Head Space: David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) – Blu-ray review
Still the perfect introduction to Cronenberg – as accessible as it is weird, the clarity extends as much to the storytelling as to the splatter.
(David Cronenberg, 1981)
OK, I’ll admit it. When I got to THAT scene, my first instinct was to rewind and rewatch at a quarter-speed. And you know what? The infamous exploding head still looks staggeringly realistic and gruesome in Blu-ray, a testament to Dick Smith’s pioneering make-up effects. Then again, all of Scanners still holds up, bar the obvious period details such as payphones and record shops.
Scanners was the first David Cronenberg film I ever saw, and it still works best in that light: as a primer to one of cinema’s greatest directors. His earlier horror films are too weird and nihilistic to entice newcomers; his later masterpieces too cold and arty. Scanners slots perfectly in between as probably (give or take The Fly) Cronenberg’s most mainstream science-fiction film, structured as a conspiracy/detective thriller, albeit one in which furrowed brows are more deadly than handguns.
As a piece of storytelling, it bowls along in a series of eye-catching set-pieces: novice Scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) strapped to a bed, tortured by the private thoughts of a room full of ordinary people; the tour de force of Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, sealing his reputation as one of cinema’s go-to guys for a great villain) showing a hapless stooge how Scanning should really be done; shotgun-wielding henchman approaching as our hero is resting inside a sculpture of a human head… all the way through to cinema’s greatest staring contest. Cronenberg doesn’t stint on shoot-outs and car chases, nor is he above setting a scene next to a petrol station just so somebody can drop a pump and ignite an explosion.
Pure pulp, in other words, but pulp driven by Cronenberg’s perennial concerns; indeed, this is the film where he explicit reveals the method to his madness as one character remarks, “My art keeps me sane.” Scanners is full of innovative flourishes, taking the hoary old sci-fi staple of telepathy and dissecting it until it kind of makes logical sense. Where does telepathy come from? What can it do? And, most importantly, what kind of effect does it have on the Scanners themselves? Cronenberg is as fascinated by the psychological repercussions as the physical side-effects, and Vale, plagued by persistent voices, is as empty as his name suggests. This is a man, Patrick McGoohan’s mad professor suggests, without a self. [The casting of the wooden Stephen Lack becomes something of a bonus in this light.]
More than that, though, Cronenberg is thinking through the implications visually. While these days newcomers will be most impressed by those pre-CGI, practical make-up effects, spare a thought for how well Cronenberg uses old-fashioned Soviet montage techniques (albeit bolstered by intense, uncomfortable sound design) to explain what is happening in people’s minds. At one point, a key plot detail is revealed by a cut to a pregnant woman’s bump. Admirably, Cronenberg applies exactly the same techniques during a tricky sequence where Vale invades a computer network by thinking his way along wires and through silicon chips, a grounded approach which means the film has dated far less than applying, say, Tron-style FX.
Oh, and [spoilers ahead] it’s also a brilliant political allegory about post-war society. The Scanners were born during a Thalidomide-style crisis, and have grown up as rejects and outcasts of the baby boomer generation. Some, like Jennifer O’Neill’s pacifist Scanner, have created a 1960s-style commune where the Scanners can get together and expand their minds through shared telepathy. Revok, meanwhile, has forged an unholy alliance between big pharma and the military-industrial complex, in order to manufacture an army. How very 80s. The only thing that doesn’t ring true is that any of these should be happening in Canada…but guess what? Cronenberg avoids any mention of his homeland, cheekily referring where needed to North America. Like I said, it’s a primer: get the kids hooked on the merchandise, and then reveal we’re not in Hollywood any more.