ScannersThis David Cronenberg freak-out about warring telepaths contains one of the stand-out moments in horror cinema. As for the rest of the movie, it’s pretty good. Not at all great, but pretty good.

The concept of SCANNERS was one that had been knocking around in David Cronenberg’s head for years before the film’s 1980 inception. Telepathy played a big part in Cronenberg’s early short films STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE. SCANNERS, however, was a far cry from those highly experimental films, being among Cronenberg’s most overtly commercial offerings.

The effort paid off, as SCANNERS gave Cronenberg his first-ever number one opening at the box office (THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS would replicate that feat), and made him a bonafide Hollywood player in the eighties. That didn’t last, obviously!

After causing an old woman to go into a seizure with his mind, the telepathic Cameron Vale is drugged and taken to the lair of Dr. Ruth(!), a dedicated scientist. Dr. Ruth is studying Scanners, or telepaths. He wants to use Cameron to take on Darryl Rebok, a powerful scanner who’s been recruiting similarly talented individuals in a war against non-scanners. Rebok is first seen using his scanning talents to make a man’s head explode, and so proving that he’s not an especially nice guy.

Cameron is one of the few scanners Rebok hasn’t yet reached. The attractive museum curator Kim is another. Cameron and Kim team up with a rag tag band of non-Rebok recruited scanners. The band doesn’t last long, as Rebok’s goons succeed in killing off nearly all its members, including Dr. Ruth.

Cameron and Kim are the only survivors of the purge. They’re searching for the manufacturers of a drug that reportedly caused people to become scanners in the first place—while in their mother’s wombs! Apparently the drug is still being given to expectant mothers by Rebok’s agents in an effort to create new scanners; Kim gets a first-hand experience of the effects of the drug when she’s scanned by a woman’s unborn child!

All that’s really left is the inevitable final showdown between Cameron and Rebok, who it turns out have a definite connection. That showdown takes place, and only one, of course, will survive…

From a writing standpoint SCANNERS isn’t one of David Cronenberg’s better efforts. The narrative is repetitive and hard to follow, with a gratuitous action sequence seemingly every few minutes. It’s Cronenberg’s only pure action movie (making his non-genre dragsploitation effort FAST COMPANY look stately by comparison), and it’s clear from the start that the form doesn’t entirely suit him.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of Cronenbergisms scattered throughout that make SCANNERS an enjoyable viewing experience for fans. The score by Howard Shore is profoundly creepy, and helps conjure an atmosphere of otherworldly strangeness. The somnambulant lead performance of Stephen Lack contributes to that atmosphere in its near-complete lack of anything resembling emotion (whether that’s by design or simply due to a surfeit of talent on Lack’s part is immaterial). The pre-CGI special effects by the great Dick Smith are superb, and, in true Cronenberg fashion, entirely original.

You may (like me) have seen quite a few special effects extravaganzas in your time, but the chances are you’ve never seen anything quite like the engorged blood vessels of SCANNERS, or the eternally famous exploding head. That latter image is one of the most iconic in genre movie history, and outdoes every other such effect (including John Cassavettes’ spectacularly messy exit in THE FURY and MANIAC’S shotgun blast to the noggin) in inventiveness, audacity and sheer nausea.

Vital Statistics

Embassy Pictures

Director: David Cronenberg
Producer: Claude Heroux
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Cinematography: Mark Irwin
Editing: Ronald Sanders
Cast: Stephen Lack, Jennifer O’Neill, Oatrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Michael Ironside, Robert Silverman, Lee Broker, Mavor Moore, Adam Ludwig, Marray Cruchley, Fred Doederlein, Geza Kovacs, Sonny Forbes, Louis Del Grande