Friday, January 14, 2011
Pop Went the Speaker
By Paul Kraly
Thirty years ago today, masterful and imaginative director David Cronenberg literally blew our minds. While Scanners was never really hailed as a reviewer’s delight, and certainly didn’t pack the punching power of his later successes such as Eastern Promises in 2007 and A History of Violence in 2005, the cult classic did introduce us to a new innovation in gore and spatter; along with what is quite possibly the most violent scene depicted on film.
Scanners tells the story of Darryl Revok, played rather convincingly by a budding Michael Ironside, and his search for others with his extraordinary telepathic abilities to join him in an underground plot to dominate the world. Called “scanners,” these individuals have the ability to cause pain and great damage to the human mind, simply by focusing their mental powers. Dr. Paul Ruth, played by the late Patrick McGoohan of the 1960s The Prisoner television series, has in the meantime discovered a new “scanner” of his own, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), and the battle for control of this powerful individual is on.
While Scanners may have lacked overall plot development and story, including a rather “rushed” ending, some would say, there are just some things you can’t see every day in a movie — such as the explosion of a man’s head. Award-winning makeup man Dick Smith and his team put together a latex head and filled it with a mixture of soft dog food and rabbit livers, then shot at it from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun to complete the bone-jarring effect. To this day, it remains one of the most unsettling images in motion picture history.
The scene starts out innocently enough at a meeting at the headquarters of ConSec (a weapon and security systems company) with a top scanner recruit speaking on the floor with a group of distinguished individuals. He is ready to do a full scanning demonstration with everyone in the room and asks for a volunteer. Darryl Revok humbly offers to be the first. The scanner begins using his abilities, but Revok’s mental powers prove far too much for the poor man and within less than a minute, Revok makes his head explode in a smash of blood and bones. Realizing he too is a scanner, security tries to dispatch Revok, but he escapes after killing several others.
There are other individual images of Cronenberg’s that fascinate us and shake us up. In the movie A History of Violence, actor Viggo Mortensen, who plays a humble café owner, is forced to come to terms with his very dicey past as a cold-blooded contract killer when he dispatches a couple of would-be robbers and rapists late one night before closing. In one ghastly moment, one of the thieves is shot point-blank in the face, and the audience is treated to a very gut-wrenching image of the individual snuffling and shaking, dying on the café floor, with mounds of tissue hanging from shiny bone of an obliterated face.
In Eastern Promises, Viggo Mortensen as mob-cleaner Nikolai gets to bare his soul, and everything else, during a brutal knife fight in a men’s Turkish bathhouse. His would-be assassins are stabbed and slashed to death, and we watch almost helplessly as he himself sustains numerous lacerations and agonizing pain from the assault.
“When we talk about violence,” Cronenberg explains, “we're talking about the destruction of the human body, and I don't lose sight of that. In general, my filmmaking is fairly body-oriented, because what you're photographing is people, bodies. You can't really photograph an abstract concept, whereas a novelist can write about that. You have to photograph something physical. So that combination of things suggests to me a particular way to deal with violence. And it's not a bad thing that people really understand what violence is...”
Such is the charm of David Cronenberg. He has a penchant for gore and a true history of violence in his films that to this day shock and delight us. It doesn’t matter if we’re watching an exploding head, a gunshot to the face, or a bloody, brutal fight scene in a bath-house. Violence for him is merely a manipulation or modification of the body to bring true art to life. The horrific acts in his movies are his way of expressing himself, of making us appreciate the human body, how fragile it can be, and how much damage can be caused to it. He wants us to “feel” what his poor victims are feeling when something unfortunate happens to them, and you can’t help but love him for doing that.
Now 30 years on, Scanners still blows us away. It is probably one of the more original and creative concepts to come out of a decade that was just beginning to understand what violence and horror was all about. The Vietnam War was still fresh in our minds, and we were getting our first chills from slasher serial killer movies such as Friday the 13th and Prom Night.
But Scanners stands out mostly for the idea itself: telepathic human beings, with incredible mental abilities, becoming an intricate and increasing part of our society — and trained to destroy us. That single preface is enough to send shock waves through us even today; especially taking into account the reactions after the September 11th attacks, and the recession of 2008, which has fueled our ever-growing negativity toward the government, and the hostility we feel for the corporations intent on taking over everything.
While society may, on the whole, laugh at such a plot for global-domination such as this one today, you have to fully appreciate how plausible the concept for Scanners could be. It is a fact that human beings are capable of extraordinary mental abilities under certain conditions, and there is evidence that suggests telepathic powers do exist in some individuals. Could it really be just a hop, skip and a jump from mental telepathy to cold-blooded, calculated murder? Will we someday no longer need guns, knives or weapons of any sort to harm or kill another human being?
It is these embedded fears and concerns that excite and delight us while watching Scanners today. Were the producers to consider a remake, or another installment of the saga to follow Scanners 2: The New Order in 1991, Scanners 3: Takeover in 1992, and Scanners 4: Scanner Cop in 1994, I’m quite sure they would find a huge following once again.
Paul Kraly is co-owner of Scribes Unlimited, a writing and research company in Northeast Ohio. He has had numerous publications and mentions in magazines, and is a budding screenwriter. One of his first writing assignments just out of high school was as a movie critic, and he holds a degree in film and music from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.