Looking back at David Cronenberg’s Scanners

Famous for its exploding head sequence, Scanners was one of David Cronenberg's earliest mainstream hits in the US. Ryan takes a look back...

Pick out any David Cronenberg movie, and you’ll find within it a single, defining and unforgettable image. In Shivers, it was the sight of a disgusting parasite wriggling out of a human mouth. In The Brood, it was the image of a woman with an external womb full of mutant young.

For some, Scanners will be filed away in the memory as ‘that exploding head movie’, and indeed, it’s the 1981’s brutal key scene which has forever etched itself on a generation of filmgoers’ consciousness. Had Cronenberg mysteriously given up making films after Scanners, he’d probably be known as the grandmaster of exploding head movies.

The plot

In what might be the near future (or an alternate 80s, if you prefer), science has accidentally created Scanners – a new breed of human with paranormal abilities. But far from a blessing, these abilities are a curse, leaving many of the Scanners unable to live normal lives due to the multitude of voices crowding into their head.

Cameron (Stephen Lack) is one such Scanner. His inability to control his ability to overhear the thoughts of those around him has left him a shuffling vagrant, as demonstrated in one early scene where a group of middle-class women observe him with disgust. Picking up their negative thoughts, Cameron responds by psychically attacking them, sending one woman into an epileptic fit.

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Shortly after, Cameron’s captured by a company called ConSec, whose scientists (among them Patrick MacGoohan’s Dr Ruth) want to harness the Scanners’ power for their own ends. Under Dr Ruth’s care, Cameron is introduced to a new drug called Ephemerol, which allows him to control his abilities and shut out the white noise of other people’s thoughts.

Meanwhile, another Scanner, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is busy causing chaos. Having infiltrated Consec’s headquarters and blown up another, weaker psychic’s head in a spectacular demonstration sequence, he and his underground group of Scanners plans to kill anyone involved with ConSec.

Having completed his training, Cameron’s sent out to infiltrate the Scanner underground group, locate Revok, and terminate his command. Along the way, Cameron meets scanner Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), who becomes his companion, and another telepath, haunted artist Benjamin (Robert A Silverman, a Cronenberg movie regular). Both Kim and Benjamin hold the clues to Revok’s whereabouts, but with the villain also being the most powerful of the Scanners, the task of stopping him will not be a simple one.

The making

Having completed his previous film, the semi-autobiographical horror break-up drama The Brood, David Cronenberg began work on Scanners – an idea he’d had floating around under various names since the 70s. Unusually, he hadn’t finished the script before he began production, since he’d been rushed into getting the film underway in order to retain the Canadian tax haven funding he’d secured in late 1980. Cronenberg was therefore forced to write pages of his Scanners script each morning, ready for filming to begin that day – a thankless, hectic pace of work which may explain why Scanners’ pacing and dialogue often feel a little stilted or uneven.

This frantic pace of writing may also explain why, of all the films Cronenberg had made up to this point, Scanners was his least confrontational and horrific. Possibly inspired by Brian De Palma’s recent hits Carrie and The Fury, or even the brief mention of a telepathic band of people called Senders in William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (a book he’d later adapt for the screen in the 1990s), the characters in Scanners are notably devoid of the usual sexual hang-ups of those in his earlier features.

Scanners is also one of the most straightforwardly entertaining of Cronenberg’s films of the time, which is perhaps why it was also his first major success at the box office; it made around $14 million on its modest $3.5 million budget. Cronenberg’s trademark horror sequences are still in place, but they lack the button-pushing Freudian nastiness of Shivers, Rabid or The Brood.

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Instead, Scanners is structured more like a thriller, with pulp sci-fi overtones courtesy of those explosive paranormal abilities. There are rival corporations quietly pulling strings behind the scenes, clandestine meetings on quiet train station platforms, a brief yet impressively staged car chase (possibly the last such sequence Cronenberg would film before the controversial Crash), and several assassinations with guns.

Most notably, there’s Dick Smith’s stunning prosthetics and make-up work, which involves lots of throbbing and rupturing blood vessels, geysers of blood and, of course, that now infamous exploding head – the latter famously achieved by blasting an offal-filled prosthetic cranium with a shotgun. 

This action and gore isn’t to say, however, that Scanners is a superficial film. The notion of Scanners being social outcasts is an intriguing one, and Cameron’s introduction as a man crippled rather than empowered by his abilities makes him immediately sympathetic. And while it’s quite unusual to see hints of the paranormal in Cronenberg’s writing, note how keen he is to ground these powers in some sort of scientific reality; their effects are gut-wrenchingly compelling and convincing (all nose-bleeds and ruptured arteries), and later, we learn that Scanners are an accidental by-product of Ephemerol, a chemical originally marketed to help women during pregnancy. The parallels between Ephemerol and the tragic side-effects of the real-world drug Thalidomide are obvious.

Scanners’ hurried production did have a few unfortunate side-effects of its own. The casting of Stephen Lack in the lead role is a rare misstep for Cronenberg, whose choices are generally difficult to fault. Legend has it that Cronenberg cast Lack – not a professional actor, but a painter by profession – because he liked the clarity of his blue eyes.

Admittedly, Lack’s azure gaze does lend the protagonist an interesting air that sits somewhere between sadness and penetrating insight, but unfortunately, the effectiveness of his appearance is diminished by his inability to deliver a line of dialogue. The tone of his voice is constantly pitched somewhere between a whine and a murmur, each syllable uttered slowly and without inflection.

On the flipside, there’s a great, brooding performance from Patrick McGoohan as Dr Ruth, who brings a prowling, bearded charisma to a character we later learn is essentially a mad scientist.

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Then there’s Michael Ironside’s turn as Revok. Smartly dressed, stern, and with a tiny, self-inflicted scar on his forehead, he’s a singularly convincing villain, and Ironside’s performance is little short of astonishing – perhaps even ranking among the best in his long and varied career. His voice modulates from a menacing purr to a roar, his top lip twitches, and in every scene, we truly believe that he could detonate a man’s head with merely a thought.

The music

It’s worth taking a pause here to single out Howard Shore’s music for individual praise. Shore collaborated with Cronenberg on almost all his movies from The Brood onwards. It’s just possible that Shore’s soundtrack for Scanners is his most distinctive work for Cronenberg to date. A mixture of Wagnerian strings and murky electronica, it provides an epic backwash to the director’s sometimes excessive imagery.

From the first ominous jabs of the orchestra in the opening title sequence (a gloomy report like a gathering storm) to the surreal, repulsive soundscapes he arranges for the Scanner battles, Shore’s work here is truly imaginative. Perhaps sensing that the long shots of characters simply staring at each other isn’t enough to convince viewers that they’re watching a psychic fight unfolding, Shore underpins these sequences with all manner of off-kilter rhythms and distorted noises. It adds greatly to Scanners’ tension, and has the added effect of making this modest production seem far bigger than it is.

Shore’s music certainly papers over the cracks in Scanners‘ oddly rushed final act, in which Cameron infiltrates and then blows up ConSec’s computers by sending his deadly telepathic frequencies down a phone line (one of the more outlandish leaps of scientific fancy in Cronenberg’s canon), killing traitorous corporate infiltrator Keller (Lawrence Dane) in the process.

Shortly after, Cameron is drugged and spirited away to a final confrontation with Revok, where both Shore’s sonic backwash and Dick Smith’s gore effects are given free rein: in an extended sequence, the more powerful Revok tears Cameron’s body apart with his scanning powers, causing his heart to melt from his chest and his eyes to burst from their sockets like a overripe fruit. This two-minute carnival of excess is topped off with an almost comically abrupt punchline: during the largely one-sided fight, which has left Cameron’s corpse incinerated on the floor, the hero has somehow managed to take over Revok’s mind and body.

The movie concludes with Kim discovering Revok, now inhabited by Cameron’s consciousness, hiding under a coat in the corner of the office. “It’s me, Kim,” the newly housed Cameron says. “I’m here. We’ve won…”

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This strange concluding event, and the uneven pacing of the film as a whole, threaten to derail Scanners – but ultimately, its strengths outweigh its weaknesses. After the very personal drama of The Brood, Scanners has a gleeful, almost comic book quality to it, which audiences clearly appreciated back in the 80s.

Even 30 years later, Cronenberg’s style shines through, albeit individual scenes – the 8mm footage of a young Revok freaking out in a mental institution, Cameron tortured by the thoughts of several dozen seated civilians in a lonely warehouse. At the same time, it’s difficult not to imagine what the movie had been like if Cronenberg had cast a better actor in the lead; how much more powerful it could have been if he’d had more time to polish the script and even out the plot kinks.

As it stands, Scanners remains an entertaining, satisfyingly nasty entry from an early part of the director’s career. It certainly contains more conviction than the various spin-offs and sequels that followed about a decade later. A remake was threatened in 2008, and subsequently vanished, while Dimension Films reported its intention to make a Scanners TV series in 2011.

For all its faults, Scanners still has those unforgettable images which are a Cronenberg trademark: like it or not, that exploding head has become an enduring movie moment.

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