Scanners (1981)

*. There can’t be many directors whose work divides fans and critics so radically as that of David Cronenberg. I don’t mean over the question of whether he’s any good or not, but over the question of what constitutes the good Cronenberg and what’s not worth bothering with.
*. In putting my own cards on the table I’ll repeat a point I’ve made many times before, both in my book on Canadian fiction and several other places. Most artists have a period of about ten years where they do most of their major work. I find this is the same for film directors as it is for poets and novelists. It usually comes in the front part of their career. With that in mind, I would put Cronenberg’s most creative years, or big decade, as running from 1979’s The Brood to 1988’s Dead Ringers. In other words, I like the early Cronenberg. Some of his later work is interesting, but I never want to see Crash or Maps to the Stars again.
*. That said, these early films do have their drawbacks. They are cheap and show it. At times they approach “so bad they’re good territory.” But they really are good. In Scanners I get the sense that Cronenberg was actually trying to jam too many ideas into the frame, but I still find it fascinating even forty years later.
*. The so-bad-they’re-funny parts can be quickly addressed. Stephen Lack’s performance as Cameron Vale has been universally panned, and with cause. Lack is actually an interesting artist in what is his day job, but he’s terrible here. I couldn’t even buy him as an oddity.
*. Then there are the improbabilities in the plot. I could (just) get on board with the homeless derelict Vale being transformed into a corporate spy extraordinaire, but the business about his being able to mentally hack computers from a phone booth because the network is just like a human nervous system was a bridge too far. Not to mention the way his mental powers not only make the computers blow up but also down power lines and turn gas stations into fireballs. You have to laugh at all of that. But then, this was a time when people using computers wore lab coats.
*. All of this, however, somewhat constitutes the Cronenberg aesthetic. In his review of Scanners Roger Ebert says something that I find very perceptive in this regard: “We forgive low-budget films their limitations, assuming that their directors would reach farther with more money. But Scanners seems to indicate that what Cronenberg wants is enough money to make a better low-budget movie.”
*. Setting the production bar where he does, Cronenberg can be counted on to deliver entertaining fare that, while it may draw on various sources (Kim Newman cites the run of ’70s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and the psychic mumbo-jumbo of The Fury), always ends up feeling distinctive and unique.
*. Part of it has to do with his use of locations, or more precisely his way of turning everyday locations into uncanny spaces. Like a lecture hall, or even a food court at the mall. He has moments that make him seem like a discount Antonioni here, delivered with a garish genre inflection.

*. From the look of the film alone you could probably identify its auteur, but there are other fingerprints as well, including the familiar theme of medical science and technology run amok. All these scientists whose cures are worse than the disease. Or whose cures are the disease. The ephemerol kids are thalidomide babies, or LSD burn outs, so if you want there are those extra kinds of readings available. Political? Well, apparently Michael Ironside (Darryl Revok!) thought he was playing Che Guevara.
*. Apparently Cronenberg was writing a lot of the script on the fly, but because it was working out themes he was so thoroughly invested in this was something he could get away with.
*. It’s also to his credit here how he makes something out of what could very easily have been unintentionally hilarious: scenes of people making faces (grimacing, twitching, jerking their heads and having their eyes bulge) while supposedly engaged in psychic combat. There are really only the two big effects scenes where we actually see the kind of damage the scanners can do to a human body. The rest of it has to be mostly implied.
*. If Stephen Lack is a disappointment, Michael Ironside takes this movie over and makes it his own, even against Cronenberg’s visuals, Dick Smith’s special effects, and Howard Shore’s score. Just as he almost did, playing against Schwarzenegger and Sharon Stone, in Total Recall. How did this guy not become an even bigger star? He doesn’t have to over-emote to just chew a script to pieces.
*. Hands up if you identified Dr. Paul Ruth as Patrick McGoohan. I don’t think I would have caught him without a credit in a hundred viewings. I’m sure it’s mostly the beard, but still.
*. I know people who think the world of this movie, and (probably more) who think it’s just terrible. It’s not my personal favourite, that might be The Brood, but it has a place among the other works of what I like to think of as Cronenberg’s major phase. Major in the sense of most imaginative and creative — ironically or not, the years where he was just starting out and had the least to work with.
*. There’s been a lot of talk about a remake and one can understand why. It seems so obvious that a better movie could be made out of such a premise. But at the same time any improvement, and maybe that should be in quotation marks, would mean making it into something else entirely. You can’t spend more money and make a better low-budget movie than this.

11 thoughts on “Scanners (1981)

      1. Alex Good Post author

        OK, that did get a smile. I wonder if Scanners was the first exploding head. It’s probably the most famous. At the end of The Fury (1978) John Cassavetes blows up, but that’s a full body explosion.

      2. tensecondsfromnow

        Yup, I think these are the two big bangs of the horror canon, and The Fury is one I mean to return to; looked awful on tv in 1981, but pan and scan, cuts and so forth may have made a difference. But it’s weird to see a hipster tv show assuming a knowledge of Cronenberg’s work…

      3. Alex Good Post author

        Are they hipsters or nerds? Like I say, I haven’t seen the show. They look like they might be Cronenberg fans though.

        I was thinking some more of early exploding heads. In both Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Maniac (1980) there are heads being blown apart by shotgun blasts. Both courtesy of Tom Savini too. But they might not count as exploding heads.

  1. Tom Moody

    My purely subjective take is that Cronenberg made a good call casting a non-actor in this role. Lack is believable to me as a barely-socialized “special talent” who has spent most of his life drifting and confused (thanks, Dr. Ruth — Dad) and stumbles his way into discovering his power and origins. As someone who doesn’t know how to act on screen or in life, he seems properly incredulous when he can suddenly do ridiculous things like telekinesis over phone lines and teleporting his consciousness into another body. And last, he is a completely passive foil for Michael Ironside, who as you say, owns the movie.
    Something that makes this film different from all the knockoffs is Cronenberg’s intellectual musing about what makes a “scanner.” Some are violent controllers, some seek spiritual communion on yoga mats, and others process their mental overload through artistic sublimation. Lack is our unfrozen caveman/Kaspar Hauser figure, discovering each of these properties in turn, soaking it all in, deciding where he belongs.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      I hear you, and sometimes that casting a non-actor works. In this case I think the part demanded more though, and Lack couldn’t convey it. I agree that one of the interesting things in the film is the way the scanners retain individual personalities. They’re not types, even when they join together. Indeed there’s a suggestion that any type of group activity, whether among the good or the bad scanners, is a bad thing.


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