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TCM Underground - March 2019
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Remind Me

Scanners

Arguably the most famous and significant cult film created during Canada's legendary tax shelter era (which ran from the mid-1970s to the early '80s), Scanners (1981) put writer-director David Cronenberg on the international map courtesy of a wide, aggressive U.S. release from Avco Embassy the same year it also struck gold with John Carpenter's Escape from New York. Cronenberg's fifth commercial feature film had been gestating for quite a while (originally under the title Telepathy 2000) with the filmmaker, who set the concept aside two years earlier to channel his turbulent divorce and child custody battle into his harrowing horror classic, The Brood (1979).

The Montreal-shot Scanners finds Cronenberg introducing stronger science-fiction elements than ever before into his familiar body horror concerns, with its show-stopping makeup effects (some by the legendary Dick Smith) including pulsing veins, throbbing temples, and a show-stopping exploding head (achieved with a camera shooting 400fps and a shotgun-blasted latex head stuffed with layers of meaty debris) that turned the film into an instant word-of-mouth hit. These grisly highlights are the handiwork of the titular scanners, mutated humans able to read and control the minds of normal people and engaged in an ongoing battle for dominance that also involves a covert research facility and a shady pharmaceutical corporation.

Much criticism of this film has been leveled against leading man Stephen Lack, an artist who had previously dabbled in acting in a handful of Canadian art films. (Lack would later appear in Cronenberg's Dead Ringers in 1988 as well.) However, he was well aware of his status as a secondary name next to the two main imported stars, Jennifer O'Neill and Patrick McGoohan. "She knew what was going on so much more than I did," Lack said of his experience in an interview session for the film's U.K. home video release about his leading lady, a spokesperson for CoverGirl for three decades and still well remembered as the star of Summer of '42 (1971). Likewise, McGoohan had long been a cult figure among sci-fi fans as the star and main force behind the TV series The Prisoner and had long been a fixture on the big and small screens.

However, the film is really stolen by another Canadian actor, Michael Ironside, a still-busy character actor who turned the malevolent Darryl Revok into one of Cronenberg's most indelible villains. The role allowed Ironside to parlay the film's success into a still-busy career, with leading roles soon after this film including Visiting Hours (1982) and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983) as well as the television series, V. Billed just above Ironside in the film is another exceptional veteran Canadian actor, Lawrence Dane, a reliable mascot for local productions with credits ranging from Rituals (1977) to Happy Birthday to Me (1981).

The production of Scanners would prove to be less than harmonious, however, with a rushed shooting schedule to complete it under the wire by the end of 1980 to qualify for the necessary tax exemptions. Executive producers Pierre David and Victor Solnicki, familiar faces to any Canadian film fans, packaged the film as part of a busy slate with other titles including Hog Wild and Dirty Tricks, resulting in what multiple participants have described as the most chaotic of Cronenberg's productions. The heavy number of special effects and stunts, combined with some demanding personalities among the actors, was a huge challenge as Cronenberg found himself still writing the shooting script once the cameras rolled; however, the strain resulted in a tense, chilling film that resonated with audiences and gave Cronenberg the cachet to mount his first film to be released by a major studio, Videodrome (1983), also shepherded by David-Solnicki. It's worth noting that when he first burst onto the filmmaking scene with his extreme visions of human outcasts in transformation, Cronenberg was considered a pariah by the Canadian press. Even after Scanners became the first widely distributed Canadian production to open in the top spot at the American box office (and spawned multiple homegrown sequels), he would only gradually become recognized as one of his country's most important and influential filmmakers, a status he still holds securely today.

By Nathaniel Thompson

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