Thursday, March 28, 2013

DVD Review: SCANNERS (1980)

SCANNERS (1980) 
Label: Second Sight Films
Region Code: 2 PAL
Rating: 18 Certificate
Duration: 99 Minutes
Video: 16:9 Widescreen (1.85:1) 1080p
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0, 5.1 with Optional English Subtitles
Director: David Cronenberg
Cast: Lawrence Dane, Stephen Lack, Michael Ironsides, Patrick MaGoohan
Tagline: Their thoughts can kill!

Synopsis: Drifter Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, Dead Ringers) is plagued by incessant voices in his head unaware that he is a Scanner, a group of people with extraordinary powers who can not only read minds but literally tear them apart. He is discovered by a scientist aiming to help his kind adapt to society. However an underground movement of Scanners led by the psychotic Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, Visiting Hours)have other intentions and the ultimate confrontation of minds awaits.

Pretty sure Scanners (1980) was my introduction to the twisted world of Canada's finest purveyor of the perverse and grotesque, even before taking in David Cronenberg's drippy remake of The Fly (1986), it was this blood-splattered telekinetic nightmare that made my skin crawl, it was disturbing to me then and it gets under my skin even today. 

"Scanners" are a small percentage of the population that possess both telekinetic and telepathic powers. Not just the ability to read a persons mind but the ability to control them, some are so powerful they can stop a person's heart or much worse. A side effect of this ability is that most are unstable individuals and are not productive members of society, as one might imagine the novelty of hearing a person's most intimate secrets might lose it's luster when in public you are subjected to hundreds of thoughts at a time, unable to control the input. One such person is drifter Cameron Vale whom sends a woman who speaks poorly of him into violent convulsions, nearly killing her. His outburst is observed by members of a corporation called ConSec, run by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner), whom rounds up out of control telepaths in an effort create an army of weaponized scanners. He's pursued and darted with a tranquilizer and recruited into ConSec's scanner program where he is assigned to infiltrate the scanner underground and to destroy the telekinetic-terrorist Darryl Revok, played by cult-icon Michael Ironside, that's the film in a nutshell. 

An early iconic scene has ConSec performing a public demonstration of "scanning" when their lead scanner asks for a volunteer from the audience, unbeknownst to him the renegade Revok is in attendance and volunteers to be read. On stage in front of the crowd Revok exerts his considerable telekinetic ability upon the scanner causing his head to explode in what is still one of the greatest head explosions ever, it's superbly executed effect and quite grotesque. 

Brian De Palma's film The Fury (1978) mines similar ground but Cronenberg's film rises above De Palma's puzzling entry with some tense scanner battles, car chases and bloody gun play, there's no shortage of action and intrigue and layered on top of that are superb special effects work from the legendary Dick Smith (Star Wars, Exorcist) and make-up effects artists Stephen Dupuis (Robocop, JasonX), grotesque bulging veins spewing blood, exploding eyes, incineration and the aforementioned exploding head, if you love 'em bloody and practical the special effects here are above par and do not disappoint.

I have a few small qualms with the film, for one the story gets convoluted at times, a flaw which rears it's ugly head from time to time but not as much as one might expect given that the film began production without a finished script. Stephen Lack is just alright as the lead character, he's a bit aloof and not the most charismatic guy, it's not ruinous just a bit unfortunate. Michael Ironside is superb as the villainous Revok, on par with some of his best stuff, love that guy.  Lawrence Dane is appropriately menacing as the ConSec chief of security, though his death scene was less than extraordinary in a film laced with memorable deaths. At the start of the film we get a fantastic brain-bust and it climaxes with something equally grotesque, it's a finale that does not disappoint.   

DVD: Second Sight Films brings David Cronenberg's Scanners (1980) to the UK with a Region 2 locked edition that presents the film in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) with strong color saturation and decent black levels. I didn't have by Region 1 MGM edition handy for comparison's sake but was pleased with the image, sourced from a very fine print with minimal print damage, it's appropriately crisp given the age of the film, not much of anything to complain about here. Audio options include English language Dolby Digital 2.0 and a 5.1 Surround mix with optional English subtitles. Dialogue is crisp and effects and score are well balanced throughout. Due to this being an NTSC to PAL convert there is the 4.2% PAL speed-up which renders the pitch a bit higher and running time a bit shorter which converts a 104 minute film into a 99 minute film but it's honestly was not noticeable to me. That said, this makes for a good argument to adopt a region-free Blu-ray player as the 1080p format does not suffer the same speed-up issues and must look amazing. 

The audio and video presentation is quite nice but the reason I would recommend an upgrade to Second Sight's edition are the inclusion of new Severn Films produced extras, five interview with cast and crew from the film intercut with behind-the-scenes pics and clips from the film. First up is My Art Keeps Me Sane - Interview with Star Stephen Lack (22:48) an interview with star Stephen Lack speaking about his experiences on the film and his life as an artist both past and present. The Eye Of Scanners - Interview with Cinematographer Mark Irwin (14:34) features the cinematographer, whom also lensed Funeral Home (1981) and Wes Craven's Scream (1996), he covers a lot of ground beginning with starting the film without a script, Cronenberg really having to sculpt a performance out of the inexperienced Stephen Lack, and a fun anecdote about actress Jennifer O'Neill and her then husband and a trained attack dog, that was a fun one. The Chaos of Scanners - Interview with Executive Producer Pierre David (13:09 features the storied producer of the film covering some of the same ground, if perhaps from a different perspective, remembering O'Neil a bit more fondly than Irwin. He goes on to compare the disjointed making of Scanners and it's ensuing success in contrast to Videodrome's failure at the box office following it's smooth production. Pierre also goes onto discuss the sequels to some degree including a young and naive Cronenberg selling off the rights to the franchise,  Pierre would go on to direct one of the later entries to Cronenberg's dismay. Exploding Brains and Popping Veins - Interview with Makeup Effects Artist Stephan Dupuis (9:34) has the regular Cronenberg collaborator Dupuis talking about the film's fantastic effects work, working with Chris Walas and special effects legend Dick Smith. The last extra is Bad Guy Dane - Interview with Actor Lawrence Dane (5:18) as the aging star offers an appreciation of Cronenberg and co-stars Lack and MaGoohan among others. 

Notably missing are contributions from the director himself, an audio commentary, and any trailers for the film which is unfortunate, I recall seeing a TV spot for the film as a kid and it was startling stuff. It'd be a few years before I actually saw the film but that trailer stuck with me. So, there's a few things I would have have liked to been included but what we get is great stuff, a great edition from Second Sight Films! 

Special  Features:

· My Art Keeps Me Sane - Interview with Star Stephen Lack (22:48)
· The Eye Of Scanners - Interview with Cinematographer Mark Irwin (14:34)
· The Chaos of Scanners - Interview with Executive Producer Pierre David (13:09)
· Exploding Brains and Popping Veins - Interview with Makeup Effects Artist Stephan Dupuis (9:34)
· Bad Guy Dane - Interview with Actor Lawrence Dane (5:18) 

Verdict: A true Cronenberg cult-classic with great dark atmosphere and classic 80's splatter moments, an iconic slice of drive-in awesomeness that moved Cronenberg away from his more exploitative 70's output like Rabid (1977) and more in the direction of experimental arthouse horror. Scanners (1980) stands as a dark, moody telekinetic nightmare with some great effects work, the practical effects are amazing and worth the price of admission alone. Second Sight's edition sports some interesting extras and a great transfer, definitely worth the upgrade. 3.5 Outta 5