Written by: David Cronenberg (characters), B.J. Nelson (screenplay)
Directed by: Christian Duguay
Starring: David Hewlett, Deborah Raffin, and Yvan Ponton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“What we need is a clean scanner. A virgin mind."
It takes a lot of balls to follow up a David Cronenberg effort without actually involving Cronenberg himself, which is perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay Scanners II: The New Order; unfortunately, that’s about the extent of its gutsiness because it’s not a particularly daring endeavor otherwise. Instead, the decade-late sequel is pretty content to just follow the same worn path as its predecessor, only it’s less thrilling and less inventive the second time around. Having already been introduced to a universe crawling with brain-popping telepaths, audiences might have expected a film that expanded upon the scanners’ place in society, but I’m sure most were disappointed to discover that those involved here remembered exactly two things about the original: that government and corporate authority is bad and that exploding heads are, like, really cool, man.
Set about ten years after the original film, the sequel introduces us to a world where the scanners haven’t really made much more of a mark; just as it was in the previous film, their existence is known to a select few who have set out to exploit them for their own shady ends. The opening scene here introduces us to Peter Drak (Raoul Trujillo), a stringy-haired wild man who wails in agony at all of the voices in his head before blowing off some telekinetic steam in an arcade. His outburst lands him on the radar of Doctor Morse (Tom Butler), a scientist who specializes in experimenting on scanners. Morse is also in league with crooked cop John Forrester (Yvan Ponton), a high-ranking, megalomaniacal commander with visions of ridding society of corruption by employing scanners to do his dirty work. When local veterinarian David Kellum (David Hewlett) discovers his telepathic ability, he also reveals himself as one of the most powerful scanners on record, thus making him the perfect recruit for Forrester’s outfit.
Like the original Scanners, The New Order then briefly proceeds as sort of a mystery film; however, where that film found its protagonists attempting to uncover the source of an illegal drug shipment, this one has Kellum playing detective on behalf of Forrester to figure out who’s been poisoning the local milk supply. Relatively speaking, it’s pretty quaint stuff, and Kellum is eager to go along with it since he’s hailed as a hero and is oblivious to his superior’s ulterior motives. When Forrester’s orders (such as his suggestion that he use his powers to make the mayor resign) become more overtly sinister (not to mention homicidal), David questions his authority and does a little bit of soul searching by trekking back to his parents’ snowy, rural abode.
It’s at this point Scanners II suddenly begins revealing information to a mystery no one knew existed by revealing its tenuous connection to Cronenberg’s film: it turns out that David was actually adopted and has a sister (Deborah Raffin) that he tracks down to glean some more information. She reveals that their parents were Cameron Vale and Kim Obrist, the scanners from the original movie who had to go into hiding before they were eventually murdered (the most ignominious of movie fates, perhaps—being casually written off by an unnecessary sequel). The film expectedly sags under the weight of all the exposition here; sure, David is technically being hunted down by Drak (who becomes Forrester’s reformed lapdog), but there’s little to no energy to the proceedings here, and it owes its modicum of intrigue by leeching off of Scanners (the film is such a standalone that one can’t help but perk up once they’re reminded of a much better movie).
The thudding familiarity here is somewhat offset by the otherwise quick, action-packed pace. While that middle section really drags, the rest of the film moves well enough to remain an entertaining watch, especially since the gruesome special effects can compare favorably to the first film. The indelible brain-splatter obviously left its mark with everyone involved here because there’s plenty of that to go around this time as well. A sequence where David busts up a convenience store robbery is especially effective in this regard because the cranium smashing here treads the line between cool and disturbing. Oddly enough, the climactic, gore-laden showdown that finds David and his sister invading Morse’s scanner compound reminds me of another Cronenberg-less sequel, The Fly II, though I wouldn’t say the splatter here is nearly as impressive. At any rate, it’s probably apparent that this sequel isn’t the brooding, thoughtful masterpiece that spawned it, even if its subtexts (governmental paranoia, 60s drug use haunting a later generation, right-wing power tripping) might be at home in an actual Cronenberg movie.
In first time director Christian Duguay’s hands, it looks and feels like the direct-to-video B-movie it is. That might be the most frustrating thing here: apparently, Cronenberg sold off the franchise rights back when the first film was in production, and, for whatever reason, someone squatted on them for an entire decade, only to churn out low-rent junk (no doubt because the film became a cult classic in the intervening years). The result is a ruthlessly Canadian, with Montreal obviously subbing for the anonymous “city” that Forrester loathes since it represents a cesspool of the modern, degenerate malaise. Scanners II also has that specifically late 80s/early 90s aesthetic that features a blaring, swanky sax-driven score that feels more apt for the type of movie you might have stumbled upon while surfing Cinemax channels after dark. It would feel pretty incongruent if the film weren’t such a cartoon anyway, complete with a couple of over-the-top heels in Trujillo and Ponton to offset the affable blandness of the heroes. Ponton is especially effective as an obvious extension of the Reagan era’s moral majority in his insistence that the ends justify the means—society must be purged of its malcontents, even if he has to resort to underhanded tactics to get the job done.
Don’t expect Scanners II to delve beyond its surface level observations, though, as it’s perfectly happy to take Cronenberg’s premise and plot beats and exploit them for all their trashy potential. Several lackluster sequels have proven that even the richest ideas can become rote in lesser hands, and this one joins such dubious ranks. Scanners II isn’t an aggressive desecration of a classic as much as it’s merely a perfunctory skin tag of a movie. It seems to have been inspired by the desire to sit it on video store shelves alongside Cronenberg’s movie in order to earn an easy rental from anyone who just had to see the entire saga unfold (at least that’s what my experience was like). Until now, those old VHS tapes that clogged those shelves were the only way to check out both sequels, neither of which even made it to DVD in the States. However, Scream Factory has changed that and then some, as their double feature DVD/Blu-ray release brings both The New Order and The Takeover to glorious high-def to boot. When compared to Scream’s other releases, this one is stripped down since it features no extras; however, the films themselves look spectacular and this presentation certainly represents an upgrade over those old, worn-out tapes. Even if the disc were packed with features (I would actually love to hear a Cronenberg commentary on these suckers), it’d be tough to outrun the films themselves. Scanners II is particularly a dud and far from mind-blowing. Rent it!
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