Synopsis: A scientist sends a man with extraordinary psychic powers to hunt others like him.
Stars: Jennifer O’Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Michael Ironside, Robert A. Silverman
Director: David Cronenberg
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Around the same time Canada was hopping on the American bandwagon and producing a bunch of teenager slasher films, they also were nurturing a strange vision of another type of horror. Beginning in 1975 with the landmark Shivers, director David Cronenberg has been a pioneer in crafting a particular type of scare fest that goes beyond an outside force acting hacking away at an unsuspecting innocent. He’s clearly been more intrigued with persona and the “body horror” subgenre in films like Rabid (a woman becomes a zombie after having plastic surgery), The Brood (psychotherapy produces demonic entities), and Videodrome (the original attack on mass media’s negative influence) and, of course, Scanners.
Released in 1981 and probably best remembered today as the movie where that guy’s head explodes, it’s so much more than that. While it doesn’t feature any revolutionary technique in filmmaking or the kind of memorable (okay, good) performances that stand up against similar movies released in that era, its themes are sophisticated and more often than not well ahead of its time. Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) obviously had deeper themes about the rising of the next generation of leaders and wanted to say something about the dangers in handing over the keys to a fragile kingdom so fearlessly.
There’s a new weapon on display courtesy of a company called ConSec and they are called “scanners”. With the ability to control the minds of others, these psychics are initially meant to be a way to infiltrate enemies consciousness and anticipate their next move or prevent them from taking action. However, as with any weapon designed for good there are those who want to use it for evil and that’s where scanner Daryl Revok comes in. After making a rather messy demonstration of a scanner with lesser strength, Revok (Michael Ironside, Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II) goes on the run and exposes he has formed his own group of aggressive scanners that oppose the more docile troupe employed by ConSec. Revok’s more take charge minions want to be calling the shots and not rely on the passive ConSec scanners to lead the way.
The man behind the the ConSec operation is Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan, Braveheart) who reluctantly calls in troubled scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, Dead Ringers) to help track down Revok before he goes too far with his plans. Vale has suffered terribly with his dark gift, winding up on the street and not always being able to control his powers. With the aid of a new drug meant to quiet some of his unstable rumblings, Vale agrees to help Dr. Ruth (save your jokes) because he’s the only one that’s any kind of match for Revok. Picking up another individual with special skills along the way (Jennifer O’Neill, The Psychic), the trio are in a race against time to figure out where Revok will strike next. There’s an added layer of mystery involving a link between Vale and Revok that, convenient as it may be, helps keep the film coloring inside the lines until its rushed ending.
I’d say Scanners is about ten minutes longer than it needed to be with a few too many dips in the action. While I applaud Cronenberg building out some character backstory with Vale and even more so by giving Revok a decent amount of motivation beyond being a simple megalomaniac, it does weigh down the film when it should be picking up steam. Credit also to Lack and Ironside (and all the scanners, actually) for developing their own facial twists and tics in conveying their powers – it could be laughable to some but it’s highly effective when paired with Howard Shore’s pulsating score. The effects are a bit hokey but somehow it all works as part of the grand design of Cronenberg’s master plan.
There’s a reason why Scanners has gone on to become a cult classic and spawn several lesser-than sequels (but oddly no remake) and it’s not because of that aforementioned head-exploding scene, which I must say is divine. It’s because it’s a smart, well-constructed film that delivers the goods when necessary. I’m not sure it has a high yearly re-watchability factor but it’s absolutely something you could revisit every five years or so with satisfaction.