If The Brood was David Cronenberg’s critical breakthrough then was Scanners was his commercial breakthrough. This offbeat but commercially savvy genre-bender was his first big box office hit on a large scale beyond his native Canada and made his mainstream filmmaking career possible. It has become somewhat fashionable in recent times to downplay this film as one of his lesser works for reasons that will be discussed shortly – but Scanners remains an engaging, intelligent piece of work that deserves the success it has enjoyed.
Scanners begins with Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a transient amnesiac who finds himself plucked out of obscurity when scientist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) discovers he has the ability to control the brain and nervous system of another person with his mind. This talent is known as “scanning” – and Ruth reveals that there is an entire underground network of people with this skill.
After a bit of training, Ruth dispatches Vale to look for Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a powerful and malicious scanner who is trying to marshal his fellow scanners into conquering the human race. Vale falls in with a faction of non-malevolent scanners led by Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) – and they quickly find themselves targeted by Revok, who is better equipped and more connected than anyone knows. As they brace for a battle with Revok, Vale and Obrist discover what created the scanners – and the true nature of Vale’s long-forgotten identity.
Much to-do has been made of the fact that Scanners was a rushed production: the nature of Canadian film financing at the time forced Cronenberg to start filming before he could complete his script, leading to a situation where he’d shoot while working on the script at night. Some consider it a lesser Cronenberg film because of this, an opinion aided by the fact that Cronenberg doesn’t like to talk about the film anymore – but none of this makes Scanners a bad film.
The worst thing you could say about Scanners is that the plotting is simpler and more straightforward than you’d expect from a Cronenberg film: the storyline favors an A-to-B-to-C plot progression and places an emphasis on setpieces, avoiding the layered storytelling and quirkiness that would run rampant in his next film, Videodrome. However, what is here works quite well. The plot is cleanly constructed, cleverly blending action, horror, sci-fi and thriller elements while maintaining a sizzling pace. Cronenberg also finds room for some commentary on how pharmaceuticals – and the corporate mindset that drives their creation and use – have an adverse effect on humanity.
Scanners benefits from confident direction by Cronenberg. By this time, he had assembled a gifted creative team – cinematographer Mark Irwin, editor Ronald Sanders, art director Carol Spier, composer Howard Shore – and Cronenberg skillfully deploys their respective talents to develop his own distinct style. Everything is geared towards creating an aesthetic that is stylish yet has a minimalist reserve to it. Thus, Cronenberg’s often audacious concepts are present in a clean, unfussy manner that allows the audience to fully appreciate how unique they are. The overall style is reminscent of the paranoid political thrillers that were so popular in the ’70s – think of The Parallax View or Marathon Man – and the storyline also evokes the icy mood of those films.
Similarly, the cast of Scanners plays the offbeat scenario straight. Lack’s performance as Vale is one of the most oft-critiqued elements of the film but it’s not as problematic as some would have you believe. The character of Vale is supposed to be a blank slate, waking up after years of inertia and Lack does a good job of conveying the character’s unearthly disconnect from the rest of the world. His line deliveries are sometimes unsteady but his nonverbal work is often impressive, particularly in the scenes where he has to scan.
Elsewhere, McGoohan brings a gruff intelligence to his role, lending personality to an oft-expository role, and O’Neill informs her role with a quiet but effective intensity. The one really showy role in the film is Revok – and Michael Ironside drives it home with a palpable intensity. Though he has a limited amount of screen time, he makes each scene count: he summons up the right mixture of malicious glee and righteous anger to make his super-villain connect with the audience.
Finally, and most importantly, Cronenberg knows how to use special effects to sell the audience on the film’s ideas. Indeed, Scanners contains one of the most famous moments in horror film history in a scene where Revok scans another scanner with such intensity that it makes the man’s head explode. However, that is just a prelude to the film’s jaw-dropping finale, in which Vale and Revok have a scanning showdown. Makeup FX legend Dick Smith was imported to Canada to mastermind the effects for this sequence and the body-distorting results rank amongst the most impressive makeup effects in ’80s horror cinema.
Simply put, Scanners rises above the difficulties of its creation to streamline Cronenberg’s knack for intellectual yet visceral horror into a diverting, commercial package. It’s the perfect introduction to his work for neophytes, a sort of gateway drug that can open up the wonder of Cronenberg’s “body horror” filmmaking for the uninitiated.