17 June 2012


10 Seconds: The Pain Begins. 15 Seconds: You Can't Breathe. 20 Seconds: You Explode.

Scanners is one of David Cronenberg's best known films, notorious in particular for the exploding head sequence. The film, released in 1981 (and also briefly known as Telepathy 2000) continues Cronenberg's obsessive theme of organic, visceral horror based on the contents of our own bodies: Rabid dealt with a deadly virus caused by experimental skin-grafts; Shivers focused on the psychotic erotomania caused by new organ replacement technology; eXistenZ and Videodrome with the way we perceive reality. Scanners focuses directly on the power of the mind, caused by an experimental drug.

Plot Summary: (Includes spoilers)
Forty years ago, experimental drug trials produced 237 babies with telepathic powers. Known as scanners, the head of the laboratory Biocarbon Amalgamate - Darryl Revok - has taken it upon himself to create a scanner underground movement which will, in the tradition of all good underground movements, take over the world.

The active manifestation of these telepathic powers, which are portrayed as a curse rather than a blessing of any kind, is in the form of intense pain, often accompanied by nosebleeds, shaking and bleeding. Scanners can, however, extract necessary information or exert a controlling influence over others. Scanners can also combine their powers, or even use their powers to hack into computers. Given time, the scanning procedure can kill, or even start fires. Revok's plan is simple: conform to the scanners' new world order, or die. Being in charge of a laboratory, Revok's plan rapidly becomes obvious - the tranquiliser drug ephemerol is to once again be administered to pregnant women, producing a new army of scanners.

Opposition to this scheme comes from scanner-specialist Paul Ruth, played by Patrick McGoohan, who selects Cameron Vale (played by Stephen Lack) to lead a resistance movement against the scheme. Providing Vale with drugs to control the chaos in his head, Ruth sends Vale out to oppose Revok, leading to the eventual destruction of the entire scanner underground.

An Opinion:
Incorporating classic Cronenberg activity: buckets of blood, bulging veins, glowing eyes and an early-synth soundtrack that, quite frankly, grates, the film is nevertheless highly-regarded and well worth seeking out, particularly if you plan on seeing the much-rumoured remake, apparently soon to enter production, though last heard of in 2004. The acting quality of Stephen Lack must be commented on: either Lack had decided that the drugged-up, tortured character he played should come across as wooden, unrealistic and uninspired, or his acting is really that bad. You decide.

As Cronenberg films go, the concept for Scanners fits in perfectly with the classic Cronenberg vision, as the darker side of biology once more provides fertile ground for gory and disturbing exposition. The million dollar question, however, has to be asked: Is the film any good?

The answer is, as usual a matter for personal taste. If you like Cronenberg's films, it's great. It's dated, yes, and the soundtrack verges on unbearable noise, but it's classic Cronenberg and while not up to the shocking heights of Videodrome or the slick action of eXistenZ, it's great stuff. Conversely, if you hate gore, can't abide the idea of psychic powers and found similar films to be unbearably tedious, avoid this at all costs. If you're not sure, then I humbly suggest it's worth a try; you really don't want to be one of the few people in the world who don't know about the infamous exploding head scene...

On a related note, it may be wise to avoid the sequels Scanners II: The New Order and Scanners III: The Takeover, which take Cronenberg's characters and, as so often happens, remove much of the artistic or entertaining merit from them. Of the two, The New Order is the closest to Cronenberg's vision, though it alters the plot significantly and does nothing to enhance the original concept.