Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

“You Murdered the Future”: A David Cronenberg Double Feature

The Criterion Collection recently added two David Cronenberg films to Hulu Plus: “Scanners” and “The Brood”. I’ve been in intrigued by Cronenberg for a while, but I’ve only seen a couple of his movies so far (“The Fly” and “Videodrome,”, to be specific). So I watched these two in a double feature, and seeing them back-to-back provided some interesting insight into his style and obsessions. If you haven’t seen these movies, I will be talking about some plot points, so beware of spoilers. (But the plots honestly aren’t their main draw anyway.)

“Scanners” tells the story of Cameron Vale, an outcast of society who quickly learns that he is a scanner, a special breed of people with telekinetic powers. He is taken under the wing of Dr. Ruth, a scientist from a military organization called Consec. Dr. Ruth quickly trains Cameron to control his powers, then sends him on a mission to stop Darryl Revok, a rogue and dangerous scanner. Along the way, Cameron finds a tortured artist (also a scanner), who leads him to an underground network of scanners who are trying to combine their powers to form a higher level of consciousness or something. Then more things happen. The plot isn’t really all that important.

What is important is the sheer fun of watching Cameron and the other scanners use their powers as they contort their faces into strained, twisted, ridiculous expressions, and the chaos that follows. At the beginning of the film, there is an infamous scene where Revok blows up a guy’s head. It’s  grotesquely captivating and juicy. Characters also get thrown around and sometimes lit on fire, and in one scene, Cameron blows up a computer with his mind. The real highlight is the climactic telekinetic duel between Cameron and Revok, with some great expressions and grisly body horror. It’s all really great practical special effects work by Dick Smith, who sadly died earlier this year.

The rest of the film doesn’t quite live up to the high standard of fun insanity set by the telekinesis scenes. The plot, as I mentioned earlier, is only serviceable enough to drive the movie forward. The general concept of the movie is strong, and the film touches on some interesting themes related to nature vs. nurture, fertility, and evolution, but it never really goes anywhere with them. Apparently the script was unfinished when shooting started and Cronenberg wrote scenes the morning before they were shot, so it makes sense that the film has a weird disjointed feeling. This on-the-fly creation of the script also led to some questionable (and hilarious) lines like “You murdered the future!”

The film’s biggest weakness is the acting by Stephen Lack, who gives the least charismatic performance I have ever seen. Calling it wooden would be an understatement. To be fair, Lack is a painter by trade, and Michael Ironside picks up some of his slack with a maniacal, scenery-chewing performance as Revok. He does great work here. The rest of the acting varies from mediocre to okay, but again, the real appeal of the movie comes from all the telekinesis stuff.

Being from 1981, “Scanners” feels very much like a product of its time and place. First of all, the film is very clearly Canadian, seen in characters accents and the general look of the landscape. It may also be one of the most 80s looking movies I’ve ever seen, both in the characters’ styles and the film’s aesthetic. Its look is interesting, full of of industrial office buildings and clunky analog technology. There is a recurring use of red as a color, which leads to some nice compositions. The special effects are the real star here though.

On the other hand, “The Brood” is propelled more by character drama than action and effects. Made two years before “Scanners”, it is a story about divorce, parenthood, and killer mutant children. The plot follows concerned father Frank Carveth, who fears his daughter is being beaten by his estranged wife Nola while she’s under the psychiatric care of Dr. Hal Raglan, a psychologist who runs the mysterious Somafree Institute for mentally unstable patients. Raglan is practicing “psychoplasmics” a technique which involves connections with emotional trauma and the physical body. More on that later. Frank believes his wife is dangerous and he wants full custody of his Candice, his 5 year-old daughter, but legal obstacles keep getting in his way. There is also the obstacle of people Frank knows being murdered by mutant children, beginning with his mother-in-law.

One on level, “The Brood” is a fairly straightforward drama about the death of a marriage and all of the nuances and troubles that go with it. On another level, it’s a schlocky horror flick about mutant children that bludgeon people to death. These two disparate elements combine in sometimes jarring ways, and the movie’s tone is inherently off-kilter. In one scene, Frank will be having a serious talk with someone about child custody or something like that. In the next, someone is getting beaten by some weird scary dwarf children. The connection between these seemingly separate movies is slowly brought together, and the ultimate revelation of their relationship is pretty unsettling. Without going into too much detail, the horror (and body horror) elements are more of a metaphor for the emotional trauma of divorce than anything too explicitly supernatural. But they’re still certainly very shocking.

Even though it was made before “Scanners”, “The Brood” feels more well-done in a lot of ways. Both have a similar look, with “The Brood” having slightly cleaner cinematography. “The Brood” is also especially Canadian with the accents of some supporting characters. The acting in “The Brood” is definitely superior all around, especially the gravitas of Oliver Reed as Dr. Raglan and the hysteric instability of Samantha Eggars as Nola. Art Hindle also does a pretty good job as Frank, a lead performance that is miles (or rather kilometers) better than Lack’s. And the special effects aren’t as big of a focus, but when they do crop up towards the end, they look convincingly horrifying. The mutant children themselves are also pretty unsettling, bringing to mind the chilling climax of “Don’t Look Now.” The plot also flows more nicely than in “Scanners”, although they both have pretty bizarre endings.

Both movies also develop Cronenberg’s fascination with body horror. “The Brood” is relatively tame in this aspect, until the last few scenes of the movie. But Cronenberg doesn’t just use these scenes to shock. He wrote “The Brood” during his divorce and custody battle, and the movie makes more sense in that context. The grotesque viscera on display and the horrible looking kids are manifestations of the destructiveness of emotions during a divorce and the lasting scars that childhood traumas leave behind. As the very last shot implies, abuse and trauma are a recurring cycle. The fact that Cronenberg gets these themes across with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer is really just his style, and I think there’s something to be said for disturbing and weird content as a vehicle for more serious themes.

“Scanners,” despite being crammed full of more unsettling special effects and body horror, is more open ended in what these things could mean. There’s definitely anxiety about increasingly advancing medicine’s effect on future generations, as well as the sense of self in the technological age. I’ve even read interpretations of the film as an allegory of homosexuals as outsiders in society, but who knows. Although the special effects in “Scanners” are more spectacular, their subtler use in “The Brood” is more impactful, and “The Brood” feels like a more personal film. I would probably say that “The Brood” is a better film, but “Scanners” is more fun. Both are definitely worth watching though, and they go well together, so I would encourage anyone to check them out on Hulu Plus or wherever else you can find them.

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