David Cronenberg’s early cinema was largely an exploration of body horror, a subgenre that dealt with infections and other invasions of the body usually with state-of-the-art special effects. Cronenberg’s first two features dealt explicitly with viruses, while The Brood and Scanners were much more about mental disorders that had disturbing physical manifestations. Cronenberg’s best body horror films, Videodrome and The Fly, married these two strains and coupled them with an intriguing philosophical approach. Scanners is an early suggestion of the great things that Cronenberg would go on to do, but it remains interesting in its own right.
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a rootless derelict who is captured by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, who gives a great hammy performance as a scientist just on the verge of madness), who believes he can help him. Cameron has a severe mental condition; he is a Scanner, which means he can hear people’s thoughts and enter their minds through telepathy. Evil Scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is recruiting people like Cameron in order to take over the world. Ruth recruits Cameron to find Revok and kill him…
If you know anything about Scanners, it has probably got something to do with the scene in which Darryl Revok causes another Scanner’s head to explode. The film was originally marketed on the shock value of this scene, with a teaser trailer that showed the preview audience’s reaction. The anecdote of how the brutally realistic head-explosion was achieved is recounted on all five of the cast and crew interviews on the DVD. One could be forgiven for thinking that there is little else of interest in the film itself apart from that one short, early scene.
However, if the head-explosion quickly and inevitably loses its shock value, the film is still not devoid of interest. Cronenberg’s films have always been powerfully visceral and Scanners is remarkably successful at conveying the gruesome tactility of the telepathy at work, visualizing the invisible mental processes of its characters. In the much more impressive final sequence, in which Cameron and Revok have a battle of the minds the marks of the battle appear physically on the body. This idea refers to the mind-body problem, most specifically to Cartesian dualism, in which it is believed that the mind can exert control over the body. In Scanners, scanning someone can increase their heart rates, cause their veins to burst or, as we know, make their head explode. Indeed, the mind might even become so powerful that it becomes independent of the body and jettisons it, leaving it to burn into smouldering ash.
Aside from an emphasis on visceral horror and the latest (for the time) special effects, Cronenberg is primarily interested in addressing philosophy. Though Scanners is much more of a horror movie and a thriller than a rigorous exploration of certain channels of thought, it does make for an entertaining and nasty film that is full of interesting ideas. It is also of interest as an early sign of what Cronenberg went on to be – his latest two films, A Dangerous Method and Cosmopolis, are largely dialogue-driven though at times the old head-exploding Cronenberg shows through. Similarly, the film is a surprisingly successful mix of arthouse and exploitation, in which the crowd-pleasing money shot might double as the conclusion to a chain of thought. The result is a film that can be thoroughly entertaining and intellectually stimulating.
That said, the film is far from flawless. Cronenberg here is much more interested in making an exploitation horror film than an arthouse film and it does show in the film’s high quotient of shoot-outs and violence, often at the expense of plot or character. As well as this, Cronenberg is not yet as in control of his medium as he would later be. In comparison to his best films, Scanners often feels clunky and amateurish. Stephen Lack and Jennifer O’Neill are rather bland leads. Lack, an artist rather than an actor, has great eyes for the role but little else. McGoohan and Ironside have great fun, though their performances suggest that they thought the script was so much pap and was not to be taken seriously. Cronenberg is noticeably absent from the interviews on the DVD, suggesting that he has moved on from and might even be embarrassed by the film. Scanners can be considered as Cronenberg’s last film in his exploitation period since his next film was the much more arthouse and thoroughly mind-bending classic Videodrome.
Scanners is a decent horror film, an entertaining mystery-thriller with an exploding head and a fantastically visual mind battle, which will divide its audience between those who will laugh and those who will think it effective. The film defies easy categorization, and remains an effective early entry in the back catalogue of one of the most interesting and visually powerful filmmakers working today.