US Blu-ray Review: Scanners (1981, Dir, David Cronenberg)

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This is certainly a memory movie, but what memories I do have are vague and out of order. Not often do I have that problem with one of these films. The first that comes to mind is remembering when it was on TV this one time. I was in the family room, I had the TV on, but I can’t recall if I was in high school or had already graduated. I remembering thinking, “Scanners?! Maybe, I should tape this.” Then deciding not to because it was airing on TV and it would be severely edited.

The other out of place memory I have goes back to grade school, seventh or eighth grade. I had this English teacher by the name of Mr. Urban (I think his first name was Carl). I loved English and this teacher because he was into science fiction. There was bulletin board he had up and I remember seeing the newspaper ads for Scanners and then Videodrome (1983) pinned to it. This was long before I had ever seen them, and the imagery was so weird I couldn’t help but stare at them whenever I was in his classroom.

And, finally, I have a vague recollection of seeing it on cable in the living room, late one night, and thinking, “So that’s what this movie looks like with all the gore put in.”

I believe this was David Cronenberg’s fifth theatrical film, coming in behind 1979’s The Brood. It deals with psychic individuals called scanners. These scanners are telepathic, telekinetic and in a couple of instances even exhibit pyrokinetic abilities, but aside from some of these more easily classifiable abilities they have others that aren’t so. The ability to psychically merge with a computer system is one of them; another is being able to affect certain autonomic functions of the human body like speeding up or slowing down someone’s heartbeat. They can also cause actual damage to a person’s brain with side effects ranging from convulsions to unconsciousness. The ability to cause death with their abilities is also within their grasp, and the side effects of one of these lethal scans are quite explosive (i.e. full cranial explosion, full explosion of ocular organs, conflagration of flesh, melting of flesh, and the severe to obscene swelling of veins).

It’s not clear in the movie how much the public knows about scanners, but make no mistake they are aware of them, and to further educate the masses a corporation called, ConSec, decides to hold a press conference to show how unafraid we should all be of them.

A demonstration by a scanner commences, a volunteer is needed, and a guy raises his hand that looks an awful lot like actor Michael Ironside. Holy shit, it is Michael Ironside. He’s playing, Darryl Revok, the psychopathic leader of an underground Scanner community, and he has just infiltrated this press conference. Objective: on one level to graphically kill ConSec’s demonstration scanner in front of everyone, on another. I assume, to show the public that a “new storm is coming.”

Enter ConSec’s head of Scanner Division, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick MaGoohan). To combat Revok, who is clearly one all-powerful scanner, he seeks out a transient with equally powerful scanning abilities named, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), whom he helps by injecting him with a drug called, ephemerol, to quiet the uncontrollable psychic thoughts he receives from anyone in his vicinity. He then trains Vale to focus his abilities and sends him out into the underground to see if he can stop Revok.

Along the way he bumps into fellow scanner, Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neil), and together they uncover the truth about ephemerol, Dr. Ruth, and who Darryl Revok really is. And in traditional, bloody, early Cronenberg fashion when the two scanners eventually come face-to-face and fall into “psychic” battle, all those side effects I previously mentioned are put on gruesome display for all to admire and cringe at.

Scanners first hit DVD back in 2001 from MGM/UA. It then (finally) hit blu-ray here in the U.S. when Criterion got a hold of it; their release occurred this past July 15th on separate DVD and DVD/Blu-ray combos.

The 1080p 1.78:1 transfer looks real good, but a little dark in some areas. It appears a bit different to me from Second Sight’s UK transfer, but since David Cronenberg supervised this version who am I to argue? If Cronenberg is fine with it so am I. The audio (English LPCM 1.0) was excellent, too. Subtitles exist but in English only.

Extra features Criterion has added:

  • The Scanners Way (22:57): This is an in depth featurette on the movies effects with interviews with all of the key artists (minus Dick Smith).
  • Mental Saboteur (19:26): For me this here is the featurette that makes this whole edition. It’s a 19-minute interview with Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok). I’ve always been a fan, but know next to nothing about the man himself. In this extra you get to know his beginnings, life growing up, acting style, etc.
  • The Ephemerol Diaries (14:22): And this here is 14 minutes of Stephen Lack (Cameron Vale) doing the same; talking about his life, his acting, and what he does now.
  • The Bob McLean Show (11:07): A period piece interview with David Cronenberg during the release of Scanners.
  • Stereo (Short Film, 1:02:42): A short film by Cronenberg that mirrors some of the themes he later delved into with Scanners.
  • ….and finally you gets some Radio Spots, the movie’s Trailer and a booklet where Kim Newman dissects the movie.

I wish Cronenberg had wanted to do a commentary or at the very least an interview. That’s the only thing this release is missing.

This movie was so popular it spawned 4 sequels, and it’s only the second one I prefer (Scanners II: The New Order). Unfortunately none of them were directed or had any input from Cronenberg. I’ve been hearing for years of a remake and recently of interest in doing it as a series. This movie, however, will always be one of my favorite of his flicks to repeatedly revisit.

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