I have vivid memories of seeing the Scanners movie advertisements in the newspaper back in 1981. I read the article in Starlog magazine and vaguely remember it popping up on television from time to time over the years. Several years ago, I even bought a DVD for $1 at a closing Hollywood Video store. However, until this past weekend, I never took the time to watch it. Movies from the 70s and 80s have a way of standing out quite a bit, especially when it comes to fashions and technology. It can throw me off a little or make me feel nostalgic, so these aren’t always go to movies for me unless I am in the right mood. But, more times than not, when I finally sit down and discover a film that I’ve avoided or missed for decades, I am usually pleasantly surprised and Scanners (1981) was no exception.
Scanners are actually mutated humans who have the ability to hear other people’s thoughts and to control them telepathically. Of course, having the ability to control a heartbeat or blood flow can have disastrous results if this power falls into the wrong hands and that’s exactly what we see in the opening moments. Our main character, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), causes a woman to have violent convulsions after “hearing” her derogatory comments about his appearance. He is quickly subdued by agents from ConSec, a research facility that has a history with scanners. Cameron Vale soon becomes the tool of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner) as a war is ready to erupt between mankind and the scanners. It seems that Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, V and Total Recall) has tremendous scanning powers and wants to hunt down all those with the scanning power. He has a much grander scheme to create his own scanners as his personal army. The inevitable battle of wits between Vale and Revok ensues with Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) reluctantly joining Vale more out of self-preservation than dedication after Revok orders the death of many of her scanner friends. Throw in some mystery and plot twists and you have a rather entertaining sci-fi flick for late night viewing.
Now, I should come clean and say that Scanners is not perfect. In fact, there is one key flaw that held my enjoyment back a little. There is some very questionable acting from the lead actor Stephen Lack (as in “lack of talent”, pun intended). He simply cannot act his way out of a paper sack, causing several powerful scenes to fall flat. Unfortunately, somewhat flat performances from McGoohan and O’Neill exasperate the situation. McGoohan at least throws some passion into some of his scenes but he clearly didn’t have as much interest in this project as is evident in some of his other works, such as the classic television series The Prisoner. However, I liked the blending of the mystery and sci-fi elements, along with the smile I had on my face during the computer scenes. Amazing how far we’ve come but it does antiquate these types of movies a bit.
Director David Cronenberg has given us many classic films over the years. Prior to 1981, The Brood and Rabid stand out, while he immediately followed Scanners with the cult classic Videodrome and more commercially successful films like The Dead Zone and The Fly. His movies from this period dealt with the different aspects of scientific research, either going out-of-control against society or on a more personal level. All of these films are well worth checking out.
Be prepared for some incredibly violent scenes and a fair amount of blood (you all probably know about the iconic head explosion scene). Definitely pushing the envelope that Hollywood is often scared to do today in favor of a PG-13 rating and bigger box office numbers. Scanners was a box office success so no surprise that a series of sequels and spin-offs followed. However, none had the involvement of David Cronenberg or any of the original cast and are generally better left forgotten. For years there have been rumors of a remake or television series but nothing seems to be happening in either of those circles as of 2014.
The movie is currently available on YouTube as well as DVD but seems to be out-of-print, so do some shopping as you don’t want to pay more for the movie than it is worth. It could benefit from a remastering and some extras beyond a trailer, which is all that the DVD has. That said, I recommend it as it a lot of fun, provided you can overlook some of its flaws. Plus, may I also recommend listening to episode 25 of the Martian Drive-In Podcast. Terry Frost offers up some great discussion that will enhance the viewing experience.