Vale (Stephen Lack) dresses like a hobo and doesn't feel much healthier as he negotiates a cup of coffee in a shopping mall's busy cafe. When he overhears two women on a nearby table discussing their distaste for his appearance, he focuses on the elder of the pair and concentrates his psychic powers to a point where she has been reduced to the floor writhing in pain.

As he gets up to leave, his telekinetic actions have alerted two men lurking in the shadows. They give chase and, with the help of a tranquiliser dart, are able to catch him. When he next awakens, Vale is strapped to a bed in what appears to be a warehouse.

Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) hovers over Vale, and informs him he is a "scanner". Without explaining what that is exactly, he promises that he will help him learn how to use his special powers correctly.

Meanwhile, another scanner holds a seminar for potential investors at the offices of the ConSec corporation. In turns out ConSec are working on developing these "telepathic curiosities" as possible tools of warfare - and the host on this occasion invites volunteers from the audience to come on to the stage and get "scanned". A man by the name of Revok (Michael Ironside) steps up, and ... well, I suspect you know how this scene ends. Bang!

ConSec boss Trevellyan (Mavor Moore) responds by hiring a new head of security in the form of tough-talking Keller (Lawrence Dane), a man who believes Ruth's research into training scanners for the good of the Nation is futile. Of course, Ruth's retort covers the fact that an assassin was able to infiltrate the previous day's presentation, and kill the host by means of scanning techniques of his own.

We learn that of the 286 scanners known to exist, most of them have disappeared and are believed to have become part of an underground terrorist group ran by power-mad Revok. If Ruth can convert Vale to the good of their cause, he argues, he can condition him to infiltrate Revok's group and bring a significant number of scanners home to roost.

Trevellyan goes along with Ruth's suggestion, much to Keller's disapproval. And so, Ruth starts to work on the confused Vale - and the wheels are set in motion for an infiltration into one of the most powerful terrorist organisations imaginable. Along the way, the plot is muddied by double-crossing, Vale's soul searching and a potential love interest in the form of Kim (Jennifer O'Neill).

Written earlier in director David Cronenberg's career but filmed in-between 1979's THE BROOD and 1983's VIDEODROME, SCANNERS stays true to the themes of body horror and lurid science-fiction nightmare scenarios that earned the Canadian filmmaker his reputation prior to his mainstream breakthrough with the 1986 remake of THE FLY.

Although it's clearly a low budget affair, as exampled by dodgy peripheral performances and a tight shooting schedule which clearly didn't allow for certain clumsy scenes (a couple of ham-fisted chases in particular) to be reshot, the film does benefit from a handful of key players who help it belie its reported budget of 4 million Canadian dollars.

The first of these is the cinematography of Mark Irwin, which shoots from interesting angles wherever possible and catches the natural colours of each scene's surroundings with resourceful skill. The opening sequence in the shopping mall is a great example of this.

Then we have Howard Shore's score, which is a great mix of the melodramatic, electronic and Gothic.

Ironside is a great villain, managing to outshine even the excellent McGoohan. Even if Lack is unfortunately cold and charmless as the male lead, these two more than compensate with their mix of menace of presence.

Finally, and most significantly, we have the special effects of a young Chris Walas and his team. Overseen by none other than Dick Smith, the set-pieces here really are the definition of the term "show-stoppers". In fact, the early head explosion and the climactic face-off are so remarkable that they make everything in-between seem a little flat.

That's more to do with Cronenberg's direction. He's always been a rather icy, impersonal director of actors - James Woods (VIDEODROME) and Jeff Goldblum (THE FLY) being the only two thespians I can think of who've successfully risen above this shortcoming - and SCANNERS' drama suffers a little as a result. We don't care too much about Vale's fate, and the film's dialogue-heavy middle does noticeably sag.

Still, the pros outweigh the cons and it's not difficult to see why SCANNERS became such a hit on video in the 80s, or how it maintains a healthy cult following to this day.

Second Sight bring SCANNERS to UK blu-ray in a fetching Steelbook packaging. More importantly though, the film is presented fully uncut in a highly respectable 1080p HD encode. Offering a 16x9 enhancement of the film's original aspect ratio, the transfer - proffered in MPEG4-AVC form - boasts strong colours (sometimes, arguably, a little too warm) and clean images. A nice filmic texture is tangible throughout, while close-up scenes reveal a remarkable amount of previously unseen detail. Blacks were noticeably unstable in a couple of scenes - one of which was the head explosion sequence, would you believe - but this doesn't occur often enough to be problematic. Signs of age are inevitable, but for the most part SCANNERS here looks very good indeed.

English audio is offered in PCM stereo and 5.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes. While both are intelligent, reliable propositions, I found myself favouring the more natural-sounding former as events progressed. Optional English subtitles are well-written and easy to read.

The disc opens to an animated main menu page. From there, pop-up menus include a scene-selection menu allowing access to SCANNERS via 16 chapters.

Some interesting bonus features begin with a 23-minute chat with Lack. Entitled "My Art Keeps Me Sane", this is an affable and laid-back featurette in which the actor, who looks good for his age, talks about his experience on the film. He reveals how Cronenberg had enlisted him for SCANNERS, only to get side-tracked by his wife's pregnancy into writing and making THE BROOD instead. When financiers then gave the director the chance to go back to his old SCANNERS idea, the film was made on the quick. Lack also talks about Cronenberg's loose style of direction ("try not to bounce so much when you walk") and the discomfort experienced while filming those climactic FX sequences. Despite a whiff of self-congratulation, Lack makes for a good interviewee and his contributions to the disc are highly valid.

Cinematographer Irwin gets his own 15-minute featurette in the form of "The Eyes of Scanners". He talks about his early career, how he got to work with Cronenberg and his memories of the on-the-hop shoot. Though engaging, I couldn't help but be distracted while watching this by the fact that Irwin now resembles Michael Haneke.

"The Chaos of Scanners" is a 13-minute documentary wherein producer Pierre David talks about how low budget genre films such as this one were hurriedly made in their time. "The Making of SCANNERS was chaos" David tells off-screen interviewer David Gregory of Severin Films, for it is they who produced these new featurettes.

"Exploding Brains and Popping Veins" is my favourite bonus feature presented here. It's a 9-minute chat with Make-up effects artist Stephan Dupuis, who has a great memory for the rushed shoot and how some of the more famous FX set-pieces were achieved. He speaks fondly of working with Walas (whose surname is pronounced "whale ass", per Dupuis) and seems justifiably proud of what now exists in their names on the screen.

"Bad Guy Dane" is an interview with the now very aged actor. Again though, he has both a great recollection and a great fondness for the film. This is the shortest featurette here at only 5 minutes in length, but is none the less valuable for that fact.

Alas, there is no input on this disc from Cronenberg, nor is there even the film's original trailer. Still, the extra features that we do get are great - and they're all presented in HD.

With FX that hold up to this day and a concept that still remains quite original, SCANNERS is a good if flawed entry in the early film career of David Cronenberg. It's served very well on Second Sight's blu-ray disc (we'll have to wait and see what Criterion come up with, if rumours of their forthcoming blu-ray prove to be true), with some great extras and nice Steelbook packaging.

Review by Stuart Willis

Released by Second Sight
Region B
Rated 18
Extras :
see main review