Friday, September 13, 2013

Scanners (1981)

WHO: David Cronenberg wrote and directed this.

WHAT: Sandwiched between the ripe-for-analysis The Brood and Videodrome in Cronenberg's career, Scanners today seems like a comparatively overlooked entity in the Canadian filmmaker's mid-career period of rising budgets, increasing international exposure, and deepening intellectual approach to genre filmmaking. Everyone remembers the opening and closing scenes in this film about telekinetic combat between warring corporate and underground factions, but rarely are the rest of the film's plot details, or its aesthetic strategies, discussed at any length. One essay that delves into a particularly neglected example of the latter is Paul Theberge's Cronenberg-focused chapter of Off the Planet: Music, Sound and Science Fiction Cinema. Here's an excerpt:
the most significant uses of electronic sounds take place in relation to the theme of telepathic power: as this power is essentially invisible, Cronenberg must turn to sound in order to make it manifest. Indeed, it is through sound that the scanning power is not only made manifest but, also, given th kind of physical intensity that justifies its enormous effects on other individuals and on the external world. Typically, the sound of the scanning tones (derived from raw oscillator sounds and other effects associated with the 'classic; electronic studio of the 1950s and 1960s) increases in intensity until its power is suddenly unleashed and its effects made visible in the cinematic image
WHERE/WHEN: Screens at 9:30 tonight only at the Castro Theatre.

WHY: With new retrospectives, film series, and film festivals being announced an an almost daily basis, we're now entering what must be the busiest couple months for Frisco Bay cinephilia. From now until Thanksgiving we can expect a bare minimum of one film festival running every weekend. It's about enough to make your head explode.

Another strand of cinephilia over the next month and a half is the annual procession of horror films programmed to get us in the mood for Halloween. What better a day than Friday the 13th to mark the unofficial launch of this particularly welcome programming thread. The Castro is a favored venue for gatherings of scary movie lovers, and is doing a great job getting us prepared for the spooky season. After tonight's Scanners screening there's a brilliant double-bill of the art-horror classic Carnival of Souls with the creepy (but not normally thought of as horror per se) Last Year in Marienbad this Sunday, Burnt Offerings and the "Amelia" segment of the made-for-TV Trilogy of Terror as part of a tribute to the recently-deceased Karen Black on September 18th, a pairing of The Shining with The Changeling September 27th, and a day of digital 3-D versions of the two most famous 50s-era 3-D horror films House of Wax and Creature From the Black Lagoon, along with a matinee screening of the 2008 documentary Watch Horror Films -- Keep America Strong

That's September 29th, but Castro's October horror programming has also been partially revealed on its website, including a new restoration of The Wicker Man October 4-5, an Isabelle Adjani (at her palest) show of Nosteratu the Vampyre and Possession October 6, Psycho (with Marnie) October 13,  Alien (with Dark Star) on the 23rd, and an early 1980s werewolf duo of Joe Dante's The Howling and John Landis's American Werewolf In London. Elegantly capping the month on Friday November 1st is a disturbingly amazing double-bill of what are probably Cronenberg's scariest films The Fly and Dead Ringers.  

The MiDNiTES FOR MANiACS website has not been updated to reflect the rumors that its October 18th Castro show will involve a pair of horror movies famously frightening for what's *not* seen on-screen, or that after its Castro screenings of Can't Hardly Wait and Rules of Attraction next Friday, September 20th, the MANiACS will be crawling to the Roxie for a very rare 35mm showing of Ted Nicolaou's dementedly Cronenberg-esque Terrorvision. There's not much else horror-related on the Roxie's latest printed calendar, except for the Film On Film Foundation's presentation of The Witch Who Came From the Sea, a 1970s exploitation rarity that involves more psychosexual melodrama than straight-up horror. It (along with another Matt Cimber-directed film called Lady Cocoa) constitutes the first FOFF presentation in over two years, and is thus a welcome return for the organization (which has dutifully maintained the ever-useful Bay Area Film Calendar in the meantime). 

I hesitate to mention Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, screening at the Roxie this Sunday, because although it is sometimes grouped with horror films because of its extremely disturbing imagery and the horrific situations it depicts, approaching the film as some kind of a forerunner to 21st Century "torture porn" horror movie rather than as the expressly political work it is, does no favors to Pasolini or to the audience watching it. The Pacific Film Archive is screening it on October 31, which seems more appropriate because it makes it the last film of the venue's roughly-chronological September-October retrospective, than because it makes for an ideal Halloween activity. The more other Pasolini films you can see before watching Salò, the better, in my book. In fact, I think it should be all-but required for a first-time Salò viewer to have seen at least one film of the director's "Trilogy of Life" (The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales and Arabian Nightsbefore viewing his last and bleakest film. If you're a Pasolini virgin planning to see Salò at the Roxie Sunday, please make an effort to watch one of his other films playing at the Castro or Roxie this weekend before you do, or you may get a very mistaken impression of the filmmaker and the meaning of his swan song. The PFA's Pasolini chronology is a highly-recommended one.

The only real horror title on the current PFA calendar is not playing at the theatre at all, but is an outdoor showing of Phillip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers in downtown Berkeley. Other upcoming East Bay horror and horror-related screenings include the "Monster In Our Shorts" program at the Oakland Underground Film Festival, most of the digitally-projected classics announced to play the New Parkway in late September and October, and most of the 16mm programs screening at the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum on October, including the German expressionist Waxworks, and the early spook-house movie The Cat and The Canary. Even the 'Rex' the Wonder Horse film playing at Niles October 5th has a spooky title: The Devil Horse.

HOW: Scanners screens in 35mm tonight as part two of an SFMOMA-presented double bill with The Manchurian Candidate.


  1. Perhaps not a horror film, but the highlight of the Castro Theatre's October calendar for me is Jack Hill's exploitation classic, Switchblade Sisters, on October 9. I doubt anything they fill out the calendar with could compete.

  2. I've never seen that one before so it will be tempting. But one of my favorite Fassbinder films The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant screens that night at the Roxie. Still trying to see how this will shake out.