SCANNERS. Yeah, a horror movie with THAT scene
In David Cronenberg’s filmography, Scanners holds a special place – it’s a title that a vast number of viewers will immediately recognize after just one scene (one shot!), but I doubt if an equally large number of people can say they’ve seen it in its entirety. Everyone remembers the exploding head, a truly remarkable effect, but the film itself seems somewhat forgotten today and even ignored by fans of the Canadian director when listing his most famous works. This can be understood by the more commercial approach of the creator, who, after three earlier, raw and ambitious horrors (Shivers, Rabid, The Brood), decided to make fundamentally entertaining cinema, combining a sensational plot with elements of science fiction and gore. Scanners is not even among Cronenberg’s best films, but it’s certainly one of his most accessible works, inviting exploration of the themes of physical and mental enslavement that he tackled throughout his career.
So, who are the titular Scanners? In a nutshell, they are telepaths, individuals who can not only hear the thoughts of others but also manipulate them and even kill using their powers. This fantastic ability comes at a cost – scanners are emotionally and mentally unstable individuals who are dependent on medication to block their powers. Moreover, it turns out that one of them, the psychopathic Darryl Revok, has started eliminating others. Cameron Vale, who was recently homeless and unaware of his extraordinary abilities, is sent after him. Trained by the enigmatic Dr. Ruth, who works for an arms company, Vale embarks on a search for Revok, soon finding support in the form of fellow scanner Kim Obrist (known for Seven Black Notes, and to me, primarily from the TV series Cover Up, Jennifer O’Neill).
Even from this short description, it’s hard to recognize the hand of the king of venereal horror, as David Cronenberg was once referred to. The focus here shifts from the body to the mind, and the power of the mind leads to the threat of losing control over oneself and various types of physical, mainly destructive, alterations. Ultimately, the director’s primary interest lies in psychic power. Sexual obsessions are absent, replaced by an almost espionage-like costume and an ancient conflict where a father’s sins pass on to his children, who have grown up and demand revenge. Furthermore, there’s a truly cyberpunk moment when Cameron interfaces with the computer’s nervous system and begins scanning its contents – only a self-destruct command can stop him. However, instead of quietly turning off the machine, we get a powerful explosion on one side and a melted telephone handset on the other, tangible evidence of psychic devastation. Considering other Cronenberg images, many might be disappointed by how commercial Scanners appears to be.
Not me. If a particular film achieves cult status solely based on one scene, it may signify either the greatness of that moment or the weakness of everything else. In this case, the exploding head, which we witness within the first ten minutes of the film, serves as a perfect introduction to very undemanding cinema. This scene was actually supposed to be the first in the entire film, but the director didn’t want latecomers to miss it. In this scene, the character played by Louis Del Grande, referred to as the First Scanner in the credits, organizes a demonstration of his mental powers for corporate employees. At the beginning, he explains the risks of scanning to the gathered audience, then asks one person to participate in the presentation. Nobody is willing to be a guinea pig, but eventually, a man recognized as Michael Ironside raises his hand and steps onto the stage. Both actors sell this scene wonderfully, especially Del Grande, with his calmness, tact, and openness, building trust in his character. We then observe two men sitting at a table, not uttering a word since the start of the scanning and reacting to each other in a clear and simply terrifying manner – the first seems paralyzed, his body tense, with agony painted on his face, while the volunteer’s posture suggests composure, control, and pleasure. The presentation culminates in the iconic BOOM when Del Grande’s head turns into a burst balloon, exploding fragments of brain in all directions. Of course, Revok turns out to be the volunteer, and it’s one of the best introductions of a black character in horror I can imagine, presenting the full power of the character. And even though you have to wait until the finale for the film to reach a similar level of spectacular and fiery cruelty, this beginning perfectly sets up the audience for the kind of cinema they are about to watch.
Scanners never pretends to be anything more than a B-movie entertainment, a work that seeks to please audiences seeking fulfillment in the grim, bloody, and mind-bending world of telepathic oddities, as we hear in the film. This is further emphasized by Howard Shore’s energetic music, which sets the right tone for this sensational story right from the beginning. There is enough of Cronenberg here to easily recognize his favorite obsessions, but at the same time, he doesn’t lean toward such an obvious adventure convention as in his earlier and later works. The main character is constantly thrown from one place to another, frequently escaping from an army of programmed killers, engaging in pursuits and shootouts, while trying to find some meaning or a way out of this escapade. The Canadian director certainly made much smarter films and ones that shocked audiences more or even earned more money, but Scanners is probably his only work made solely to entertain the audience.
Proof of this is the fact that Cronenberg doesn’t resort to any formal experiments. In one of his earlier films, made in 1969, Stereo, the Canadian director first tackled the subject of telepathy but did so in an incredibly demanding way, filling an hour-long session with black-and-white images, devoid of any plot or dialogue, and only occasionally supplemented with off-screen narration. In the famous Videodrome, the director delves into the mind of the main character, blurring the boundaries between reality and hallucinations. He does the same later in Naked Lunch and eXistenZ, in which the worlds are already distorted at their very foundations – in the first film by drugs, in the second by virtual reality. Meanwhile, in Scanners, instead of enriching the classic narrative with bolder techniques, Cronenberg opts for less invasive methods. Ironically, a film about psychic domination lacks images that play out inside the characters’ heads. Cronenberg settles for the sight of the scanners’ faces – tormented by continuous informational noise or focused on scanning other people – without showing us the process itself. We see exploding heads, bulging veins, or spontaneous combustion, but not where it comes from.
That doesn’t mean that the creator of A History of Violence doesn’t provide us with any clues about the terror that his characters face on a daily basis. Revok himself, as a young man, describes his condition in an incredibly vivid way, stating that not only voices but whole people sit in his head. A bit later, we see the works of Benjamin Pierce (Robert A. Silverman), a scanner who turned to art to avoid going insane. His sculptures mostly depict distorted faces, terrifying or terrified figures, doctors and patients, and in one case, a head so large that people can enter and reside inside. Psychic torment is brought here into the realm of images in which the body seems inadequate, too weak to possess power that exceeds our imagination. Cronenberg knows that regardless of how he would show the scanning process, he would not fully convey the pain, hardship, and monstrosity associated with entering someone’s mind on the one hand and the impossibility of defending against an intruder on the other. It’s easier to show the end result, equally incredible but perhaps more shocking – because while the mind knows no bounds, the body does. And this is the field of eternal exploration and devastation for Cronenberg.
So if Scanners touches on Cronenberg’s favorite themes, why is it somewhat on the fringes of his body of work? Why doesn’t this specific Cronenberg film enjoy the same love as Videodrome, Naked Lunch, or The Fly? It may be due to the fact that the director’s artistic aspirations are turned into an attractive but seemingly hollow spectacle, a feast of special effects. But then the reaction of the viewers should be different, especially those who love B-movies, especially from the 1980s. Nonetheless, even in their case, Scanners doesn’t seem to be held in special reverence. Fans seem to remember only the head-exploding scene, as if Cronenberg’s film had nothing more to offer in terms of spectacular gore. This is not true, as there is also a superbly executed climax where we witness a battle between scanners, and earlier sequences of rather brutal executions are shot with nerve and characterized by a somewhat oppressive atmosphere.
I believe that the biggest problem with Scanners lies in the main character, played by Stephen Lack. Up until the final scene, Cameron Vale is a passive character, following Dr. Ruth’s instructions, and Dr. Ruth, portrayed by Patrick McGoohan, is a very ambivalent character. Every time he presents his plan to the board of supervisors to eliminate the competition (Revok and his people), I understand how ruthless yet pragmatic he is. At the same time, it’s hard not to notice his concern and compassion in his interactions with Vale. These qualities, among many others, are missing in the latter, the protagonist by chance (though not really), who is the least interesting character in the film. Cronenberg chose Lack, a recognized painter, for this role. Unfortunately, from the very first scene, it’s evident that Lack is not an actor. His performance is dominated by artificiality, he delivers his lines without any emotional nuance, and he also seems “deaf” to his co-stars’ performances, especially the very good Jennifer O’Neill. It’s hard to engage in the narrative, even one full of such fantastic ideas as Cronenberg’s, if we don’t believe in the main character.
I once read that Scanners can be seen as a metaphor for the end of the hippie movement, whose members, after years of protesting against the establishment, experimenting with drugs, and living in opposition to the traditional way of life, had to decide who they wanted to be. Some chose well-paying jobs while not forgetting where they came from (Obrist), others ended up at the bottom (Vale), withdrew into themselves, escaping the modern world (Pierce), and some betrayed their youthful ideals for money and power (Revok). This element is indeed present in Cronenberg’s film, but beneath the thick layer of action cinema, it’s hard to see anything important beyond the head-exploding scene. That scene is so iconic that it has become synonymous with Scanners, diverting attention from everything else, from the plot to its interpretations. Some things are sometimes just too good.