Directed by David Cronenberg.
1981. Rated R, 103 minutes.
Louis Del Grande
There are two hundred something known scanners in the world. They have telepathic ability up to and including the ability to take control of the bodily functions of others. They can make people drive into buildings, turn a gun on themselves, change a person's heart rate, even make someone's head explode. That last thing is depicted in glorious fashion during the movie's most famous scene. Normally, a scanner can't stand to be in the same room with another without some bad things happening. However, Darryl Revok (Ironside), a very powerful scanner is organizing them into a cohesive unit so they can take over the world. Dr. Ruth (McGoohan) is part of a government organization out to stop them. They have one scanner left working for them, Cameron Vale (Lack). Dr. Ruth sends Vale to infiltrate Revok's organization and bring him down.
Scanners succeeds when the titular characters are allowed to do their thing. Witnessing their capabilities is a dread inducing experience. Like the normal humans in the movie, we understand that having these people become dominant members of society means being at the mercy of their every whim even that means one wants to kill you without ever laying a hand on you. This is why the head exploding scene is so effective. It gives us a very clear explanation of the power of a scanner. The stakes are instantly raised to very high levels. It helps that the visuals showing this are simply priceless. It's by far the best effect used in the movie.
When speaking of visuals, I have to mention that the movie leaves a lot to be desired. After the aforementioned head explosion, most of the "fx" consists of people contorting their faces and maybe their bodies into supposedly pained expressions as the camera studies them. While it sounds okay in theory, it's funny in execution. I was reminded of the movie Breakin' where we get lots of shots of extreme close-ups of some dancer's face as it twists into some strange visage. I crack while watching that. I don't quite go that far, here, but it's enough to take me out of the movie. Not until very late in the game do we get some more real deal scanner stuff. During this scene, the faces fit because the fx aid in what the scene is trying to accomplish.
With all of that said, the most striking visual of them all might be Jennifer O'Neill as Kim Obrist, a scanner who joins forces with our hero. However, the movie fails her as a character. She seems to lack any substantive purpose other than including a female in the proceedings. The problem is that she feels far too unexplored. We get why she wants to help Vale, but that's about all we get about her. Things happen later that suggest she could be far more entertaining and far more important to the outcome. Unfortunately, it's arranged so that she sits out the climactic scene. We're left with Cameron Vale. The issue there is that Stephen Lack just doesn't deliver a compelling performance, at all. We know he's on the right side of things, but he is so lacking in charisma, we don't necessarily feel the compulsion to root for him. It is also detrimental to his cause that the first big moment they have together, it's obvious they should have and could have acted before everyone else in the room was killed. Yes, they're the good guys, but they have a hard time endearing themselves to us. On the flipside of things, as Darryl Revok, Michael Ironside is solidly creepy, but disappears from the movie for long stretches at a time.
The movie also suffers from not quite knowing what it wants to be. Some movies manage to weave multiple genres together to create a thrilling narrative. This one does it backwards. It takes what could be a thrilling narrative and breaks it into separate genres. Scanners starts off like a horror flick. Like I said earlier, the very existence of such people is enough to rattle our cages. However, it shortly abandons the effort to get under our skin to mimic a spy thriller. Sadly, this isn't all that thrilling. It's actually rather generic excepting the use of scanning in a few instances where guns would otherwise be used. We even get into computer hacking that doesn't make a lick of sense. I get that this was made in 1981 and society was not as technologically advanced as it is now. Still, the way one particular is interacted with is explained in such a nonsensical manner that even then, someone involved should have realized this was too big a pile of bs to fly. Of course, this leads us to the finale. For that, we make a jarring switch back to horror. Then we get another inexplicable moment to finish things off. Nothing that happens to this point even remotely suggests that what takes place is a possibility. It goes far beyond what either the explicit or implied capabilities of a scanner are. After the computer deal, it was just another instance where I was taken completely out of the world of the filim and rolled my eyes. Ultimately, this sank the movie for me. I understand that Cronenberg is a master of horror and that this movie has a sizable cult following and spawned some sequels. I, myself, am a huge fan of Videodrome. On this outing, he made too many curious choices that didn't quite work for me. Scanners, themselves, are an interesting concept, to be sure. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where the idea is far better than the execution of it.
MY SCORE: 5.5/10