Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, “Dead Ringers”) is a drifting lunatic who is brought in by a scientist who explains that he is a scanner, a type of psychic for whom no explanation is known. Vale is recruited to track down a murderous psychopath scanner named Daryl Revok but will he destroy Revok (Michael Ironside, “Turbo Kid”) or join him.
This movie blew my mind, pun intended. It’s a fairly simple story which has been told many times in many forms of media. A new superhuman subset of humanity begins to manifest. The world fears and doesn’t understand it. The mutants are divided into two camps, the ones that just want to live freely and those who want to destroy and dominate the rest of the now underpowered humans. If you are looking for a unique story arc, it isn’t here.
However, the way the story is told is incredibly unique. Cronenberg (“Dead Ringers”) once again shows that his approach to any story is a sort of dutch angle version of how anyone else would explore a story or theme. In this film, he does it through incredible Special Effects, a phenomenal vision for the Sound Design, and a commitment to strange acting choices that create a terrifying sci-fi psychic mystery thriller unlike any I have seen before, despite my long running general interest in this type of story.
Everyone knows that Cronenberg is a master of body horror. His effects are second to none and the fuel of nightmares for many a child who saw his work before they were quite ready for it. I remember hearing my friends talking about seeing “The Fly,” when I was in middle school. Their mimicry of the lines “help me” and the accompanying images in the film were burned into my memory.
This is one of the finest examples of really well done special effects without going overboard. The violence in the film is profoundly disturbing but it is not pervasive as in most horror films. There are basically two scenes which made me sit up in shock and they are used so deftly tha, despite their gruesome nature, the thing that stands out the most to me is what those scenes say about the people in them rather than just how well done the effects were.
This is my favorite kind of violence in movies. Violence that reveals realities. Many times, violence is used as the point of a horror movie. The reason people go to see a “Halloween” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” is to see the kills. While I know that some of the appeal of “Scanners” is the same, the way the violence is used to reveal characters and theme is what I love the most and have had seared into my memory.
Besides the use of outstanding Special Effects, Cronenberg’s vision for the Sound Design creates an experience of psychic powers that is of a higher caliber than those in any other piece of psychic media I have ever seen. “X-Men,” “Star Trek,” “Babylon 5,” and the MCU all have psychic characters but when people communicate with psychic powers, it is always with an intense look, an echoey wash of sound, and maybe a couple fingers pressed to the temples.
In “Scanners,” Cronenberg records all the dialogue in the film in post production, making them match the words to the lips of the performers. This does two things. The first is that it allows the actors to portray one thing through their performance on the day of the shoot and another on the day of the voice over. It gives everything they say an otherworldly mixed emotion quality so that when a person aligns both of the performances it lands like thunder.
The second is that all the dialogue in the film sounds exactly the same, even the psychic dialogue. I’ve seen a lot of telepathy in films over the years but this choice made telepathy feel real and terrifying in a way I had not experienced before. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, “Dead Ringers”) at one point, after getting his psychic abilities under control, “What about the voices without lips?” referring to the mind speak. Of course to him these voices are not just oppressive but they as real as regular speech is to us. What a fantastic way to make the audience feel the same way as the character.
Understanding this madness inducing psychic onslaught is also a key to understanding Cameron Vale’s character. He has been insane and finally cured but that means he is just a child. He doesn’t know how to interact with people well, is full of questions, but also can’t articulate them well. Many of the things he says sound like the questions of a 7 or 8 year old kid but that also lends to this sense that he might actually be easy to deceive. If he is that easy to fool every conversation he has is fraught with pitfalls that a normal person would spot a mile away but he may get duped by.
All in all, this is a brilliantly conceived and executed film which is elevated by the craft that went into it from being a hum-drum rehash of a classic storyline to an epic almost mythical clash between near gods among mortals.
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