31 Days to Scare ~ Scanners

The Facts:

Synopsis: A scientist sends a man with extraordinary psychic powers to hunt others like him.

Stars: Jennifer O’Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Michael Ironside, Robert A. Silverman

Director: David Cronenberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Around the same time Canada was hopping on the American bandwagon and producing a bunch of teenager slasher films, they also were nurturing a strange vision of another type of horror.  Beginning in 1975 with the landmark Shivers, director David Cronenberg has been a pioneer in crafting a particular type of scare fest that goes beyond an outside force acting hacking away at an unsuspecting innocent.  He’s clearly been more intrigued with persona and the “body horror” subgenre in films like Rabid (a woman becomes a zombie after having plastic surgery), The Brood (psychotherapy produces demonic entities), and Videodrome (the original attack on mass media’s negative influence) and, of course, Scanners.

Released in 1981 and probably best remembered today as the movie where that guy’s head explodes, it’s so much more than that.  While it doesn’t feature any revolutionary technique in filmmaking or the kind of memorable (okay, good) performances that stand up against similar movies released in that era, its themes are sophisticated and more often than not well ahead of its time.  Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) obviously had deeper themes about the rising of the next generation of leaders and wanted to say something about the dangers in handing over the keys to a fragile kingdom so fearlessly.

There’s a new weapon on display courtesy of a company called ConSec and they are called “scanners”.  With the ability to control the minds of others, these psychics are initially meant to be a way to infiltrate enemies consciousness and anticipate their next move or prevent them from taking action.  However, as with any weapon designed for good there are those who want to use it for evil and that’s where scanner Daryl Revok comes in.  After making a rather messy demonstration of a scanner with lesser strength, Revok (Michael Ironside, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) goes on the run and exposes he has formed his own group of aggressive scanners that oppose the more docile troupe employed by ConSec.  Revok’s more take charge minions want to be calling the shots and not rely on the passive ConSec scanners to lead the way.

The man behind the the ConSec operation is Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, Braveheart) who reluctantly calls in troubled scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, Dead Ringers) to help track down Revok before he goes too far with his plans.  Vale has suffered terribly with his dark gift, winding up on the street and not always being able to control his powers.  With the aid of a new drug  meant to quiet some of his unstable rumblings, Vale agrees to help Dr. Ruth (save your jokes) because he’s the only one that’s any kind of match for Revok. Picking up another individual with special skills along the way (Jennifer O’Neill, The Psychic), the trio are in a race against time to figure out where Revok will strike next.  There’s an added layer of mystery involving a link between Vale and Revok that, convenient as it may be, helps keep the film coloring inside the lines until its rushed ending.

I’d say Scanners is about ten minutes longer than it needed to be with a few too many dips in the action.  While I applaud Cronenberg building out some character backstory with Vale and even more so by giving Revok a decent amount of motivation beyond being a simple megalomaniac, it does weigh down the film when it should be picking up steam.  Credit also to Lack and Ironside (and all the scanners, actually) for developing their own facial twists and tics in conveying their powers – it could be laughable to some but it’s highly effective when paired with Howard Shore’s pulsating score.  The effects are a bit hokey but somehow it all works as part of the grand design of Cronenberg’s master plan.

There’s a reason why Scanners has gone on to become a cult classic and spawn several lesser-than sequels (but oddly no remake) and it’s not because of that aforementioned head-exploding scene, which I must say is divine.  It’s because it’s a smart, well-constructed film that delivers the goods when necessary.  I’m not sure it has a high yearly re-watchability factor but it’s absolutely something you could revisit every five years or so with satisfaction.

31 Days to Scare ~ Happy Birthday to Me (1981)

happy_birthday_to_me_poster_01

The Facts:

Synopsis: At the snobby Crawford Academy, popular high school senior Virginia Wainwright survives a freak accident, but suffers from memory loss and traumatic blackouts. As she attempts to resume a normal life, something terrible is happening – her friends are ruthlessly murdered one-by-one.

Stars: Melissa Sue Anderson, Glenn Ford, Lawrence Dane, Jack Blum, Matt Craven, Lisa Langlois, Tracy Bregman, Lenore Zahn, Lesleh Donaldson

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: By the time Happy Birthday to Me rolled into theaters in May of 1981, movie houses were becoming saturated with holiday themed slasher pics after the booming success of Halloween in 1978 and Friday the 13th in 1980.  No government holiday stone was left unturned and no religious day of remembrance was safe from having a killer (or killers) hunting down people that just want to have a good Easter egg roll or plant in tree in honor of Arbor Day.  See Prom Night, My Bloody Valentine, and Terror Train if you need a refresher.

What sets Happy Birthday to Me apart from the others is that it actually feels like it’s trying for the majority of its running length, aiming to provide audiences with some unique kills and a fair number of red herrings to keep you guessing until the totally ludicrous finale.  Underneath the gore and out of left field plot twists lies a fairly interesting film that isn’t totally lost along the way to its genre’s normal trappings.

A puzzling late career entry for director J. Lee Thompson (the original Cape Fear, The Guns of the Navarone) and one of actor Glenn Ford’s last roles, this nicely budgeted Canadian produced flick has Mary Ingalls herself (Melissa Sue Anderson) as a popular girl who just can’t keep her friends alive.  Still feeling the lingering effects of a traumatic brain injury due to a car crash that claimed the life of her mother, she starts to suffer blackouts and when she wakes up finds that another coed has been murdered.  With her birthday approaching the guest list gets liberally trimmed by a killer that likes to off their victims in a most cinematic fashion (I mean, just look at the poster!).

It’s clear that along the way the original script was jiggered with and lost some of its intended focus.  Though it feels like it’s headed one way for its big reveal, the ending provided is one no one would ever be able to predict in a million years.  I’m guessing there was a last minute reshoot to make the conclusion less obvious but in doing so it renders a heap of earlier clues and plot points useless.  It’s a cheat and a big cheat at that, but it’s just looney tunes enough to make it memorable.

Anderson never was that strong of an actress and it shows here as well.  Whether crying, screaming, or saying her lines in a flat monotone, a Scream Queen she was not destined to be.  Ford collects his paycheck without much shame while a bunch of Canadian teens never make that much of an impression, save for Matt Craven (Indian Summer) and Tracy Bregman as Anderson’s doomed chums.

It’s a film that goes from spooky to silly to scary to stupid but it’s not a bad party to think about attending – trust me, you’ve been to way worse real birthdays.  And don’t forget the creepy theme song that plays over the end credits…