In 1980, David Cronenberg continued to expand his "body horror" oeuvre, following up the rage dwarf/child custody drama The Brood with his most financially successful effort to that point, Scanners. Thanks in no small part to Chris Walas’ literal mind-blowing special effects and a ferociously menacing turn by Michael Ironside, Cronenberg’s flick changed the face of the horror landscape; we’d seen telepaths and telekinetics before, but the Canadian auteur imbued the fanciful tale with a combination of impressive biochemical gravitas and onscreen carnage that elevated it above the likes of Escape from Witch Mountain and Bewitched. However, somewhere along the line, he also signed away the creative rights to his story and characters, laying the path for original producer Pierre David and partner Rene Malo to line their pockets with a pair of belated and unrelated sequels (both released in 1991), now available on a DVD/Blu-ray pack from Shout! Factory.
Scanners II: The New Order features David Hewlett, star of the previous year’s intriguing and underrated psycho-thriller Pin, as one of the next generation of Scanners, a veterinary student with special gifts for healing. Our mentalist Dr. Doolittle suffers from increasingly painful headaches, but this doesn’t stop him from falling for fellow classmate Deborah Raffin (still looking terrific 15 years after her Nightmare in Badham County breakout).
Hewlett soon comes to the attention of villainous police superintendent Yvan Ponton, a hardnose moralist with designs for curbing the criminal element via a scheme involving a team of telepathic enforcers kept under control by the experimental (and highly debilitating and addictive) drug F2. Less psychotic than his psychic brethren, Hewlett becomes Ponton’s prime candidate to alter the city’s political fate and help realize his vision of a “new order.”
It probably goes without saying that director Christian Duguay is no Cronenberg, but even on purely escapist sci-fi/action terms the enterprise never really takes flight, struggling tonally between dicey acting and splattery set-pieces. Part of the problem is that Duguay seems unsure whether to take things seriously a la his predecessor or just go full tilt loosey goosey; as a result, things range between silly and soporific.
The mopey Hewlett lacks the charismatic star power or unnamable weirdness to hold our attention, and his villainous foils are so cardboard in nature they ought to have dry cereal inside.
Raffin is cute, but she’s given little to do except offer game smiles and puzzled/distraught looks in equal measure. Lacking Ironside’s deep-seeded menace, Raoul Trujillo plays the Wild n’ Crazy Card hard, working his rolling eyes and tongue overtime as Ponton’s resident psychic heavy. The opening scene in which he seemingly discovers videogames for the first time (in 1991?) is unintentionally hilarious and indicative of the uneven tone that pervades throughout.
Any movie about telekinetics is going to involve a healthy portion of watching people making weird faces at each other, performing some patented form of eyebrow martial artistry to fling their opponents about. Here, the scanners’ abilities have broadened in range; in addition to numerous crowd-pleasing instances of cerebral judo-induced nosebleeds and exploding heads, thanks to f/x man Mike Smithson they can now apparently turn people into silly putty, puffing up and/or contorting their victims’ bodies like EZ-Bake pretzels.
There are also a few interesting subplots – such as the late introduction of Hewlitt’s sister Isabelle Mejias and revelations about their bloodline – and some enjoyably gooey nonsense, but it’s a lesser “fun but flawed” effort all around.
Things pick up considerably for Scanners III: The Takeover, which does a much better job of embracing its schlocky shocks and wackadoo plotline. Lovely Scanner lass Liliana Komorowska’s father Colin Fox concocts a new drug (F3, naturally) to combat the migraines and omnipresent inner voices that accompany the condition, administered via a snazzy little blinking plastic piece that rests fashionably behind the patient’s right ear.
Unfortunately, side effects include the problematic blockage of the subject’s conscience, meaning moral codes start dropping faster than a cheerleader’s undies on prom night. Under the influence of F3, Komorowska begins exhibiting blatant megalomania; bumping anyone off who stands in her way, especially once she discovers that the mind-controlling Scanner signal can be transmitted through television waves. (Three guesses as to what industry she’s in.)
Meanwhile, her brother Steve Parrish (following an unfortunate New Year’s Eve stunt) has sought solace in a group of monks in Thailand, but once news arrives of his sibling’s bizarre exploits, he heads for home and the stage is set for the requisite vein-popping, brain bulging battle royale.
Duguay again takes the helm, with a clearer eye toward crowd-pleasing set-pieces (Mike Maddi handles the splatter this time around) over character development and the film is all the better for it. Sure, there’s no denying the cheesy 90s hairstyles and screaming electric guitar riffs on the soundtrack, but Komorowska is undeniably watchable; erotically sneering as she mentally pummels any puny human that dares challenge her, she’s the primary reason behind the film’s entertainment factor.
Parrish can’t touch her vampy appeal, but he’s a serviceable enough hero and knows how to throw a cranial right cross with the best of them.
I could have done without Komorowska’s inexplicably goofy gang of fellow Scanner henchmen (and Claire Celucci’s busty henchwoman), throwing hitch-kicks and unfunny witticisms (complete with accompanying koo-koo sound effects) with abandon, but they don’t consume enough screen time to sink the ship.
The usually generous Shout! Factory unveils an oddly bare bones DVD/Blu-ray combo pack release, lacking any extras or even root menus – the only choice one has is which movie to press “play” for (no chapter menus, no supplements, no subtitles or language selection). It’s a bit of a surprise, as is their decision to provide an opening bumper of the selected movie’s goriest splatter moment; I suppose it’s a little late to cry “spoiler” two decades on, but hey, I hadn’t seen them before. Despite these minor complaints, it’s still a fun little beer n’ pizza double feature and kudos to S!F for bringing it out.
Scanners II/Scanners III is now available for pre-order, with a release date of September 10, 2013
--Aaron Christensen, HorrorHound Magazine