The Tricky Case Of Cronenberg's Scanners

It's time to look at another classic.  How about David Cronenberg's Scanners?  It's had a troubled history on DVD, thanks primarily to an early botch job from MGM, and has often been one of those titles best imported by those in the know.  But now that The Criterion Collection's taken it over for its HD restoration, is that still the case?  Well, actually...
Scanners has always been the biggest and most well received of Cronenberg's original sci-fi/ horror run until he really cracked the mainstream with The Fly, but it's always had the weakest impact on me.  Compared to the psycho-biological mind fucks of his masterpieces like Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Videodrome, Scanners feels like a very conventional B-movie thriller.  The kind of thing Michael Caine has made twenty or thirty of, and you could catch them all on cable TV in the 90s.  It's a dry story of industrial espionage between two drug processing corporations with a little bit of very straight-forward ESP thrown in.  I guess, superficially, part of the appeal was just seeing Cronenberg working with slightly higher budgets and production appeal.  This one's got helicopters, exploding gas stations and car chases... you'd never see a bus drive through an operating record store in one of Cronenberg's earlier films.  And certainly, the infamous head explosion scene is one heck of a memorable scene.
But I'd keep returning to this film, only because I'd tell myself there has to be more to it than that.  And to some degree, I'm still puzzling it out, but watching these latest blu-rays has illuminated it for me at least partially.  For one thing, I used to think of star Stephen Lack's performance as very wooden, a shortcoming Scanners has always had to work around.  But now I've come to appreciate it as an asset, a curious but deliberate melancholy kind of state, obviously meant to show the character is almost consistently drugged and/ or dealing with severe internal conflict.  It's such a polar opposite to Michael Ironside's performance, who really knows how to make a low budget role shine, but in a way that's the point.  And the more I think about it, I like that our characters are rather cynically portrayed as unwitting pawns between ConSec and BioCarbon Amalgate.  No matter who double-crosses who, they all live and die under the treads of the great corporate machines.
Scanners III: The Takeover
And if you need a demonstration of how masterfully superior Cronenberg's film is to its direct-to-video thriller peers, just watch any of the Scanners sequels.  They're not terrible, but that only makes it all the more impressive that they're clearly playing on such different levels.  Then throw in Howard Shore's wild score, which swings broadly between dramatically operatic and jazzy sci-fi clanging, plus all of Cronenberg's inspired little touches, like Robert Silverman's artwork or the eye on Ironside's bandage, and you've got a film that doesn't seems like it should be placid on paper, but mysteriously keeps you riveted throughout.  It's a tricky one.
Scanners first came out on DVD in 2001 from MGM.  It was anamorphic widescreen but barebones, and had another problem we'll come to later.  So fans were chomping at the bit by the time Anchor Bay UK came out with their special edition in 2005.  It held us over, anyway, until it was time for a proper blu-ray.  That debuted in Germany from Koch in 2011, but it was barebones and I think most of us were holding out for the 2k restoration, which was released in 2013 by Umbrella in Australia, Subkultur (and later Wicked Vision) in Germany and Second Sight in the UK.  We finally got it here in the US in 2014, courtesy of Criterion, which also included Cronenberg's 1969 short film Stereo as a bonus.
1) 2001 US MGM DVD; 2) 2005 UK AB DVD; 3) 2013 UK SS BD;
4) 2014 US Criterion DVD; 5) 2014 US Criterion BD.
So Criterion and Second Sight's blus are sourced from the same 2k restoration from the 35mm interpositive, but the final results sure aren't the same.  But let's take these in order.  MGM's initial DVD is anamorphic and all around pretty respectable for 2001.  You'll notice it has some odd boxing in the overscan area, matting three of four sides, resulting in a slightly odd 1.87:1 aspect ratio.  Anchor Bay shifted the framing a bit, windowboxing it completely to 1.82:1, but still revealing a bit more vertical information while cropping the right just slightly.  Then the blu-rays open it up slightly to 1.78:1, though again, it's worth noting that they're not identically framed, with the Criterion pointing noticeably lower than Second Sight, which includes more image along the top.

But the framing is just the beginning of Scanners' story.  I have no real preference for the slightly higher or lower framing, but Second Sight pulls ahead in two key areas.  One is more subjective.  This is another case of the ol' Criterion greens, and that sort of works for that first set of shots where they're in the funky train station lights.  But everywhere else, it just looks darker and less natural than the Second Sight timing to my eyes.  Although you could argue that Second Sight's whites are a little too bright.  More objectively, then, is the compression.  Look at Stephen Lack's cheek in the shots directly above.  The grain is and full of macro-blocking and pixelation on the Criterion, while it's all naturally captured and faithful to the source on the Second Sight disc.
So I called the MGM DVD "pretty respectable," but I was talking specifically about the PQ.  In terms of the audio, it's got a big flaw, and a surprising one for a major studio MGM disc: it's out of sync.  It's not way out of sync, but it's bad enough that every layman's gonna notice it.  They also had Spanish and French subs and a French dub, but when the original language track is borked, who cares?  When Anchor Bay came along, it was a very welcome upgrade, just by virtue of fixing the sync.  They also added additional 5.1 remixes and optional English subs, so at the time, it was a pretty sweet deal.

But of course now in the age of HD, we can forget all that and just look at the blus, both of which give us the original track in restored, lossless LPCM.  Second Sight also throws in a 5.1 mix in DTS-HD, and they both include optional English subtitles.
dueling Lack interviews.
Another bummer about the MGM DVD was that it was completely barebones, apart from a fullscreen trailer.  Anchor Bay didn't exactly turn it into a packed special edition, but they did include a brief featurette where critic Alan Jones gives a brief run-through of the story behind Scanners.  Better still, they included the complete David Cronenberg episode of that documentary series, The Directors.  Those have been released on DVD on their own, and often wound up as extras on special editions, but if you didn't already have it, these are nice little retrospectives with a lot of good interview subjects.   They also had the trailer, a photo gallery and bonus trailers for Scanners 2 & 3 and The Brood.

The really good stuff comes, though, when you get to the blu-rays.  Both Second Sight and Criterion have created a proper set of original Scanners special features, and it's all unique stuff.  Second Sight gives us a series of five excellent on-camera interviews with the eccentric Stephen Lack (who also shows us his art), cinematographer Mark Irwin, who's pretty funny, executive producer Pierre David, effects artist Stephan Dupuis and a short but compelling one with co-star Lawrence Dane.  Then Criterion has The Scanners Way, a featurette with special effects artists Dupuis, Chris Walas, Gary Zeller, and a few brief comments by Rick Baker on behalf of Dick Smith.  They also have a Stephen Lack interview which covers a lot of the same ground as Second Sight's, a great interview with Michael Ironside (he was suited for the role because he's had real life experience with psychic powers!), and a vintage television interview with Cronenberg, which is fun but more than a little hammy.  Criterion also has the trailer, 3 Radio Spots, and a fold-out insert with notes by Kim Newman.
One Criterion extra stands out, however: Cronenberg's early short film, Stereo from 1969.  It's an early, experimental work, barely feature-length (63 minutes) and silent, except for post-production narration, so don't get too excited.  But it's still an interesting piece that sees Cronenberg working very creatively with a lot of ideas and themes featured in some of his more mainstream film, including Scanners.  It documents a series of experiments by The Canadian Academy of Erotic Inquiry to put a bunch of telepaths together and see how they evolve.  Or something.  It's a little confusing and undeniably Cronenbergian.  But this isn't Stereo's first time at the rodeo.  Blue Underground released it as a bonus on their Fast Company DVD in 2004 (the limited edition 2-disc version only) and their blu-ray re-release in 2009[left].  Alliance also included it as an extra on their FC DVD in 2005, and most recently Arrow included it as in their 2015 2-disc set of Videodrome.  But there was a reason to be excited about Criterion's inclusion.
1) US 2009 BU BD; 2) US 2014 Criterion DVD; 3) US 2014 Criterion BD.
Criterion's transfer was created from a new 2k scan from a 35mm composite fine-grain element (and for those wondering, yes, Arrow's 2015 BD used Criterion's same restoration).  The result is that even the Criterion DVD is preferable to the Blue Underground blu.  The aspect ratio is almost the same, going from 1.66:1 to 1.67, though the new scan does reveal a bit more around the edges.  The grain is a bit sporadic on Criterion's blu, but it's mostly there, which is plenty more than you can say for Blue Underground's smoothed over, soft transfer.  Pretty sure they've just upscaled their SD transfer, which is better than leaving it in SD like Warner Bros likes to do, but it makes it even easier to notice their haloing and artifacting that surrounds every little detail.  So it really is a much more impressive presentation.  But it's worth noting neither release offers English subtitles - if you need those, you've got to cop Arrow's release.
Both sets of extras are pretty great, and have some good unique stuff.  A lot of it's redundant, too, though - everybody wants to tell the shotgun anecdote, so you're going to hear that over and over until you're sick of it, even on just one disc.  It's up to you if you're a big enough fan to splurge for both copies to have the full set of extras, or if one disc'll do ya.  But if you're just getting one, yeah, I'd recommend the Second Sight.

1 comment:

  1. Hi John. I bought the Criterion Blu-ray first. Watching the special features, I noticed how much better the short clips from the movie looked! I picked up the UK Second Sight edition, and the feature looked better, but, like you said, the whites are too bright. Finally picked up the German Subkultur-Entertainment edition on Ebay. It looks the best to me; great color, better contrast, and proper whites. The only flaws are some slight compression related issues.