If there’s one type of horror film I can wholeheartedly get behind, it’s one where the entire premise centres on a man trying to make people explode purely by thinking at them in an intense manner. David Cronenberg’s 1981 body horror Scanners provides us with such a premise, and gives us a thorough inspection of what a “Cronenberg film” can actually be. The results are clunky, jagged and rough around the edges, but at its core, Scanners is a fully enjoyable piece that strives to be a standout feature of an ever-popular genre.
Following hidden government research into those labelled “Scanners”, the film follows Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) as he searches for the underground ring of villainous Scanners looking for world domination. Led by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), this underground militia seek to take over the world, simply because what else is there for a secretive society to do? The film becomes a cat and mouse game with Vale always a few steps behind that of Revok. What should have been an intense display of near misses and missteps becomes something more akin to a B-Movie. Being deep fried in shlock and awe it becomes hard to appreciate Scanners on anything other than the level it sets up – that is to say, a bit of over the top fun.
Maybe it’s because it’s hard to take Vale seriously when he looks like he’s straining every ounce of energy out of him through his eyes. He pulsates and writhes around in what looks like complete agony, but in actual fact is just some sort of Scanner technique. Possibly the greatest part of the film is its climax, the final meeting between Vale and Revok. What begins as a tense discussion of their motifs becomes a staring contest where both parties are being tasered and have no control of their limbs. So absurd it becomes funny, that’s definitely not what Cronenberg was aiming for but that’s what we’ve got. At least I hope he wasn’t fishing for the funnies, anyway.
Its primitive special effects provide us with delightful scenes of low budget deaths and arcs. Time can be cruel to older special effects driven films, but with Scanners there’s a real charm to its effects work, but nothing to really support their inclusion. It’s always an impressive affair to see a man have his head explode like a watermelon pumped full of jam. I wouldn’t be surprised if that is in fact how they managed to produce the effects throughout Cronenberg’s bloody affair here. (Editor: shockingly it was achieved through a shotgun and a melon) Some pieces of the gore are impressive but their inclusion feels unnecessary, detracting from the time we could’ve spent learning more about our completely bland leading man. Lack doesn’t give the best performance here, chewing so much scenery it spills out onto the screen and into his dialogue. Even his interactions and facial expressions look completely beyond the pale of what anyone could expect from an actor. His leading performance isn’t all that interesting either, paling in comparison to the few scenes we receive with Michael Ironside. (Editor: Cronenberg famously cast Lack as he liked his face)
Cronenberg manages to contain his delightfully weird and unique direction into a much more focused narrative. Not quite as well paced as Naked Lunch, but Scanners gives us a rougher cut of what he strives for as a director. Peppering extreme bouts of brief action in between exposition and plot development, Scanners is very nicely paced out and provides some enjoyment along the way. It’s unfortunate then that the film, as a whole, beyond an incredible premise and an enjoyable few scenes, doesn’t really amount to much more. Disappointing isn’t the right word for Scanners, because it is great fun. It is just a tad shallow, thanks to a disconnect between the audience and the message on screen. Unrelatable and unlikeable characters prevent Scanners from hitting home on an emotive level, but if you’re after a B-Movie body horror that provides a nice blend of action and horrifically good-looking visual effects, then this is certainly one to check out, if you haven’t already.