I first saw Scanners as a teenager. I cannot remember precisely where, but it was a cable stable in the 1980s-1990s, and it infamous for that exploding head scene. It was Cronenberg’s breakthrough film, which established what would be an interesting and diverse career for someone who cut his teeth making raw horror films. When I was younger, I embraced the novelty of the special effectives, especially that head that I have seen probably 1000 times via GIFs.
Sometimes time and experience can change perception. My memory was that Scanners was a cutting edge, state of the art, ground breaking horror film. It is some of those things, lots of those things, but I remembered it being a little better than what I saw yesterday. The plot is scattershot, and some of it hasn’t aged well (like having the protagonist scan into a monochrome computer system via a pay phone). Until the final scene, it lacks character conflict. We don’t really understand the motivations for each of the two scanning leads, and the clunky corporate exposition doesn’t help matters. Michael Ironside practically steals every scene he is in, and I found myself wanting more of him — one of my favorite scenes being the archived videotape where he explains drilling into his own head. His adversary, played by Stephen Lack is barely interesting and could have used some acting lessons.
The head explosion scene was absolutely fan-f’ing-tastic! I had forgotten when to expect it, and I love that it came 13 minutes in. It sets the tone for the violence and special effects to come. The Blu-Ray transfer didn’t make too much of a difference, but it probably would have if I had watched frame by frame.
I found much of the exposition to be plodding, and some of that makes sense now that I understand the production difficulties. And then comes the ending, which I will do my best not to spoil. Let me just say that these effects are most definitely dated, and I still cringed at what they did with the veins, which DID look a lot better in Blu-Ray.
The 25-minute or so featurette about the visual effects was more engaging than the movie itself. I had no idea how they pulled off the exploding head, and I won’t say here, but it is worth watching just to see that. I will say that the way they did this would not happen in a studio production today. It also spoke to the issues with production, the daily re-writes, and what a mad, chaotic scramble the entire production was. Yet they managed to bring in some of the best in the business, which showed in the end product.
There were interviews with Michael Ironside and Stephen Lack, which were somewhat interesting, but I find myself less interested in Criterion interviews, especially when they are nearly half an hour a piece. There are exceptions, like Sterling Hayden’s interview for The Killing, but that’s a topic for another day. Ironside’s was somewhat more compelling because he’s since gained a lot of credibility by working in countless features. Lack was, well, lacking, and I probably am biased because I didn’t like him in the role.
The Cronenberg appearance on Canadian television was short, to the point, and my 2nd favorite feature. It was mostly a retrospective, as they showed trailers for his handful of prior films (Shivers, The Brood, etc.) and had him say a few words about them. It was mostly interesting to see Cronenberg in 1981, in his element, looking like one of the early Microsoft programmers. He said that he wasn’t really a horror fan, yet the genre found him. That speaks to his later work, where he would dabble in other areas, and has practically abandoned the horror film today.
Despite this not being a Criterion-caliber film, its position in pop and specifically horror culture makes it worth a look.
Criterion Rating: 7/10