During his early, horror phase, David Cronenberg gave us a clutch of visceral, thought provoking and reliably grotesque movies that tested the status quo as it turned the stomach, but you couldn’t exactly call his work easy to equalize. Oh sure, we got The Fly II, but try as hard as I might, I just can’t picture what a sequel to The Brood or Shivers would look like, let alone trying to imagine someone building a franchise around something as esoteric as Videodrome. However, Scanners is a different story.
Released in 1981 and telling the X-Men-esque story of a group of people with the superhuman ability to manipulate the brains and bodies of others with the power of their chemically altered minds, Scanners may still be the undisputed king of the exploding head movie – but it also was a rare example of Cronenberg not fully taking advantage of a potent premise, not resonating much further than its show stopping skull popping.
Can this belated sequel finally pick up the slack, or will it also fail to… scan?
David Kellum has recently moved from his family home in the country to make it in the big city, but one thing he never imagined that his relocation would be complicated by the fact he’s actually a Scanner – telepathic beings spawned from 1950’s experiments on pregnant women with a drug called Ephemerol. Struggling with the fact that his powers of mind reading and inflicting gruesome body-horror upon shotgun waving robbers have increased thanks to him surrounding himself with countless people, David’s life is further flipped on its head when he’s approached by Police Commander John Forrester who is trying to spearhead a new (morally iffy) taskforce that uses Scanners to do its dirty work.
Things start out fine and David even manages to collar a dude who has been putting strychnine in milk containers throughout the city, but the deeper he probes into Forrester’s plans, the sketchier they become.
You see, not only has Forrester been planning to become mayor of Montreal thanks to a bit of Scanner-manipulation here and an assassination there, he’s also been fighting crime with Scanners for a while now and certainly has a cell-full of wiped-out, junkie Scanners, smashed out on the ESP dulling Eph2 drug to prove it.
Soon David is on the run, but aside from trying to keep his girlfriend safe and learning some stunning truths about his family tree, he’ll also have to keep one step ahead of Drak, Forrester’s other pet Scanner, who is unsurprisingly crazier than a shit house rat and a sadist to boot. With all things being equal, it’s a helluva lot to put on one man’s mind – literally.
If I’m being kind, you have to give Scanners II: The New Order points for trying to be an actual sequel and not just a lame cash-in that trundled along ten years too late, even if the results aren’t that much different. It still keeps the conspiracy theory aspect of the original conspect going strong with a corrupt Police Chief taking advantage of Scanners to push his extreme agenda and it’s wise enough to sling in some unrestrained gore when required, especially when it comes to the cranial damage that Scanner fans (Fanners?) demand. Hell, it even chucks in that pounding siren sound that plays whenever Scanning is afoot and even contains all the exaggerated, into-the-camera gurning that happens when brains are Scanned forcibly – basically, what I’m saying is, that on paper, Scanners II does everything it needs to to be considered a true sequel to Cronenberg’s flawed classic. Unfortunately, it also manages to pick up its faults too.
There’s nothing overtly wrong with Christian Duguay’s economic sequel on paper and it’s even got the nice touch that it’s still set in Canada, however, for a movie about an underground society who is hunted and manipulated by powerful men, Scanners II kind of strolls along, apparently unconcerned about building up any excitement or tension as the basic conspiracy plot unfurls with all the urgency of a relaxing stroll on a lazy, summer’s afternoon.
Hardly helping matters much is the fact that all the actors are either blandly underplayed – if David Hewlett’s David Kellum was anymore vanilla, he’d have a Cadbury’s Flake growing out the side of his forehead – or grossly over performed with Raoul Trujillo’s Cher-haired henchmen making Michael Ironside’s villainous gurning in the first film seem subtle in comparison. Also, watching the film today, in the midst of endless superhero movies featuring targeted, meta humans such as X-Men, Push, Chronicle and literally countless others, Scanners II doesn’t really take full advantage of the power of its titular beings. Oh sure, David pops one head like a balloon, cracks another like a hairy egg and throws countless other people backwards after mentally shoving them like a tantruming five year old, but he doesn’t really think to utilize them until the bad shit is already happening. For example, it’s amazing how many plot twists David could have prematurely unlocked if he simply Scanned everyone present the second he walked into a room – I mean, it might be a rude thing to do, but it would certainly move the film along.
However, on the plus side, while the film may be somewhat pedestrian in nature (Cronenberg opened the first film with that head destination precisely to be confrontational), what it does get right is good enough to keep fans watching. The Scanner damage is nicely realised with one character literally withering away under a multi-Scanner attack and another poor sap having their head warped and swollen to the size and consistency of a particularly tatty medicine ball and the film also gives us the chunky, swollen veins and blank, white eyeballs of the poster of the first film to really sell the connection. However, what it’s lacking is Cronenberg’s cerebral style that made parallels with everything from neurodivercity, to having a secret conversation inside an art installation of a human head. In comparison, Scanners II contains little to no imagination whatsoever, with Duguay content to tell a flat, basic conspiracy thriller with some exaggerated gore.
And yet for all of its blandness, Scanners II is still watchable in it’s own, no frills, basic sort of way. An idea about Scanners being able to plug into someone’s eyesight without them realising that they’ve been turned into a living spy camera is pretty neat, if a little illogical (no one is going to notice the guy suddenly getting milky white eyes?) and it fits snuggly, if a little lazily, into the first film’s continuity – but if nothing else, it does what it says on the tin and busts a few heads for good measure.