Dir: David Cronenberg
Reviewed By Uncle Bill
John Carpenter once said there are two types of horror: horror from “without”- which includes things like aliens, creatures, monsters, etc.- and horror from “within” which is the horror of losing control of oneself or being afflicted with something unknown to us. No other director has exploited and expanded this idea moreso than David Cronenberg. His earliest films- “The Brood”, “Rabid”, “They Came from Within”- center around the delicate nature of the human body and how are own internal conflicts manifest in horrifying external ways. In 1981’s “Scanners”, Cronenberg finally managed to mature as a director to the point that he was able to convey a social message effectively while simultaneously shocking the audience with state of the art makeup effects. The sad conundrum of horror is that you have to get someone’s attention in order to slip any kind of latent message into your film. Such has been the pattern of directors like George Romero, who had to take gore to zenith levels in “Dawn of the Dead” in order to grab the viewer’s attention long enough to impart his message about the perils of capitalism. On the backside, “gore” or “splatter” films are often seen as vile, perverse and ultimately childish attempts at shock- certainly not as social mores carriers. I argue that the now wildly infamous, and GIF crazy, “head explosion” scene was simply a catalyst that Cronenberg used to shed light on a pharmaceutical industry that, at the time, was only beginning to become more of a health hazard than the conditions it was attempting to treat.
Scanners tells the story of two competing groups of psychics with telekinetic powers strong enough to kill and manipulate those around them. On one side is the charismatic and unstable antagonist, Darryl Revok (played suitably unhinged as always by Michael Ironside), who believes that the scanners should unite in a play for world domination against “normal” society. On the other side is Dr. Paul Ruth (and I couldn’t help but chuckle every time someone said “Dr. Ruth” in a serious manner throughout the film), who recruits a mysteriously powerful scanner, Cam Vale (a noticeably out of his league Steven Lack), to help fight against the assaultive Revok.
The crux of the film hinges around a drug called “Ephemerol”, which controls the scanners racing thoughts and silences their psychic powers for brief periods of time. Interestingly, the drug has no effect on “normal” people. We begin to find out that the drug had many unintended side effects throughout the years of it’s testing, and may have actually birthed the scanners phenomenon into existence. In the ultimate irony, it is now the only drug that can help control the chaos it created. In this conflict, we see the perfect parallel for modern psychopharmaceuticals, which often times create side effects and new maladies that are more horrifying than the ones they claim to fix.
According to many reports, the filming of Scanners was a chaotic, tumultuous, and ultimately hasty affair. In many places throughout the film, this is evident. The pacing is sluggish and often the acting is sub-par from Lack- maybe even below par. The version of this film that I watched was the new Criterion Collection blu-ray, so you know the special effects are both vivid and raw. The real meat of this film comes in the battles between the two opposing sides. The final battle between hero and villain and the now infamous exploding head duel are both painful and exciting to watch in equal measure. This is an interesting film to watch in order to see a director on the cusp of harnessing his powers as a storyteller and artist. You can see the start of something brilliant in many of the scanners battles and the underlying tone of the film. The tension in the film isn’t seen again in another Cronenberg film until the wonderful standoff between Ed Harris and Viggo Mortenson in History of Violence. Revisit this one just for the purpose of seeing the clear upwards trajectory of Cronenberg’s work at this period of time, as well as an indication of where he was heading. As in turns out, it certainly was “explosive”….ehhhhhhh.