Sunday, 28 March 2010

Discount Bin Film Club: Scanners!

Welcome to the show folks...

The late 70s & early 80s were a strange time in Canadian cinema.

And by strange I mean that Canadian movies were actually getting made. In fact, a lot of Canadian films were getting made. This is because Canada's tax laws had a huge loophole in them for people who invested in Canadian film production.

Now while the loophole got films made, it didn't do much to get those films released. So a lot of movies during the "Hollywood North" era just disappeared, and many of them rightfully so.

Scanners (1980) was not one of them. It was picked up by American distributor Avco/Embassy, and became a modest hit, grossing over $14 million and stood as director David Cronenberg's biggest grosser until The Fly a few years later.

Now I just picked it up for $3.99 Canadian from a discount bin.

So here we go with the review.

The film's story is fairly convoluted. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a "scanner," one of a community of about 200 or more people cursed with telepathic powers. I say cursed because most scanners are social misfits, misdiagnosed as schizophrenic, unable to function normally in society, and Vale himself is homeless. He is brought in by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) to work for Consec, an international security conglomerate who are studying scanners. His mission to find Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) a rogue scanner with a hidden agenda, and a penchant for making heads explode, helped by lady scanner Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill).

The investigation leads to Revok's real plan, some dark truths about the origins of the scanners, and a brain on brain battle royal between Vale and Revok for the fate of the world.

Now I must take a moment to say that the film isn't perfect.

The budget, although the biggest Cronenberg
had worked with until then, was comparatively small. Another complication came from qualifying for the tax loophole, which left Cronenberg only 2 weeks of pre-production, including writing the script. This left Cronenberg doing rewrites every-day from 4-7 AM, going directly to shooting, and scrambling for locations.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

Where it works oddly enough is in the location work. The film was shot in winter, making the world of the film cold, hard, and just plain uncomfortable. The chief locations are either institutional slabs of grim concrete, or decaying backstreet locales, with peeling paint and dotted with rust. It was also shot when the urban sprawl that created acres of cookie-cutter suburbs were just beginning. This creates the imagery of massive corporate office towers literally poking up out of the middle of nowhere, surrounded by empty fields. Creating a strange sense of dislocation.

The special effects, especially the exploding head scene, are still pretty good looking even in this age of mega-million FX budgets, and the fact that they were done so quickly and cheaply, makes them even more impressive.

Most of the cast is also game to the challenge, trying their best, with Michael Ironside's Revok, and Patrick McGoohan's Dr. Paul Ruth, even though in his final scenes there are a few false notes*, which seems mostly from the sheer speed they needed to complete the film.

The weak points come from the fact that the film was rushed, and Cronenberg's tendency early in his career to cut his movies down to the bone. It's easy to get lost, there are some parts that could use explanations, and the ending, though I figured it out when I first saw the (somewhat) edited for TV version at the age of 12, does strike a lot of people as vague and frustrating.

Another weak point are the two leads. Jennifer O'Neill got the "star" billing, because she was the world's top model at the time, and that helped seal the film's distribution deal. Yet it's hard that a woman so carefully put together, could be the psychological misfit the character is supposed to be. Stephen Lack as Cameron Vale, even by his own admission, isn't all that much of an actor, though his pale blue eyes do have an extremely expressive quality, especially in the "scanner fights." (He soon quit acting outside of a few cameos, and had a very successful career as a painter/sculptor.) But his manner of speaking seems a little too detached, and seems dubbed, even when he's been recorded live.

Now onto the MGM/UA DVD. It's a bare bones affair, with just the trailer, as the only extra. But the picture quality is about the best has ever looked to me, after years of sub-standard prints on TV and VHS.

All in all, it's a very entertaining artifact of a young filmmaker finding his voice, and a must for fans of low budget science-fiction and horror that tries to go beyond the usual laser guns and gore. While I may not have shelled out the "full price" for it, it was worth more than what I paid for it.

I'll be back to ranting and raving about the business of popular culture on Monday. See you then.

*The false notes come from a conversation Dr. Paul Ruth has with Cameron Vale even though they're in different rooms. Cronenberg didn't quite make the connection between the two characters until the very end of the scene, which mostly looked like Ruth was talking to himself.


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