In the close to half a century he’s been making movies, David Cronenberg has supplied the medium some of its most memorably disgusting images, from Jeff Goldblum peeling off his own fingernails in The Fly to James Spader finding an inventive new use for Rosanna Arquette’s leg wound in Crash. Of these moments, however, the most iconic is probably still the Grand Guignol money shot of Scanners, the Canadian director’s 1981 foray into the dueling-psychics genre. Even those who haven’t seen the movie in years can usually recall its most infamous scene: A low-level telepath (Louis Del Grande), working for the corporate research company ConSec, attempts to demonstrate his supernatural abilities to a room of VIPs. Unfortunately, his volunteer from the audience (Michael Ironside) is no ordinary man, but a cerebrally powerful assassin. And after a minute or so of mental struggle, the stranger exhibits his superior gifts in the messiest manner imaginable. Splat!
According to the Kim Newman essay packaged with Criterion’s gorgeous new Blu-ray/DVD release, Scanners was supposed to begin with this shocking image—a head exploding like a ripe melon, causing a torrential downpour of blood and gray matter. But test audiences reportedly found the effect, conceived by legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, so profoundly disturbing that they couldn’t connect with anything that came after it. The scene now occurs a reel or so into the movie, after the introduction of the hero, but it still packs a wallop. Who needs CGI when you can just stuff a prosthetic head full of offal and blast it with a shotgun?
Scanners may have earned Cronenberg a permanent place in the gorehound hall of fame, but it also represented an early inch into mainstream genre filmmaking. Graphic violence aside, the movie is much more traditionally entertaining—more conventional, really—than the lion’s share of his output. Before Scanners, Cronenberg dealt in a signature blend of the erotic and the gruesome; films like Shivers and Rabid solidified his interest in queasy body anxiety, earning him the dubiously flattering title of the Master Of Venereal Horror. Cronenberg’s first bona fide box-office hit, Scanners jettisoned some of the more perverse elements of his earlier thrillers. The movie actually resembles a kind of fledgling, unofficial X-Men adaptation, focused as it is on warring factions of “special” people. (Bryan Singer’s X2, in fact, features talk of a character drilling a hole in her forehead to force out mental images—a bit of backstory lifted directly from Scanners.)
The Professor Xavier figure here is Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a bearded, soft-spoken researcher who works for ConSec, where he specializes in the training of so-called Scanners—telepathic outcasts alienated by their overwhelming exposure to the private thoughts of everyone around them. (The name is supposedly a spin on “Senders,” the mental magicians of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, which Cronenberg would adapt a decade later.) Dr. Ruth’s latest apprentice is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a vagrant whose untapped power and lack of ties to the Scanner community make him an ideal candidate to take on Ironside’s villainous Revok. Scanners sends Vale on a reconnaissance mission, wherein he encounters both good and evil versions of his kind; they do battle through faintly cheesy mental showdowns, making constipated faces that Cronenberg eccentrically dissolves between. Heavy on expository exchanges and shifting allegiances, the film seems to take many of its narrative cues from comic books, though there are other components to its genre alchemy—the psychic horror of Brian De Palma’s The Fury, the paranoia of ’70s political thrillers, the car chases and gun fights common to espionage movies.
Cronenberg has a reputation for bringing out the best in his stars, having coaxed career-high performances out of Jeff Goldblum, Christopher Walken, James Woods, Jeremy Irons, Viggo Mortensen, Peter Weller, and Robert Pattinson. But there’s little he could do, apparently, with Lack, who’s painfully stiff and robotic in the leading role. Perhaps Cronenberg didn’t have the time or energy to work with him; Scanners was reportedly rushed into production without a finished script or constructed sets, which forced the director to spend every morning knocking out pages and every afternoon driving around looking for suitable shooting locations. (He’s called the film one of his most difficult to make.) Maybe, on the other hand, Lack’s lack of affect is intentional—a strategy for making him seem more alien, less human. Either way, the performance suffers greatly when compared to that of his magnetic costar. Any time Ironside is on-screen, the movie pulses with menace; he does more with a cocked eyebrow, throbbing vein, and clenched jaw than his co-stars do with pages of meaty dialogue.
Midway through the movie, Vale tracks down a reclusive Scanner artist, who deals with the voices in his head by making grotesque sculptures. Is he a surrogate for the filmmaker himself, finding a method for his madness? There’s nothing anonymous about Scanners, which simply shapes its creator’s usual affinities—the gore, the sterile urban environments, the heady shop talk about bodies and minds—into drive-in movie material. (The tour de force climax, with its popping eyeballs and ripping flesh, is quintessentially Cronenberg.) Yet in retrospect, the movie also looks more like an important transitional work than an essential one. Successful enough to inspire two official sequels, as well as a pair of Scanner Cop spin-offs, Scanners opened new doors for the director, proving he could handle bigger budgets and deliver popcorn thrills (albeit with a few dollops of grisly viscera drizzled on top). From here, the filmmaker moved on to the headier weirdness of Videodrome, the work-for-hire mastery of The Dead Zone and The Fly, and the more “serious” insight of Dead Ringers (his masterpiece) and what came after. Scanners is atmospheric pulp silliness, a treat for fans of violently eccentric sci-fi. But it won’t blow your mind.
Scanners is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion.