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Thursday, 20 October 2011

'IT'S ALIVE!!'. Mad Scientists of the Screen #4 'Dr Paul Ruth' ('Scanners')

With less than a week to go until our own Doctor Von Baildon takes to the stage, Ian Champion brings you the fourth instalment of his history of medical malpractice in the movies...

Love isn't the drug...

Today's neuro-negligent nutter is Dr Paul Ruth, the commanding medical mind from David Cronenberg's 1981 horror/sci-fi shocker Scanners.

Patrick McGoohan takes on the head-poppers
Continuing his career fascination with the theme of body horror allied to clandestine institutions, Scanners focuses its mind on the premise 'What if telekinesis and telepathy were not only real, but the sought-after weaponry fought over between the military-industrial complex and underground anarchists?'

Cameron Vale, a lone vagrant, more cursed than gifted with the mental powers in dangerously raw form is tranquilised after a public fracas and wakes up to find himself in a makeshift hospital ward. Here, we are introduced to Dr Ruth as played by the brooding Patrick McGoohan. His slow considered footsteps upon the bare floorboards ominously clunk as disturbingly as the script. It emerges that Vale has been rescued by the Dr from self-destruction, a neat parallel for McGoohan himself who also saves the film from its juvenile dialogue and some dreadfully lame supporting performances. McGoohan's presence and delivery is as subtle in its shading as the autumnal hues of his suit and roll-neck as he asks why Vale is such 'A derelict...a piece of human junk'. Hardly a good bedside manner, but brief and to the point.

As Dr Ruth shapes Vale's psychic talent (and avoids comparisons with the telegenic little old lady who shares his name), McGoohan nimbly slides from inscrutability to almost an avuncular quality, his coiffured hair, fulsome beard and spectacles proclaiming him also distinguished academic. I've always been fascinated by McGoohan's performances and how they usually combine icy reserve and a compellingly supressed rage in the likes of Silver Streak, Braveheart and even The Prisoner. Here, he invests Ruth with disarming extra notes of care and touches of compassion with his pupil, tempered with the frosty vaguaries in his diagnosis of Vale's condition as a 'derangement of the synapses'. To me, this is the scripting equivalent of an experienced mechanic looking under the bonnet and saying 'Dunno, mate', but the actor savages these horrendous tidbits like an angry, bearded terrier. (Its worth re-watching the film just to hear his pronunciation of the villain's surname 'Rrrrevok', barked out with contempt).
Ultimately though, Dr Ruth's love of his profession (that of psychopharmacist) rather than humanity always wins out. He confides to one of his employers at the Shaodowy Consec Surveillance that he has 'a way with these creatures', never forgetting they are to be weaponised like missiles, not rehabilitated as healthy members of society. This facet of his character assures him a place in this Mad Scientist Hall of Infamy. Unfortunately, as all medical meddlers know, one's subject can outplay the master, as he finds when he tests Vale's mental discipline against a meditation Yogi. Vale appears to lose control in raising his opponent's heart rate to fatal heights, yet just as Ruth prepares to administer a sedative, his pupil seizes his arm and calms himself from within. The look in McGoohan's eye is the fear of a dog trainer who's client is growing in power and teaching himself new tricks...

Amidst plot paraphernalia about a drug, Ephemerol, and its use in creating a race of scanner children, and the developing mental face-off between Vale and his nemesis, (the unsettlingly wonderful Michael Ironside) Vale's mental powers sharpen like a warrior's spear. Meanwhile, Dr Ruth's own mind unravels. At the news that its his own former company that is manufacturing these foetuses of fear, Ruth begins to babble his own inner monologue, unable to match the clinical coldness he needs with the superior drive of his computerised enemy: the program that distributes the drug. Finally, a bullet in the back of the head silences his turbulence.

No fire-consumed laboratory here - just a fittingly swift professional exit for a company man...

- Ian Champion

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