After the intense psycho-drama/body horrors of The Brood, David Cronenberg's fifth film seems positively fluffy by comparison. Working with a much bigger budget than previously available, Cronenberg turned in a sci-fi thriller that combined slick, commercial action with those themes that would become increasingly familiar throughout his work – sinister corporations, society's rejection of the abnormal, and conflicts of the body versus the mind.
Scanners are a group of individuals blessed – or cursed – with incredible psychic powers, the ability to read thoughts and kill with the mind. A shady corporation known as ConSec has been working on turning these people into weapons, a programme led by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who claims to understand scanners better than anyone else. His latest protege is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a young man with few memories, tormented by the voices in his head. Vale is dispatched to track down and kill Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a scanner who has been recruiting others for his own army, and murdering those who refuse to join.
Cronenberg dealt with similar themes in his experimental 1969 short film Stereo, in which a group of people are subjected to psychic experimentation, while the term 'scanner' was adopted from Philip K. Dick's novel A Scanner Darkly. But despite such esoteric origins, there's little denying that the director had his eye on the box office here. There are a variety of bloody shoot-outs, big explosions, car chases and vans smashing through shop windows, all of which gave Cronenberg his biggest commercial success to date, but results in a film with a slightly jarring tone.
Scanners is at its best when playing out as an intriguing conspiracy thriller. Dr. Ruth (not to be confused with the TV sexologist!) claims that he has no idea how the scanner phenomenon began, but he's clearly lying, and as Vale embarks on his mission to find Revok, a conspiracy involving Revok, ConSec and a mysterious scanner-suppressing drug called Ephemerol begins to unfold. Although the film is set in the present day (well, 1981), Cronenberg creates an eerie, paranoid world of clinical white laboratories and corridors, rival organisations, bizarre art exhibitions and unseen protagonists manipulating events behind the scenes. Howard Shore – always at his best when working with Cronenberg – provides one of his most ominous scores, and the film is goldmine of weird, obtuse names – Kim Obrist, Cameron Vale, Darryl Revok, Trevellyan and my favourite, Arno Crostic.
Unfortunately, the more crowd-pleasing elements aren't as successful. Cronenberg had gained some experience of filming fast-moving vehicles with his little-seen race movie Fast Company, but the action is still a little lumpen, displaying little of the subtlety of the dramatic scenes. Still, there are a few cracking set pieces, the most famous being the spectacular head explosion ten minutes in, although the scene where Vale scans the telephone network for ConSec's secrets or the climatic vein-bursting psychic duel between Vale and Revok also pack a punch.
Much has been made of the fact that Cronenberg cast Stephen Lack in the lead role because of his piercing, glassy eyes, clearly not bothering to check whether he could actually act or not. And while his flat non-delivery leaves a lot to be desired, it's not entirely at odds with the film's cold and detached tone, and strong performances from Patrick McGoohan and a wonderfully creepy Michael Ironside compensate. Scanners is certainly not first-rate Cronenberg, and the director has described it as the most difficult shoot he ever worked on. But it's a pretty enjoyable, sometimes thought-provoking yarn that succeeded in breaking Cronenberg out of the horror niche he was in, making his name as one of modern cinema's most distinctive film-makers.
[Anchor Bay’s Region 2 DVD comes with a short look at the film by genre expert Alan Jones, and a 60-minute documentary covering Cronenberg’s entire career. It’s also available in a box set with the rather limp Scanners II: The New Order and the terrible Scanners III: The Takeover]
Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.
The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.