A telepath is recruited by a defense contractor to find a rogue telepath.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside, and Patrick McGoohan
Review by Jon Kissel
Patrick McGoohan plays Dr. Ruth, a slouching, dispassionate scientist who’d find a lot to admire in the Nazi doctors smuggled out of Germany after WWII. His lifelong project was spawned out of earlier attempts to make a sedative for pregnant women, only to find that the children exposed to this drug developed telepathic powers. The drug was sold to a military contractor, on whose board Dr. Ruth now sits. Scanners opens with one of these unwitting test subjects scrounging around a food court. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) locks eyes with a disapproving shopper and makes her collapse in a fit, but Dr. Ruth’s been watching him and two goons grab him. Back at the secret labs of ConSec, Vale is sedated with Dr. Ruth’s drug, a substance that creates new scanners in the womb but subdues scanners in the world. Vale, grateful to finally quiet the voices in his head that have driven him out of society, agrees to help Dr. Ruth find and infiltrate a group of underground scanners led by Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a powerful scanner introduced in iconic fashion during a ConSec demonstration. Revok, posing as a harmless attendee, is chosen to be scanned by an in-house scanner, but he turns the tables and explodes the demonstrator’s head before escaping from ConSec goons.
Scanners is most famous for the head-exploding, and it’s one of those pieces of film history that survives countless iterations and memifications. No matter how many times the viewer has seen it ripped off or referenced, the moment within its proper context remains incredibly shocking. The buildup is compelling enough, with Ironside and Victor Del Grande as the demonstrator locked in mental combat that’s represented by facial contortions that become looser or tighter depending on who’s winning. Revok’s ultimate victory isn’t tipped with a moment of recognition on either participant’s face or by a crescendo in the score. There’s simply a sharp cut to the demonstrator’s head coming apart in the most graphic fashion imaginable. That there’s no aftermath visible in the scene once it goes to a wider cut is disappointing and speaks to a less precise phase of Cronenberg’s career. Revok should be covered in brain matter but he’s perfectly fine. Regardless, the moment is striking and remains one of the most visceral horror effects ever filmed. There’s a further sickening quality to the scene once it’s discovered that the special effects artist just blew the model away with a shotgun, thus turning a fake scene into the equivalent of real violence. That a commonly-held weapon can do… that is chilling.
For the viscerality of the head explosion, Scanners is otherwise fairly tame for a Cronenberg film. The film begins with a hefty shot of gore and ends with another, as Vale and Revok lock themselves in face-melting mental combat. What’s in between is a cat-and-mouse spy thriller as Vale scrounges up contacts and Revok stays on his tail. Between this and The Brood, Cronenberg is demonstrating a weakness for lantern-jawed leading men who are outmatched by their hammier counterparts. Oliver Reed and Samantha Egger blow Art Hindle off the screen in the Brood, and Lack is no match for Ironside here. Cronenberg’s next several films are going to be led by idiosyncratic weirdos like James Woods, Christopher Walken, and Jeff Goldblum, but he either doesn’t have the pull or the inclination to turn his films over to them yet. Instead, Lack is consistently the least interesting person in whatever room he finds himself in, and as Scanners returns to earth and a recognizable genre, it can’t help but drag.
Lack fits in alongside a general sloppiness in Scanners that I don’t find totally negative, but its presence can’t be ignored. Mismatched edits like the head explosion aftermath can be overlooked because the viewer is in similar amounts of panic as conference attendees. It’s practically a sleight of hand trick. As the film goes on, Cronenberg just doesn’t seem to have his arms all the way around the production. This isn’t a slick film, nor does it reach a fever dream level where the details don’t matter as much as the overwhelming tone. Instead, the film is laden with 80’s car explosions and shootouts, while the labs look like they could be from a James Bond set. A key plot point revolves around an exploding phone line. This chintziness in the production and the script somehow becomes charming, and suggests an alternative history where Cronenberg became a completely different kind of horror director. Thankfully, he tightens everything up at the same time he gets stronger leads and never looks back.
Scanners is a solid entry from a director who’s still a work in progress. As memorable as the head explosion is, what moves Cronenberg forward here the most is the tone of amorality that seeps into a lot of his work. There’s often a corporate board or arrogant professionals who can’t be bothered with the concerns of the everyday citizenry, and since most of Cronenberg’s films deal in those types, the world is seen through their eyes. Their disdain for most everyone becomes the film’s disdain, and it’s that feeling, more than the promise of very weird and disturbing imagery, which makes so much of Cronenberg’s work unsettling. He makes his name with appendages and tumors and the vulnerability of the body, but he stays with the viewer in more subtle ways. B-