Friday, June 21, 2013

Completist Guide to the Scanner series (1981-1995) Part 1

Scanners (1981)

Although David Cronenberg is thought of as a highly respected director nowadays back in the early 80s he wasn’t so well regarded. His main claim to fame was a series of very low budget and truly grotesque “body horror” movies such as Rabid and The Brood. Scanners was his attempt to create something palatable for a mainstream audience. In fact the working title for the movie was the pretty cheesy and blunt Telepath 2000. Now Scanners is movie that a lot of people remember for two things, one is the exploding head at the start of the movie and the other is the ultra gory final battle between the two protagonists. But there’s a fair bit more to it than that.

The plot sees Stephen Lack play Cameron Vale, a homeless guy who is abducted by a mysterious corporation called ConSec. ConSec specialises in rounding up scanners, a small select group of telepaths who were accidentally created when doctors gave pregnant women an experimental drug in the 1950s. Vale is recruited by ConSec's leader Dr Ruth to track down Daryl Revok, a psychotic renegade telepath who is planning to create a brand new army of scanners to take over the world. Will he stop him in time?

Scanners is quite a dated film. There's a odd lack of suspense or pace to the whole thing which stops it from being fully enjoyable. That said, the performances are generally very good. Former 'Prisoner' Patrick McGoohan makes an ideal bearded mentor figure and Michael Ironside, in one of his earliest roles, makes a truly terrifying villain. The only real weak link in the film is Stephen Lack who plays the role of Cameron Vale way too understated.

Where the film does come alive is the special effects which are truly remarkable, even today. Heads explode, veins bulge and people get set on fire. The climatic duel and head explosion were courtesy of Dick Smith, who created look of Regan in The Exorcist and Gary Zeller who worked on Altered States.

Reportedly Cronenberg had to start filming without a finished script which perhaps explains it's stilted pace. Still he builds the film to satisfying conclusion that touches on some interesting and unexpected ideas of transhumanism. Scanners is a quite innovative film in that although it contains graphic gore, it isn't really a horror film. It's a more of a thriller that touches on all sorts of ideas from corporate espionage and science gone wrong. Overall Scanners is a good film that just about deserves its place as a science-fiction classic.


Scanners II: The Takeover (1991)

Next up we have Scanners II: The New Order which was released direct to video in 1991, directed by Christian Duguay, another Canadian director. Duguay is probably most famous for directing the similarly titled Screamers in 1995, a very well made, low budget Philip K Dick adaptation that starred Peter Weller. Although the original Scanners film wasn’t very successful at the cinema it did huge business on video so it made sense for the sequel to head to the burgeoning video market.

Scanners II is about an evil police commander called John Forrester who is using abducted scanners to further his own political career. Inevitably he crosses paths with our hero David Kellum, a young vet student who also happens to be a well adjusted scanner. At first Kellum agrees to help him out, solving a case of mass poisoning but later he discovers Forrester's ulterior motives for his powers and is forced to go on the run.

He ends up hiding at the parent’s house where it's reveal that he is actually adopted and his real father was Cameron Vale (a predictable cop out for a sequel). He also has a sister he never knew, Julie Vale and together the pair of siblings team up to take down Forrester and invade his secret facility for experimenting on scanners.

Scanners II is actually a lot of fun. It’s a lot more fast-paced compared to the original and it revels in its gory sequences. Hewlett makes a likeable lead and has a lot bit more personality than Lack. The stand out actor of the film though is Raoul Trujillo who plays Forrester’s psychotic side kick Drak. In a clever bit of misdirection it’s actually Drak who we meet in the opening scenes of the film, leading us to believe he’s going to be the hero. He's no replacement for Michael Ironside but he gives him a run for his money.

The storyline is quite straightforward and not maybe as well thought out as the original film. Whereas the first Scanners film was about corporate espionage the sequel is a relatively simplistic tale of corrupt politics. Scanners II was written by B J Nelson, the man responsible for Chuck Norris action film Lone Wolf McQuade. One thing I always get hung up on with sequels like this is when they set a film 20 years after the original but only shoot it a few years later. It means you have to either retroactively put the original film further in the past or imagine that the film is set in the future. A bunch of horror movie sequels do this - The Omen, Friday the 13th, The Prophecy - it's really distracting.

Overall Scanners II is a relatively satisfying sequel that really comes alive during its action sequences and benefits from decent performances.


Scanner III The Takeover (1992)

Scanner III The Takeover (or Scanner Force as it was originally titled in the UK) was also directed by Christian DuGuay and released in 1992. The two films were shot back to back. Sadly we lose the character of David Kellum and instead get an entirely new pair of characters. Alex and Helena Monet, two Scanners siblings.

The films open with Alex accidentally killing his friend during a scanning "prank" gone wrong. Upset at causing a death he leaves America and heads to a monastery in Thailand to learn inner peace (presumably because it worked so well for John Rambo in Rambo III). Meanwhile his sister Helena, a high powered TV executive, begins taking a new experimental drug called Eph-3, in order to permanently remove her painful scanning abilities.

Inevitably the drug backfires and instead turns her into, for want of a better phrase, a Super Bitch - killing innocent people (and even a few pigeons) left, right and centre. Eventually Alex learns about her destructive powers and comes home to stop Helena before she uses televisions to scan and take over the entire population.

Scanners III is a far more goofy, cartoonish movie than Scanners II ever was. The script again was written by B J Nelson, along with Julie Richard and David Preston, and essentially about an hour of the 90 minute running time is Helena pulling one evil scanning trick to another. Ranging from embarrassing her rival by making him do cheesy dancing to making her former doctor’s head explode.

Polish actress Liliana Komorowska, who plays Helena, chews so much scenery I’m surprised there’s any sets left to act on. Every other line she says is an awful, groan-inducing one liner. It’s like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Batman and Robin all over again. There’s clearly an attempt to incorporate some ironic dark humour (like Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop did) but it mostly falls flat. The only major interest point in the film that the special effects are still top notch and far more frequent than any other entry in the series. It’s a shame that the film and acting are so mind-numbing.

In the end Scanners III is a pretty poor sequel that doesn’t offer much for fans of the series. Its attempt to satirise amoral 80s yuppies seems somewhat belated, its hero Alex, once again, is utterly boring. Most disappointing, the final fight, something all the other films have done so well, is a real damp squib.



  1. Cool reviews man! I love these movies. The first one of course is the more "serious" of all three because it was directed by Cronenberg and truthfully, I think it's the best one in the bunch, but I agree, I wonder why the main character plays things so mellow. Love that scene where they are going to stop a persons heart with the power of their minds...awesome stuff. Michael Ironside steals the show for sure, so maybe I guess thats why the main actor plays it so cool, he's a counter balance to Ironsides wildness.

    Scanners II is entertaining, but a whole lot cheesier, still I love it because it isnt afraid of going over the top with the sci-fi gore elements. I've yet to see part III, but I recently discovered they are finally going to release a dvd with parts II and III in the same dvd, but it wont be out until sept 2013! You can bet your ass I'll be purchasing that one!

    1. Yeah, Scanners 1 is an awesome movie. I just love that ending. Shame they didn't just use Michael Ironside for the sequels, I mean he was doing a load of DTV around then anyway. Would have been a cool bit of continuity.

      Yeah, they released a Scanners Trilogy boxset in the UK a few year back. Part 3 is worth checking out if you're a fan of the series but it is a step down from the other films.

  2. You know Jack, I have to agree with you 100% on Scanners. You feel the exact same way I feel about it. It's beautifully shot, great effects and a really great concept. But it lags a lot, and the lead was about as wooden an actor as they come. I just couldn't get over how awful he was and how did they not see that??

    Since the sequels were DTV, I never saw them. I was afraid they would sour my experience of the first one. lol. Great review man. I'll definitely be checking out Part 2 for sure.

    1. Yeah, like Franco says above there's a double DVD of Scanners 2&3 coming out in the US later in the year. I think it's going to be a Shout/Scream Factory release. They are both work checking out but 2 is the better film.

  3. Your reviews were spot-on. Especially the first flick. I've yet to see Part 3, but it sounds like a good Beer n' Pizza movie from what you described. I can't wait till you get to the Scanner Cop films.

    1. Cheers Mitch. Yeah, 3 is definitely a beer and pizza movie. Can't wait to get to the Scanner Cop movies. Here's a quick preview - I f***in love 'em!