Scanners
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Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

David Cronenberg's Scanners has way more to offer than just an exploding head

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Jan 11, 2021, 5:18 PM EST (Updated)

The majority of David Cronenberg's body horrors are defined by that one indelible scene — the one that might just scar more squeamish viewers for life. Think of The Brood's finale, for example, in which Nola tears open her womb before licking the afterbirth off the mutant she's just spawned. Or when Max decides to store his handgun in his stomach's cavernous orifice in Videodrome. And who can forget that slightly less extreme but still wince-inducing moment when a startled Seth peels off his fingernails in The Fly?

It's no less true of 1981's Scanners, the Canadian director's seventh feature film and arguably the first to make waves outside the midnight movie crowd (it grossed $14.2 million, far more than the entirety of his previous oeuvre). On this occasion, the shock value derives from a mind-reading conference in which the host's head explodes in spectacular fashion.

Scanners' impressive box office haul was undoubtedly boosted by a clever TV marketing campaign that proudly showed off cinemagoers' visceral reactions to all the cranium combustion. In fact, test audiences were so shaken by what they saw that Cronenberg moved what should have been the opening scene to a more acclimatizing 10 minutes in. And thanks to The Godfather of Makeup Dick Smith's inspired mix of plaster, gelatin, and leftover hamburgers — blasted from behind by a shotgun — this gruesome set-piece still packs a punch 40 years on.

Of course, like every other Cronenberg effort that's left the more puritanical sections of the press foaming at the mouth, Scanners has far more to offer than sheer provocation. Early VHS renters may have grabbed a copy for the copious amounts of blood and gore. Yet by the time they'd hit the rewind button, they'd also been hit with some intriguing social commentary on everything from the counterculture movement to America's dependence on pharmaceuticals.

Scanners doesn't waste any time engaging in mind games, either. Within the first two minutes, a vagrant has sent a gawking mall shopper into convulsions via the uncontrollable telepathic powers that have become more of a curse than a blessing. For this outsider, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), is one of the titular X-Men-esque figures whose sixth sense has caught the attention of two opposing forces: a shadowy military company wishing to harness it to thwart the leader of a villainous scanner group and then said leader Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside).

Regular big-screen baddie Ironside essentially set the blueprint for his entire career as the malevolent mind reader responsible for the film's pièce de résistance. The sharp-suited Revok simply oozes menace from every pore whenever he enters the frame — none more so than in the creepy mental institution footage that provides the explanation for his forehead scar ("I drilled a hole into my head... Had to release some pressure").

An equally nightmarish earlier scene set in a derelict warehouse makes Revok's DIY surgery all the more understandable. Here, a bed-strapped Vale is subjected to a cacophony of strangers' innermost thoughts before being given the sweet relief of ephemerol, a fictional drug but one with echoes of the very real thalidomide scandal believed to have caused more than 10,000 birth defects back in the late 1950s.

It's fair to say that Lack can't quite convey the same sense of inner turmoil as the foe he later engages in a climactic psychokinetic battle with. Far more renowned for his Neo-Expressionist artwork than his acting talents, the unlikely leading man gives a strangely static, emotionless turn, which makes it hard to invest in Vale's fate. "You're barely human," ally Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill) tells him at one point, and it appears as though Lack took this line as a cue for his whole performance.

Rumor has it that Cronenberg only gave Lack the gig due to his crystal-clear blue eyes, perhaps a sign that the auteur's judgment had been impaired by the chaotic nature of Scanners' shoot. The follow-up to The Brood had been rushed into the production stage to capitalize on a tax-saving scheme despite the lack of completed script and sets. Little wonder, therefore, that Cronenberg once cited Scanners as the most challenging experience of his career.

However, Lack is the only real casting misfire. The Prisoner's Patrick McGoohan imbues his mad scientist character Dr. Ruth with a sense of authority and ambiguity that keeps his intentions a mystery until the big reveal. And Robert Silverman impresses with a brief cameo as the ill-fated scanner who throws himself into his art to keep the demons at bay, perhaps a nod to Cronenberg's very own creative approach.

Indeed, as something of a counterculture figure who sees the world differently to most, the filmmaker has much in common with the rest of the scanners, too. That said, Scanners is far more conventional than anything Cronenberg had previously put his name to.

Sure, there may be brain detonations, deathly computer networks, and a vein-popping, head-twitching finale that results in the hero possessing the body of his evil, similarly mutant brother. Yet not only does it eschew the controversial psychosexual imagery of his low-budget '70s cult classics, it also embraces the more Hollywoodian aspects of cinema: See the fireball that erupts after the car crash that allows Revok to wreak more havoc. And while previous Cronenberg efforts typically ended in howls of despair, Scanners actually gives the good guy a win (well, kinda).

Of course, the movie wouldn't be half as effective without Howard Shore's aptly nightmarish score. The Cronenberg regular ramps up the tension to almost unbearable levels during the psychokinetic scenes, using a blend of pulsing synths and gothic classical to produce an ominous wall of noise. Shore's absence was as notable as Cronenberg and Ironside's in the four straight-to-DVD sequels that inevitably adhered to the law of diminishing returns.

Cronenberg would later take fans on even more intense mind trips in Naked Lunch and Spider, both adaptations of novels that were both once deemed unfilmable. But by making his penchant for the twisted just that little more palatable, Scanners remains the most obvious entry point in his venereal horror canon and one that intrigues long after that head has been blown to smithereens.

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