lab with Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan). Ruth explains that Vale is a "scanner," a kind of mutant that can either read or destroy a person's mind. Ruth gives him a drug called Ephemerol that helps quiet the voices in his head. He says that an evil scanner called Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is trying to build a scanner army and must be stopped. He enlists Vale as a kind of spy to help find Revok and stop him. Vale is eventually aided by a pretty scanner named Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill).

Cronenberg had already perfected his clinical style, curious and unaffected, taking the genre seriously. He's not interested in jump-shocks or squirming and giggling, but in spooky ideas. He prefers clean frames, simple spaces, especially industrial ones such as hallways or interrogation rooms. He's interested in the things that humans make, whether it pertains to a living space, or the human body itself.

The movie still has a few startling visual effects, notably the head, but also during a climactic battle scene when veins seem to enlarge and burst under the combatants' skin. A scene in which Vale scans a computer system, and then causes explosions in the computer lab, and also through a phone line, will have modern-day computer nerds groaning, but at least it was a decent idea back in 1981.

For me, Cronenberg was a director who started out great and keeps getting better. Each film is a totally satisfying experience, but also draws a much larger picture in context. Scanners is enjoyable as a low-budget, early horror film, and it has some nostalgic value. It's more purely entertaining; it's not as complex as some of Cronenberg's more recent films. Yet it's absolutely brilliant, and still quite shocking.

MGM released a simple DVD back in 2001, but in 2014, the Criterion Collection brought their "A" game. Their release comes with two DVDs and a crisp new Blu-ray transfer, supervised by Cronenberg, with an uncompressed monaural soundtrack and optional subtitles. The set includes Cronenberg's very first feature film, Stereo (1969), a new documentary on the visual effects, new interviews with the actors, and an old television interview with Cronenberg. There's also a trailer and radio ads, which made me nostalgic for the simpler days of horror. The liner notes booklet comes with an essay by critic Kim Newman.

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