Thursday, May 27, 2010

An Acute Case of Sequelitis: SCANNERS II: THE NEW ORDER (1991)

Prolific Canadian producer Pierre David could be called a lot of things, but “stupid” isn’t one of them. After exec-producing several movies for the then, up and coming director David Cronenberg (including VIDEODROME, 1983), Pierre David somehow managed to convince Cronenberg to sell him the rights to SCANNERS. I'm guessing this is one of those times when the thought of putting food on the table took precedent over artistic integrity. This was also before Cronenberg was a wise and grizzled industry veteran and had lawyers and agents to advise him against such crazy things. So in 1991 the world saw the first in a series of  four low-budget sequels to the only Cronenberg film to be sequelized. Some can mount a case about how this is a terrible thing, but honestly I feel this is far less of a crime than many other higer-profile and more successful sequels such as FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE (1991), FRIDAY THE 13th PART 8 (1989) or how about THE BIRDS II (1994)? Of course the SCANNERS sequels are not on the level of Cronenberg’s original, and I don't think anyone should expect them to be, but the original was an exploitation film and set-up a concept that would easily translate into a cheap sequel that could be entertaining without totally stomping all over the original (that is for the upcoming 2011 remake to do). For an example of a sequel totally raping the original, while watching the dark and visceral A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET (1984) back in the day, did I ever once think to myself, “you know what this movie needs? A funny cameo by Tom Arnold and Rosanne Barr!” I don't fucking think so.

Set about 25 years after the original, the scanners project has continued with an amoral scientist, Dr. Morse (Tom Butler), creating a new version of ephemerol, called EPH-2. Because this is a sequel, the new drug comes in a spiffy little bottle complete with logo. The drug is not so much a scanner suppressant as in the original, but this time out is a hyper-addictive mind-control drug that causes user’s hair to fall out, skin to get blotchy and to mentally check out. Running the show is police commander Forrester (Yvan Ponton) with his sights, figuratively and literally, set on a seat of power. Enter David Kellum (David Hewlett), a rural farm boy who has come to the big city (unnamed, but obviously Canadian) to go to med school. Too bad he’s got some weird mental powers that cause him to freak out when listening to live music through headphones in industrial, underground diners! After getting involved with a rather aggressive co-ed, Kellum is nabbed by the baddies who want him to be their uber-soldier to help “fight crime” and bring about a “new order”. In fact he’s just being manipulated into helping Forrester achieve his bloody ambitions to rule the city with an army of scanners.

While the movie starts with a bang and the final 45 minutes are fun, the final scenes are really anti-climactic and it sorely lacks in the middle. In the opening scenes of the project’s first success case, Peter Drak (Raoul Trujillo), going berserk in an arcade (scanners apparently suck at Operation Wolf), causing the senseless slaughter of dozens of innocent games, and making me wonder if I didn't miss the scene where he cut off someone's head, because obviously he must be experiencing the quickening (“der kin be onlee a couple”). I'm guessing this is actually supposed to be echoing the end of the first film where Vale gets inside the computers with his mind... but in the way a true cheeseball sequel would do it. After his microchip massacre, Drak then flees the scene, hiding out in a mannequin warehouse where he freaks the hell out because he thinks the stiffs are talking to him; to a mannequin head with a wig on it (shades of Lustig’s MANIAC [1980]) he shouts “You aren't allowed to talk to me!” At the same time he is being hunted down by scanners with tranquilizer guns who are going to capture him for Dr. Morse's experiments. This whole sequence is really damned entertaining and well shot with lots of light and shadow and does a nice job of setting the tone for a cheesy sequel. At this point the movie is a great exploitation flcik… then the plot kicks in.

While Cronenberg always had a focused, high-brow thought process behind his films mixed with a delight in exploitation trappings, he was never really much for getting the best performances out of his cast. Sometimes it seems he gets lucky (James Woods and Patrick Magoohan are two examples of actors who need no hand-holding), but other times not so much.

Here, the plot really isn’t so bad, but keeping in Cronenberg tradition Hewlett is no great sweeps as an actor. Granted he is leagues ahead of the appropriately named Steven Lack (Cameron Vale in part one), who Cronenberg admits he cast solely because of his ice-blue eyes. Even so, his rather bland, adenoidal performance makes for some tedious scenes of character development (and a rather hilarious scene in which the exotic, stylish Trujillo calls Hewlett, who looks like Quentin Tarantino's long lost and less annoying brother, a “pretty boy”). The scenes between Kellum and love-interest Alice (Isabelle Mejias) are mercifully free of the ravages of chemistry and charisma. Some of the scenes are simply laughable, such as the scenes in which Alice is, in true soap-opera fashion, hospitalized for a couple of days for a concussion that she received from being bitch-slapped by a villain during a convenience store robbery (that Kellum foils in a satisfyingly messy way)! The weepy drama that ensues when Kellum visits her in the hospital is hilariously inane. Even worse are the fumbling attempts at social commentary in a few subplots, one involving the poisoning of milk, causing numerous infant deaths and scenes where Kellum and Alice are working for a lab that does animal experiments on cute, fluffy puppies – oh noeeesss!

While Cronenberg himself may not sport the greatest acting, he always makes up for it in other ways and in SCANNERS, he never makes the cardinal sin of bookending the drama with action. SCANNERS has a very organic rhythm, plot/character development, action, plot/character development, action, plot/character development, action; like a beating pulse. Screenwriter B.J. Nelson (of LONE WOLF MCQUIAD [1983] fame) would have done better to emulate this in addition to the psychic concept.

Once the plot proper starts rolling again, we find out what exactly Forrester’s machinations are, things start kicking into gear and we get back into the groove. Political assassination, scanner drug dealers, guys with shotguns, countless bloody noses, the discovery of Kellum’s scanner sister (Deborah Raffin) and a revolt against the “New Order” complete with creatively violent demises make this movie a lot of fun. Even Tom Harvey (the inspector from STRANGE BREW [1983]), shows up as the police cheif, one of Forrester’s road-blocks that must be disposed of. If the middle of the film didn’t drag so much and the leads had some sort of personality, this would be a great little piece of schlock.

While this movie definitely had its high points and it's low points, apparently it was such a huge hit in Sweden, that the distributors contacted Pierre David  and demanded another sequel, this time would they get a blockbuster or a franchise killer? SCANNERS III... NEXT!

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