SCANNERS, by master Canadian director David Cronenberg, is a creepy science fiction thriller dealing with a 1950s maternity drug gone seriously wrong, resulting in over 200 children being deformed - or, depending on how you look at these things - endowed with ultra-powerful telepathic and telekinetic abilities. Years later, they are dubbed "Scanners" by Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the mad doctor who created these freaks of nature. The most powerful of the afflicted and now grown men, the seemingly gentle, confused street bum Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) and Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a malevolent, corporate-styled automaton of destruction, both become locked in a dangerous struggle for supremacy between rival corporations wishing to control the scanners as weapons. Scanners can make heads explode. This is not a pretty sight.
SCANNERS (1981) *****
Dir. David Cronenberg
Starring: Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, Patrick McGoohan, Jennifer O'Neill, Lawrence Dane, Louis Del Grande, Mavor Moore
Review By Greg Klymkiw
One of the greatest pharmaceutical tragedies of the 20th Century was the development of the drug Thalidomide in the late 50s. Meant to alleviate "anxiety" or uh, "hysteria" in pregnant women,` it was yet another invasive, sexist patriarchal attempt to keep the "weaker sex" in their place. It was essentially a drug borne out of the "Can they just shut up and quit whining" School of Medicine. Its effects upon the babies born from mothers who ingested the drug were disastrous. Children were born with malformed limbs and/or deaf and/or blind and any number of other physical abnormalities. The lucky ones lived. A much larger percentage died.
Of course, this medical botch-up was also happening smack dab in the middle of the Cold War wherein murky, nasty psychological experiments were being carried out by nefarious corporate and government agencies in the name of furthering the arms race, military superiority, espionage, interrogation techniques and other horrendous areas of mind control. All this despicable nonsense actually ran rampant in an era where millions of people were being murdered by their own governments for absolutely nothing in wars that meant even less - notably Vietnam.
Out of this scary real-life backdrop, David Cronenberg's considerable imagination ran amuck and he delivered Scanners, a chilling tale of adults who were products of a Thalidomide-like drug. Their abnormality, however, is psychological and results in extreme mental overcrowding which, when pushed by anger, anxiety and other highly-charged emotions, results in telepathic abilities that can create major physical damage. Just thinking about something is enough to make it happen.
Cronenberg delivers on all manner of shocks and scares, but does so with resonance on both visceral and thematic levels. His clever screenplay, blending a variety of new spins on old genre tropes and his cool, controlled direction always focuses on characters living amidst sterile corporate offices, fluorescent lights washing over whiter than white labs, lonely, grotty warehouse spaces and a very strange Montreal bereft of spirit, but infused with a kind of faux futuristic interior design and architecture.
He layers these visuals which, on their own, might be mistaken as somewhat drab, but the sum of his complex assemblage of locations parallels the richly layered actions and goals of the film's central players Patrick McGoohan (a Father), Michael Ironside (a Son) and Stephen Lack (a Holy Spirit). Cronenberg wisely roots the film in this strange trinity wherein all three play out a series of roles: of fathers and sons, creators and their experiments and perhaps the most ruthlessly complex of all, rival siblings.
There's even a strange Mary Magdalene figure played by the gorgeous model Jennifer O'Neill (that Summer of 42 girl who, in grief, gently took the virginity of young Gary Grimes in the classic Robert Mulligan weeper). O'Neill's wooden line deliveries and porcelain iciness seem a perfectly apt tent pole for Vale and Revok to find themselves on opposite sides of.
Early on in the film, we're introduced to Cameron Vale (Lack) as he wanders aimlessly through a downtown mall food court, shoving leftovers down his gullet as the flicker of fluorescent lights and constant chatter plays on him until he is driven to a state of near madness - his thoughts and emotions spilling out into the ether and physically affecting two affluent female diners whom he assumes are mocking him. It's a chilling moment. We get the sense he's responsible for the seizure that starts to afflict one of the women, but we also sense nobody else knows this - not, really, even Vale himself.
Later on, Vale finds himself strapped down on a gurney in a hollow warehouse. Here he meets the scientist Paul Ruth who explains with a creepy matter-of-factness (in a way only the great Patrick McGoohan seemed capable of):
"You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? The answer's simple. You're a scanner, which you don't realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power."
The power, however, is loaded with dangerous implications - not the least of which is individuality being sucked dry from unique individuals like Vale and usurped by others for their own needs, their own goals. These individuals are viewed by the world and, most of all, the Status Quo as freaks - freaks to be co-opted and/or manipulated to wreak havoc instead of providing the world with what's genuinely special about them. It's a battle between individuals, or rather, the struggle between individuality for good or for evil.
It's an ages old struggle, but Cronenberg makes it feel fresh by always adhering to the simple narrative power of trinity which is what allows it to yield complexity. Scanners is, first and foremost, a truly great thriller - not only because it confounds, astounds and often terrifies the living crap out of us, but because it accomplishes all this by being a film that was, in its time, ahead of its time.
As such, it's a film for now, and forever.
"Scanners" is playing as an entry in the series: "From Within: The Films of David Cronenberg" - a TIFF Cinematheque Retrospective during "DAVID CRONENBERG: EVOLUTION" a major exhibition (including Special Guest Events and MORE) via the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) until January 19, 2014 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. For showtimes, playmates and tickets, visit the TIFF website HERE.