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So much more than an exploding head.

Blu-ray Review: ‘Scanners’ – Criterion Collection

Written by Mat Brewster

I’ve been compiling a list of all the movies I think that I really should see.  That’s different than the list of movies I want to see.  As a part-time, amateur film student there is a realization that there are certain films I need to watch in order to further my understanding and appreciation of the art form.  I started the list because I realized how easy it was to plug in Netflix or any other streaming device, surf through their selection and watch something that looked fun or at least interesting and give it a go.  Meanwhile there were all these well reviewed, well respected great films that I was neglecting.  I want to be more intentional with my film viewing.  My resolution for 2014 is to only watch films on this list (please do note it’s a work in progress with many more to be added later – though I’ll take suggestions in the comment section.)

In making the list, I tried to find the truly great, the well-known classics, but also I decided I wanted to go through the entire filmography of some of my favorite directors.  I’ve seen most of the renowned films by artists like Kurosawa, Bergman, Hitchock, and Truffaut, but I want to dig into their entire oeuvre, I want to watch their lesser-known movies.  I think it will be quite stimulating to see how the great directors changed and grown over time.

I included David Cronenberg in my list though I doubt there are many who would include him in with the greatest directors ever lived.  He started his career as a genre filmmaker, turning out science fiction gems and disturbing horror movies – two genres that rarely get any critical love.  Over his long career he’s slowly gotten more attention for his very distinct manner of making films.

Scanners was the film that put him on the map, and it was the first film of his I’d ever heard of (though I’m just now seeing it.)  Or rather it was the exploding head scene that I’d heard of rather than the actual film.  It’s the exploding head scene that everybody had heard about.  Even today if you ask the man on the street about Croenenberg, if they’ve heard of him at all they’ll likely know him as the guy who made the exploding-head movie.

Watching the film for the first time via Criterion’s new 2K digital restoration, I kept waiting with hot anticipation for that scene.  Anytime anyone stared even slightly intently at another, I’d move forward hoping their head would explode.  That the scene happens early in the film was a relief, though afterwards I continued to wonder if someone else’s head would do the same.

That the exploding head has survived in a sort of cult adoration in this age of animated GIFs and incessant Tumblrs is  no surprise, but what is unexpected is how well the rest of the film holds up.  The last thirty years has seen hundreds of films with all sorts of extreme grotesquery, but most of them come and go with little notice from the non-horrorphiles.  Yet Scanners is still talked about with awe, and one of the world’s great prestige video companies has now released an superb edition into their collection.

Which all comes back to the brilliance and artistry of David Cronenberg.  That he was able to do it under difficult and rushed circumstances only makes it that much more remarkable.  According to IMDB, Cronenberg has noted Scanners was the most frustrating film he’s ever made.  Interviews included as extras on the Criterion disks prove this to be true.  Financing for Canadian films often create a sort of “wait and rush” response.  He didn’t know the film was going to get funding until late in the year and then once he did it needed to be completed before the year ran out in order to qualify for certain tax breaks.  This caused Cronenberg to have to write the film while he was shooting it.

The movie certainly shows signs of that throughout.  The plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense and the pacing is a little wonky.  The first section of the film is filled with convoluted exposition that is supposed to set up the rest of the film but winds up getting bogged down in fuzzy science and impenetrable mythology.    From there it moves more easily into a more action-based espionage thriller with lots of body horror overtones.  The acting never rises above just merely adequate and the writing remains stilted.  Yet I still really loved the film.  What it lacks in polished filmmaking it more than makes up for in sheer ridiculous joy.  Cronenberg is able to make a rushed, relatively rough production and turn it into some really wonderful entertainment.

The new transfer was supervised by David Cronenberg and it looks really great all things considered.  This is a medium budget Canadian horror film made in the early 1980s so don’t expect show-off quality, true high-definition video.  But it’s clean and free of any noticeable defects.  Likewise the audio is very good for this type of picture.  Its a pretty modest soundtrack overall, but it has a good range of dynamics and clarity.

Extras include a new 23-minute feature with interviews from various special effects people who worked on the film, and a new interview with actor Michael Ironside.  Also included are an interview with actor Stephen Lack, a Cronenberg appearance on The Bob McLean Show, an illustrated booklet with an essay by critic Kim Newman.  The best extra is the entirety of Cronenberg’s first full-length feature, Stereo.  Made in 1969, it deals with experiments in artificially created telepathy  and gives some interesting insight into the director and the genesis of Scanners.

While David Cronenberg often gets regulated to secondary status as a director due to his genre specific beginnings, there is no real doubt that he is a true artist.  Though Scanners has its problems, it is still an immensely enjoyable film to watch, even after all the heads have exploded.  Criterion’s new Blu-ray upgrade does an incredible job of presenting the film and giving the view insight into its making.

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