Saturday, 1 October 2016

Halloween 31 for 31: Scanners (1981)

Director: David Cronenberg
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Cast: Stephen Lack (as Cameron Vale); Jennifer O'Neill (as Kim Obrist); Patrick McGoohan (as Dr. Paul Ruth); Lawrence Dane (as Braedon Keller); Michael Ironside (as Darryl Revok)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #26

In Scanner's world, one is plunged into a reality still far into our future which is yet entirely analogue and antiquated now at the same time. The difference between boundaries between people physically is blurred because of the titular scanners, people existing with ESP powers since they were born, able to read others' minds and manipulate another person's reality, even connect to computers on a neurological level. Cronenberg was always prophetic as far back as his early "dirty" Canuxploitation films, able to touch on ideas briefly or for whole films which startle still despite the significant shifts in technology and culture surrounding items like television. His films from this era are entirely retro, where the computers are tape reels and digital readouts of green text on a black background are used brilliantly for the end credits, but they still contain a shock which extends out and still touches a viewer in the 2010s.

Canadian modernist architecture is a large part of this in hindsight. His films shot in Canada still impose a sense of dread on the viewer because of this, even above his more grander dramas of later years, because of their uniquely cold and cerebral locations of offices and conglomerate buildings of companies like ConSec, swallowing their protagonists such as the naive, blue eyed Stephen Lack here in their vast  corridors and claustrophobic rooms. Scanners takes this even further, when Lack's Cameron Vale has to search for fellow scanner and villain Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), with a character having built their own head laid on the side as a hideaway to sit in as part of his art channelling the pain of his scanning ability. This aesthetic, bleak and paralysing the environments, prevents the films from becoming kitsch as they exist within their own Cronenbergian worlds the more they age, the only sense of datedness found here being able to ogle a vinyl record store a large vehicle crashes through and spot copies of Frank Zappa's Sheik Yerbouti (1979) on the shelves. Howard Shore's score gives as much to Scanners in terms of its visceral power, beautiful and sickly early synth, his importance to Cronenberg's career emphasised here and as the composer of the artificial chrome surf rock chords of Crash (1996), becoming as much an important part of the director-auteur's DNA as Cronenberg's own voice.

Is it horror though? For the most, Scanners is a strange netherworld of conspiracy, Vale a rogue scanner acting more like a Cold War spy as Revok has an infinite army of shotgun carrying goons at his disposal. Corporate espionage if rife as the mysterious underground group of scanners led by Revok is a Hitchcockian McGuffin off-screen, left as an implied force as ordinary Canadian locales like doctors' offices and cafes are invaded by tranquiliser gun shots and backstabbing is done covertly on subway line seats. The horror is found in how Cronenberg depicts telekinetic powers as a violent intruder on the human organism's existing form, not easily introduced but the result of an accident and, even if transcendental, involving mass destruction of the original human form and pain to work. Mind reading is not a pleasant superhero ability but literal violation of another's mind causing nausea and nosebleeds, a horrible whining noise when it's done which seers the viewer's head as much as the participants onscreen. The head explosion by itself has become legendary but the real horror is seeing how scanning, without a single medical chemical called ephemerol to control it, leaves people invalids homeless on the street because the thousands of voices of others they can hear prevent them from functioning. Vague details are enough to present a world that, if Cronenberg continued it, would've added more questions, where Revok literally has to drill his third eye open through homemade trepanning to relieve his pain.

A lot is not covered in Scanner's plot, enough left to add to its bones to open up a greater narrative scope, but I have loved Scanners because it manages to create a full plot through a few minimal pieces of exposition and visual and audio signposts to evoke full emotions. Like a scanner able to know what someone is thinking immediately upon contact, you learn instantly all the information you need and spend the rest of the time feeling the world of Scanners fully, tiptoeing between reality and the subconscious. Either side pierces the other without little resistance, as people move somnambulistically to shot themselves in the head through another's will and Jennifer O'Neill, a elegant actress who looks like she's from a forties Hollywood film than to the teens of eighties slash films, can make herself in a brief visual edit become a guard's mother and cause him to break down into tears of guilt. One scene compelling undermines reality entirely, becoming one of the strangest and best parts of Cronenberg's career, where Patrick McGoohan, playing the rational scientific expert on scanners who leads Vale like a child into honing his skills, has a breakdown when a plot point takes place; suddenly the viewer can heard his thoughts projected to them subconsciously as he thinks, as if he's secretly been a scanner all this time, eventually muttering to himself aloud in a room in his own traumatised world. The actual climax of the film is in danger of an obvious jokes about psychic battles being depicted onscreen - the furrowing of two sets of eyebrows until someone falls over - but the real damage is so horrifying from make-up artist Dick Smith that it becomes a violent, spiritual mutilation that ends in the least expected way.

Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Low
Paradoxically one of Cronenberg's most accessible films, and one of his most financially successful, yet interprets the idea of psychic power and the subconscious through currents rippling underneath the surface. The minimalism and the strong effect of audio on the structure leads this to having a further dimension to work with.

Abstract Tropes: Minimal Narration; Textured Audio; Conspiracies; Psychic abilities; Subconscious Thought; Body Horror; Avant-Garde/Installation Art

Personal Opinion:
Likely the sequels missed the point, yet to see them, more concerned with doubling the exploding heads and writing plots about scanner cops form what I know. Cronenberg's films always had a greater purpose in implanting uncomfortable theories of the body and mind into a viewer be it into genre or drama. Because of how concise Scanners is, every moment evoking both an important plot point and a sharp effect, I find this superior than others which elaborate further in plot and dialogue in his career.


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