Schlocktoberfest #21: Scanners
The exploding head scene from Scanners has become an internet staple. The movie itself was a cult hit in the ’80s, a creepy tale of powerful psychics among us, with hints of corporate overlordship and allusions toward prescription drugs affected unborn children, like Thalidomide. Helmed by captain creepy David Cronenberg, it uses plenty of gore, but keeps a consistent tone of disorientation and dread throughout.
So, what’s a scanner? A mind-reader, we’d assume. We meet our protagonist as a woozy hobo in a mall, as he is captured. He seems disoriented, and the high pitched drones on the soundtrack infer that he’s undergoing sensory overload. Throughout the film, low-bass hums and other noise cues will be used when “scanning” is going on, and it works like psychological warfare of a sort, setting us on edge. The “hobo” is Cameron, who is brought to the bearded Dr. Ruth (not Westheimer, though the cries of “Doctor Ruth” got a little comical to us who remember her). He’s a paranormal researcher and wants to use Cameron to hunt down other scanners. Played by “The Prisoner” veteran Patrick MacGoohan, he’s a welcome bit of sweater and tweed, elbow-patched jacket reality.
However, there’s another scanner hunter out there. Darryl Revok, played to evil perfection by Michael Ironside, appears at a psychic demonstration. He volunteers from the audience to have his mind scanned… and we all know the explosive consequences. He allows himself to be captured by armed agents, and escapes with ease later on, by making the men kill each other. His effortless power is frightening, and there’s no need to chew the scenery. He just struts through a scene with his sardonic grin, like the love child of Oliver Stone and Satan himself, controlling the minds of others at will. Why is he killing other scanners? Is this like his later, unfortunate role in Highlander 2: The Quickening, where there can be only one? Or does he have a higher purpose?
Cameron is set loose to seek out other scanners, to protect them from Revok and whoever he’s working for; but shotgun-toting assassins are always one step behind him, slaughtering every psychic in their wake. Prognostication is not one of their mind powers, apparently. A memorably visual scene comes when Cameron tracks down a sculptor who may be a scanner, and there’s a duel between psychics and shotguns in his studio, full of Cronenberg-style, disturbing body sculptures, including a cyclopean human head lying on its ear. But despite this, it is not an action film. Most of it is low-level suspense, as Cameron seeks out his origins, and his destiny.
Unfortunately the ending is anticlimactic, and the original, bloodier one was never filmed. I would have loved to see another head explosion. Or more Ironside. The effects however, are stunning for the time. Some of the best latex work I’ve seen. The final battle may fizzle, but Cronenberg’s obsession with mutilating the human form is perfectly realized, as we see inner power trying to burst out. He should be directing the live-action Akira, if it must be made at all. I loved Eastern Promises and A History of Violence, but I hope he’s got another Videodrome or Dead Ringers in him.
Scanners may not be in the league of those two masterpieces, but it is a solid supernatural thriller with psychics, and it is much better than Brian De Palma’s campy attempt, The Fury. In that one, we get to see John Cassavetes entire body explode, but sometimes you should quit while you’re ahead.