Canada | 1981 | Directed by David Cronenberg
Logline: A man with powerful psychic abilities is used by an organisation to seek out another of his kind, who has become a dangerous renegade.
Scanners was the beginning of David Cronenberg’s crossover into the mainstream, although he stepped sideways with Videodrome, he then came back with The Dead Zone, and followed that with his most successful movie, The Fly. Scanners also marked the beginning of the end of his fetish for scientific clinics and shadowy organisations, which had started with his short features Stereo and Crimes of the Future, and continued through Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, ending with Videodrome.
Scanners is a science fiction thriller, with a strong horror undertone, but it also works as an elusive mystery. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a social outcast, homeless, plagued by the voices of everyone around writhing in his head. Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) infiltrates the organisation ConSec, masquerading as an innocent audience member, and partakes in an experiment to showcase “scanners”, a very small number of people in the world who are gifted with the ability of telepathy and mind-control. The scanner unwittingly goes up against Revok, who is a much more powerful scanner, and the results are messy, to say the least.
Vale is collected and restored by Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) to help find Revok and stop him from his megalomaniacal agenda. Vale tracks down troubled scanner Pierce (Robert Silverman, in a small, but memorable role), then later teams up with Kim (Jennifer O’Neil), another scanner, as they try to stay one step ahead of Revok, his crony Keller (Lawrence Dane) , and ultimately learn the evil reality behind Revok’s relentless quest, and the truth of the drug that binds them.
Cronenberg has admitted many times the nightmare it was to make Scanners, which under the Canadian tax shelter government incentive the movie only had a precious couple of weeks pre-production leaving Cronenberg to complete the script whilst shooting, writing pages in the hours before dawn. As a result the movie is erratic, ill-paced, and at times feels unsure of which direction it is going and what kind of movie it actually is. It also suffers, irreparably, from the worst lead performance in a Cronenberg movie, Stephen Lack (of talent). Yet, despite his slim screen time, Michael Ironside brings the goods with a performance of such simmering intensity it threatens to implode the entire movie.
Dick Smith, the legend, was hired as a prosthetic consultant for then special effects makeup, and his work in the duel between Vale and Revok, combined with Cronenberg’s mastery of drawn-out tension, makes for an intense and visceral climax. But let’s not forget the now legendary head explosion from the ConSec demonstration, which is forever burned onto the retinas of many X-Generation horrorphiles. Apparently assistants worked for two weeks in a warehouse trying to master the effect, and finally the head technician decided to get under a table and blast a shotgun up through the false torso! But there is a huge continuity error that irks me every time; in the wide shot of the auditorium immediately after the head explosion there is absolutely no sign of the carnage on and around the desk. Normally I let small goofs slide by, but this is a real doozy.
Scanners certainly isn’t among Cronenberg’s best work (Dead Ringers, Videodrome, and The Fly), but it’s memorable just the same, for Howard Shore’s score, firstly, but it is also notable, like many of the director’s original screenplays, for its prescience and insight, in this case, genetic mutation and computer hacking. Where Scanners stumbles is in much of the pacing in the second half. By the time we reach the climactic showdown between Vale and Revok the audience has been worn down by all the psychobabble and lacklustre espionage.
Still, Scanners will always hold a dear place in my horrorphile heart, as it was one of the very first R-rated movies I watched with mates on VHS when I was about twelve-years-old, and it also sports one of the coolest posters of the era.