The reason that my best friend is my best friend is she understands that I’m the kind of person who wants a movie about exploding heads for my birthday.
The 1981 Canadian horror film follows Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack). He’s a young vagrant who’s unable to function in society due to his highly advanced psychic abilities. He hears everyone’s thoughts very loudly.
He’s discovered by people working for the private security firm, ConSec, and brought to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the head of a program studying and weaponizing scanners, people with advanced psychic abilities.
The scanners program is under pressure after a renegade scanner infiltrates a demonstration and makes a man’s head explode.
Ruth teaches Vale to control his psychic abilities, with the help of a drug called Ephemerol, and sends him to hunt Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), an incredibly powerful rogue scanner. For the first time, Vale is able to meet other scanners like Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), an artist living in his huge sculptures.
Vale uncovers a corporate conspiracy involving ConSec and the drug company Biocarbon Amalgamate, with the help of fellow scanner Kim (Jennifer O’Neill).
For all of its body horror, the plot is very conventional and follows fairly standard sci-fi tropes. My main criticism is that, except for Vale, none of the other characters are particularly well developed. Scanners is particularly famous for being a difficult shoot with Cronenberg writing the script in the early hours before filming. I don’t really understand all the nuances of Canadian film financing–just enough to thank them for giving us some amazing horror films–but I know that Cronenberg was working in a very short amount of time to take advantage of this. That short working time is probably why the characterization suffers.
That being said, the performances are quite good. Even with minimal personal information about the characters, the actors make you care. Stephen Lack, in particular, brings humanity to a character that other characters describe as inhuman.
Scanners gets a lot of attention because of the famous exploding head scene–accomplished by shooting a foam latex head from behind with a twelve gauge shotgun–but the overall effects are amazing and hold up quite well, considering this movie is older than I am. That’s no surprise, with Dick Smith consulting–we’ve seen his work in The Exorcist. For me, the highlight of the movie is the psychic battle between Vale and Revok.
The score by Howard Shore is also notable. It creates an incredible amount of tension, especially during the scanning scenes.
While the movie deals with the issues of our very thoughts being dangerous, you can also see the influence of the thalidomide scare in the plot. In the late 1950s, thalidomide was marketed as a wonder drug to cure morning sickness in pregnancy. Unfortunately, it caused severe birth defects in fetuses when ingested by the mother before the third trimester.
The movie was good but I don’t think it’s my favorite Cronenberg sci-fi–I think that title goes to Videodrome. Long live the new flesh/mind?