Scanners (1981)

Ten seconds...the pain begins.

Fifteen seconds...you can't breathe.

Twenty seconds...you explode.

Oh, Canada...they've given us so much. Hockey, last February's Olympics, the ham we put on pizza, SCTV, The Kids in the Hall, William Shatner, Rush, a significant portion of past and present SNL cast members, almost every TV show we grew up with, a North American animation industry that isn't riding the coattails of Family Guy and The Simpsons...I could go on.

Another gift our neighbors from the north have bestowed us with is movie maker David Cronenberg, one of the masters of the horror film sub-genre known as "venereal horror", or "body horror".

Body horror movies are where you take a living person, give him some kind of disease or mutagen or put something in his body, and show a movie theater audience what happens. Early examples include The Fly and The Incredible Shrinking Man from way back in the 1950s, but they really hit their stride after the release of Ridley Scott's Alien in 1979 with the advancement of animatronics, make-up and special effects. The new wave of body horror during the 1980s opened up new avenues of shock value, though to some filmmakers it made a great excuse to pile gory scene on gory scene to the point where it became desensitizing. Cronenberg's most popular film, 1981's Scanners, presents seemingly ordinary people who were born with superhuman telepathic powers, the people who fear them, and the corporations who want to put them to work.

Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a homeless bum who enters the food court of a shopping mall and sits next to two women who immediately start making fun of him. Suddenly one of them stops talking, starts convulsing and collapses as if she's having a heart attack, while Vale grabs his head and staggers away as a crowd begins to gather. Two men in trench coats who are conveniently nearby (how lucky is that?) chase him around the escalators and nail him with a tranquilizer dart.

He wakes up in an abandoned warehouse and is greeted by psychopharmacist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, whom British sci-fi aficionados may recognize as Number Six from The Prisoner), who calls him a "scanner" and then parades a number of people into the room to sit before Vale. The soundtrack is bombarded with a cacophony of voices which sends Vale into a fit, making faces and shaking violently on the bed. After a few hours of this, Ruth reenters the room and gives him a shot of a drug called Ephemerol, which temporarily stops the flow of telepathy and "quiets the voices."

Here we see the rare Canadian Ruffled Scanner resting after a day's foraging.

Cut to the headquarters of ConSec, where a bald man in a suit and glasses is giving a scanning demonstration and asks for a volunteer from the audience whose mind he will read. A man by the name of Darryl Revok (perennial villain character Michael Ironside) raises his hand and comes up on stage, and the scanning begins. After a few seconds baldy starts violently convulsing while Revok looks like he's trying to pop his skull out of his skin. The music intensifies and the bespectacled man's motions become more and more erratic until finally--well, those of you who've been around the Internet a few times may have come across an animated GIF or a viral video clip of what happens next, so I won't tell you here. I will say this though--the janitorial staff at ConSec are very efficient workers, because at the end of the scene we see that the man's chair is empty and the table and surrounding area don't show a sign of anything having messily happened on it. Neither does Revok's suit for that matter...must have had a stick of that roll-on stain remover or something.

A man in a suit leads Revok backstage and restrain him while a doctor gives him a dose of Ephemerol--or tries to before Revok scans him into giving it to himself. As the man in the suit and more men in trench coats drive him away, Revok using his scanning powers, leaves all five of his captors dead and the fiery wreckage of one of their cars in his wake.

Nope. Sorry. You don't get a picture. Try YouTube or Photobucket or Google Image. You've probably already seen it anyway.

In the wake of this fiasco, a new head of internal security by the name of Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane, looking decidedly evil here) is brought in at ConSec, while Dr. Ruth suggests that there is a underground scanner movement causing them trouble and that they should bring in a spy to keep an eye on Revok, namely Vale. Back at the warehouse, Ruth explains to Vale that Revok has a highly destructive personality and has had one ever since his days at a psych ward, where he even tried to drill into his head, right between the eyes and just above the nose, to "let the voices out". He's been going around trying to recruit scanners into his little gang and killing anyone who turns him down.

His first lead is a scanner with whom Revok has spoken--a sculptor by the name of Benjamin Pierce (Robert A. Silverman) a scanner sent to a prison for the criminally insane after the voices drove him to nearly kill his entire family. At a local exhibition of his sculptures (one of which consists of several people drinking out of one man's skull with straws--SYMBOLISM!!) he scans the curator of the museum for his location and locates Pierce at his studio. Vale asks him about Revok, but gets no answers, and while they're talking some people with rifles show up without warning--though if scanning really is some form of ESP, then surely Pierce and Vale should have sensed their presence before they were spotted, but never mind, Pierce is gunned down in a hail of shotgun shells.

After dispatching the assassins, Vale picks up his next lead: Kim Obrist (a character whose name appears twice in the end credits, played by Jennifer O'Neill) one of a peaceful collective of scanners who let Vale participate in their telepathic circle. Moments later more of Revok's assassins burst in the room and start shooting up the place before Kim goes all Carrie and throws the gunmen against the wall, at the same time incinerating their bodies and setting her flat ablaze. (Again, shouldn't they have sensed this? Everyone remains totally oblivious to the situation until the gunmen start firing. Does scanning someone block you from the immediate outside world or something? Is that why they're such easy targets?) The scanners who are able to escape in a bus, but an armored van pulls alongside them and fire on them once more, sending their getaway vehicle into a record store. Kim and Vale, the only ones remaining, hide in the basement where one of the killers gets the drop on them, but Vale quickly scans him, convincing him to pull a small vial out of his coat with a logo on it.

"TELL me I don't look like Jack Nicholson."

The logo is that of the Biocarbon Amalgamate company, where Vale sneaks in and starts snooping around. He finds Revok inside, as well as a computer with a program called RIPE which handles distribution of Ephemerol and is only accessible from ConSec computer terminals. There is a mole in ConSec!

Vale reports back at ConSec with Kim posing as an informant from Revok's group and discusses with Dr. Ruth all that he has seen so far. Revok runs BioAmalgam, and it's producing Ephemerol like there's no tomorrow...oh, and someone on ConSec's payroll is a dirty rotten lying scumbag traitorous bastard. Ruth suggests that he try to access the RIPE program with his scanning powers, as computers have "nervous systems" not unlike human beings. Meanwhile Kim is being interrogated by Keller...if by "being interrogated" you mean he turns off the security cameras, calls her bluff, threatens her, slaps her and puts a gun to her head. However, Kim scans him across the room and makes her escape as Keller turns on the security alarm. Hearing the alarm, Vale heads out to look for Kim while Ruth starts talking to himself. He sits down in the interrogation room murmuring about computers and the RIPE program as Keller finds him, walks up to him from behind and puts a point-blank bullet in his brain.

Then we are treated to in my opinion the strangest scene in the movie. Kim and Vale finally find each other, but shortly after two armed guards find them as well and aim their guns. The two of them scan the guards into submission, during which the guard Kim is scanning slowly starts quivering with fear and murmuring "Mom?...I'm sorry...I didn't mean it...sorry, Mom, I didn't mean to..." as he hallucinates his mother's head on Kim's body. When Keller catches up to them, the scanners are long gone, and the guard is in tears uttering "blood on my hands...blood on my hands..."

That's...unnecessarily dark. Granted, for a movie about people who can make your head explode by just thinking about it, but still.

These two shots are from where Kim scans the security guard. Out of context, who's scanning who?

Kim and Vale arrive at a phone booth just outside a gas station, where Vale H4X0Rs into the ConSec computer and searches for the RIPE program \/\/4R3Z using his M4D SC4|\||\|1NG SK177S. Meanwhile, Keller is in the ConSec computer room hoping to FR4G the N00B, but Vale has gotten inside and blocked all access from their end, so he asks one of the programmers (at gunpoint) to trigger the main computer system's self-destruct system in hopes of hurting him, or even better, PKing him. Luckily for Vale, he escapes in the nick of time, and before you can say OMGWTFBBQ, the phone melts and explodes, downed crackling power lines send the gas station up in a ball of flames and ConSec's 133T H4RDW4R3Z explode in a 5H0\/\/3R of SP4RX0RZ which PWNS Keller. (No more leetspeak, I promise.)

There was a list of doctors and patients in Revok's RIPE program, and Kim and Vale visit the office of a doctor whose name appeared on it. While Vale talks to the doctor, Kim sits in the waiting room and talks to a pregnant woman. Then suddenly she gets a nosebleed...she's being scanned! And not by the woman...by her unborn child! It turns out that Revok has been shipping Ephemerol to doctors to prescribe to their pregnant patients so they can breed new scanners.

Shortly after Kim and Vale find this out, Revok and his cronies ambush them with tranq darts.

"A simple 'please' would have been nice, you know..."

Vale wakes up in Revok's office at BioAmalgam where his nemesis fills in some blanks: in 1947 Dr. Ruth developed a new drug--Ephemerol--intended as a painkiller for expectant mothers, but the drug failed because of an unseen side effect--babies born with telekinetic powers. Based on this knowledge, Revok has devised an ultimate plan to breed an army of scanners to conquer the world of normals. He has been looking for Vale for a long time in hopes of joining forces with him for his new world order. When Vale responds to his offer by braining him with a small sculpture, he challenges him to a scanner duel.


A scanner duel!




(sigh) ...He challenges him to a telepathy competition.

We have now come to the second most popular scene in the movie, where our special effects and makeup guys earn their paycheck as Revok and Vale lock metaphorical horns. Veins bulge and bleed, flesh boils and peels off, hands catch fire, eyes boil away, and for a while it's mostly Vale whose veins are bulging and bleeding, flesh is boiling and all the rest of it. Towards the end however, Vale's body, now entirely aflame, collapses while Revok's eyes roll back in his head and he lets out an unearthly roar...

Hours later, Kim, who has been sleeping off the tranquilizer in the next room all this time, finally wakes up and surveys the damage. She finds Vale's deep-fried corpse lying in a pile of ash in the middle of the room and Revok huddled in the corner with Vale's jacket over him. Revok turns to her and says "Kim...it's me, Cameron...I'm here...we've won...we've won", which would normally look like he's trying to fake her and by extension us out, but on closer inspection Revok's facial scar has disappeared, so there's some ambiguity for you.

"I am the god of hellfire, and I bring you...FIRE!!!!"

Scanners is not the first film which uses the plot device of telekinesis. The special effects are minimal yet sufficiently gory, and it doesn't focus so much on the horror as it does on the corporate-conspiracy and pariahs-with-superpowers fronts. And if there is one thing about this movie that's making my head explode, it would have to be the soundtrack--a good portion of the background music is synthesized noises and long chords which are kind of annoying after a while. It isn't particularly a remarkable movie, and yet it has surpassed all criticism to become a cult classic, having spawned several direct-to-video sequels (without Cronenberg, mind you) and references which span the lengths of pop culture, from Weird Al to Wayne's World to MST3K.

However, what this movie does lack in onscreen horror it does make up for with an entertaining storyline and a magnificent bastard character in Revok. It isn't very complex of a story if you pay a little more attention to it instead of the people spontaneously combusting and any superfluous guards who may or may not have committed matricide. If anything, it's more suspense than horror.

Because they look like normal people. But they aren't. They can't be controlled. They can't be restrained. They're out there. They're everywhere. The movie counted 237 in all, and there were scanner babies waiting to be born toward the end of it. If you should ever walk down the street or go to a bar and you suddenly get a migraine or a nosebleed, then congratulations, you may have found one. Just try to keep your brains on the inside of your skull.

I'm not crazy. At least the voices in my head don't think that I am.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What's even worse is that I've seen alot of the shows in your vomit bag. COOL BLOG - You should build more!