“You are 35 years old, Mr. Vale. Why are you such a derelict? Such a piece of human junk? The answer’s simple. You’re a scanner, which you don’t realize. And that has been the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power,” says Dr. Paul Ruth to Cameron Vale.
David Cronenberg is a Canadian filmmaking legend who has produced a great body of work as a director. However, it took him a few films at the beginning of his directing career before his output became acclaim-worthy (1979’s The Brood would be the first good film he made). For his follow-up film, Cronenberg would write and direct a sci-fi thriller that would continue to explore the body horror themes that were present in The Brood (themes that would continue to show up in his work both physically and mentally over the next 35 years). The resulting film, Scanners, would further establish his name in the horror and sci-fi genres and even brought Hollywood to his door (1983’s The Dead Zone, 1986’s The Fly). I was fortunate to see a midnight showing of Scanners on the big screen at the IFC Center over a year ago during a mini-Cronenberg retrospective, which I enjoyed very much. This 35th anniversary review of Scanners is my entry in the O Canada Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy & Silver Screenings.
1981’s Scanners follows a homeless drifter who learns that he is one of a few hundred gifted individuals in the world called scanners with telepathic and telekinetic powers. He is recruited by ConSec, a private security firm that trains him to control his powers, and is subsequently sent out to stop a renegade scanner who is setting a deadly plan into motion. Cronenberg gathers together an impressive ensemble that includes Stephen Lack (as Cameron Vale), Michael Ironside (as Darryl Revok), Patrick McGoohan (as Dr. Paul Ruth), Jennifer O’Neill (as Kim Obrist), Lawrence Dane (as Dr. Braedon Keller), Robert Silverman (as Benjamin Pierce), and Louis Del Grande (as First Scanner). Lack is effective in his portrayal of the social outcast Cameron, and Ironside is wonderfully lethal and villainous as Revok. McGoohan brings enigma to the well-meaning Dr. Ruth, and O’Neill shines as the strong-willed Kim, who becomes an important ally to Cameron.
Cronenberg stages some exciting action sequences and draws strong performances from his cast. His screenplay explores the effects of social isolation while framing a sci-fi industrial espionage thriller littered with action and intrigue (he even has Cameron undergo a hero’s journey of sorts). Mark Irwin’s cinematography makes the Canadian landscapes look gorgeous yet perilous, and Carol Spier’s production design makes great use of various real-life locations (although my favorite set is Pierce’s barn where he created his art). Ronald Sanders’ editing gives the film a good pace, heightening the action and scanner duels. The makeup design by Dick Smith is top-notch (the exploding head sequence alone is worth the price of admission, and his work in the final scanner duel is astounding), as are the gory special effects by Gary Zeller. Howard Shore crafts a memorable score that heavily emphasizes the film’s sci-fi elements (especially the use of electronic sounds to represent the power of scanning) but still conveys the drama. Cronenberg’s Scanners is an enduring cult classic from the early part of his career that helped pave the way for bigger successes and more odd but intriguing films (and you can never forget about that exploding head once you’ve seen it!).