I’ve always considered the fasinating career of David Cronenberg to be not unlike the evolving life cycle of the venereal horrors he frequently touches upon in his movies. His earliest works; the low budget grunge of Shivers, Rabid and The Brood; are ferocious calling cards that gave way to more movies like Videodrome and The Fly, that balanced the frequent, pulsating gore with more nuanced plots and characters that showcased his growing abilities as a director destined to mature out of the straight horror genre. This finally led us to the dark, complicated dramas he put out more recently; challenging works like Crash, A History Of Violence and Maps To The Stars which saw him blossom into a filmmaker of incredible repute, but lodged inbetween killer toddlers swarming over a horrified Oliver Reed in The Brood and James Woods having a videotape inserted into a vaginal opening in his chest in Videodrome is an oddity of sorts.
Not as provocatively brutal as what came before and not as as intelligently gruesome as what came immediately after; Scanners is an intriguing yet messy tale that’s been dining out for decades on the fact that it contains the greatest exploding head in the history of movies (fight me) plus a whole mess of ideas that don’t quite merge.
We meet a disheveled Cameron Vale as he parks his homeless keister in a mall and causes a disapproving woman to have a full on seizure by utilizing the power of his mind. You see, Cameron is a Scanner, a freak of nature who can read minds, change someone’s behaviour and even violently alter body chemistry simply by willing it and he’s one of a rumoured 200 all across the United States. Elsewhere, dangerously unstable Scanner Darryl Revok proves that body chemistry thing I just mentioned pretty definitively by causing a man’s head to spectacularly explode during a demonstration; you see Revok wants to go all Magneto on the established order and aims to amass other Scanners together to form cells with the ultimate goal of world domination (shoot for the moon, Darryl!). Vale is picked up by agents from private military company ConTec and is recruited by Dr. Paul Ruth to aid them against the underground army that Revok is building and is introduced to a drug called Ephemerol that temporarily blocks his “scans” and actually gives him a respite from the endless chatter of other people’s minds.
Heading out to infiltrate Revok’s group, Vale instead stumbles across a rival Scanner faction lead by Kim Obrist and the two join forces to strive and halt this threatened uprising while simultaneously researching the very origins of the Scanners themselves but are they prepared for the conspiracy they are about to uncover and will they possibly be a match for the powerful, head-popping, Revok once they meet face to face?
By far the least entertaining of his earlier works, Scanners is much like that infamous brain that goes boom; it’s packed full of ideas that ultimately spray all over the place with reckless abandon.
The closest we’ll ever get to Cronenberg making a superhero movie (and considering what Wes Craven did with Swamp Thing, maybe that’s for the best)
Scanners nevertheless has somewhat of the suprising legacy that any movie featuring burgeoning super abilities with added grit actually owes a sizable debt to Cronenberg whether they realise it or not, with Chronicle and Push being two most noticable examples.
Attempting to be the bastard child of a sweaty, paranoid conspiracy thriller in the style of Three Days Of The Condor mixed with science-fictiony body horror, Scanners suffers from not having the scale required for this all to feel like a legitimate threat despite the sheer weight of concepts Cronenberg mercilessly pumps into the plot. Diving headlong into themes like loss of identity (after all, if you can everybody’s thoughts in your own head then how can you possibly have space for your own?), mental illness (Revok has a fetching scar on his forehead from trying to bore out the “voices” with a drill) and various other aspects that toy with the subject of having someone else in your head (cue the neat image of the sculpture of a giant head an artist has in his studio that you can actually sit in), Cronenberg unfortunately fails to turn any of it into something actually engrossing. Maybe at that point in his career he just wasn’t elegant and eloquent enough of a director yet to actually fully portray the concept of deadly telepathic spies on the budget he had, but Scanners only just manages to hold the attention.
Another issue that the movie struggles to overcome is that up until the bloody splat or fiery side effect of a lethal “scan”, we are treated to endless scenes of people shaking uncontrollably and gurning at each other which, to be honest, becomes unintentionally hilarious; especially in the case of lead Stephen Kack who isn’t actually that strong of a thespian to be honest and his portrayal of reading someones mind may be a valuable tool for whomever is cast as a MCU’s Charles Xavier, as Lack’s bizarre facial contortions act as handy advice as to how NOT to act telepathy.
Thankfully the legendary Michael Ironside redresses the balance awesomely as Revok and the image of him in the throes of Scanner battle with milk white eyes and bulging veins is one of the few images that linger beyond that oft-mentioned spot of cranial carnage (See what I mean? That’s like the forth time I’ve mentioned it!) – and The Prisoner himself, Patrick Mcgoohan, mills every syllable in the script as far as he can as the secretive Dr. Ruth (no relation).
Noticably dated, muddled and covering a lot of similar ground as Brian DePalma’s The Fury (which predates Cronenberg’s movie by at least two years), Scanners is still chock full of funky concepts and surely is one of those 80’s “classics” that would actually benefit a lush remake.
Alas, aside from the scene it’s most famous for, Scanners turns out to be that rare Cronenberg experience that doesn’t blow the mind.