Scanners (’81) is a very strange movie. It’s renowned for a scene—originally supposed to open the film—wherein Michael Ironside, as the evil scanner Darryl Revok, sits on a panel before an audience and, with the power of his mind, blows up the head of a weaker scanner sitting beside him. Even when you know it’s coming, it’s shocking. You just don’t see many heads blow up in movies, then or now. There’s that one in Dawn of The Dead, and probably a few in war movies. Generally, though, heads don’t explode. It’s a shame, really. What else are heads good for?
Why is Scanners strange? For writer/director Cronenberg it’s strange in that there’s nothing sexual in it whatsoever. His first three movies—Shivers (AKA They Came From Within), Rabid, and The Brood—all featured some very twisted sexual aspects, as did Videodrome, which followed Scanners, and many others since.
So Scanners is just this straightforward science fiction movie about a small number of people born with the ability to join their nervous systems to another person’s, or, as in the film’s penultimate climax, to a computer. Which is a wonderfully absurd scene. And notion. There’s a lot of the absurd in Scanners, including some hilariously awful deadpanned dialogue.
Problem was, Cronenberg started shooting without a finished script. Or more exactly, with an as yet unwritten script, and only two weeks of preproduction. Which all had to do with an era in Canadian filmmaking known as the ‘tax shelter era,’ that’s much too boring to get into here, but the gist of it is that folks got tax breaks for investing in films, so long as those films were shot by the end of the year. Scanners—based on an early Cronenberg script called Sensitives—was given the go-ahead financially in late fall. Then started shooting almost immediately, with Cronenberg writing scenes in the early morning before shooting them later in the day. According to Cronenberg, it was a miserably difficult shoot for a movie that would require close to nine months of post-production to ensure it made any sense at all.
Does it make sense? Sure! Sort of. I mean you shouldn’t go around thinking too deeply on it, but for a weird-ass, low-budget sci-fi flick, it makes all the sense it needs to.
Scanners is creepy in a way unique to Cronenberg. By this time, his fourth movie (or fifth, if you count Fast Company, which no one’s ever seen, so let’s not), his style of directing had finally become a style. Which style is a style of no style. So to speak. It’s a very square style, very flat, colorless, formal and cold. The camera doesn’t move often, and when it does the moves are small and subtle. They are, however, purposeful. Scanners, however quickly it was made, is clearly shot with intent. But it’s not an intent that calls attention to itself. There are no beautiful shots in Scanners. No weird shadows or lighting effects. Everything is flat and visible. This is why Cronenberg’s films are often thought of as ‘scientific.’ It’s as though his actors are subjects in a lab, on display, ready to be dissected.
Cronenberg is unusual for a filmmaker coming up in the ‘70s in that his movies reference no other movies. Pretty much every great director from the ‘70s was extremely well-versed in the history of film as an art, and their movies showed it. They referenced other directors, their movies, their style of story-telling, framing shots, editing, and so on. Not Cronenberg. Watching his early movies, you’re very much watching a director inventing the craft of movie-making, as though it hadn’t already been invented. What he comes up with is entirely his own thing.
What spoke to Cronenberg wasn’t other movies, but literature. Authors like Burroughs and Ballard (books of whose—Naked Lunch and Crash, respectively—he’d eventually adapt), along with all sorts of philosophers, ancient and modern, are what inspired Cronenberg. There are a lot of filmmakers who aren’t especially good at talking about their films. Which is fine. As long as the films are great, what else needs to be said? Cronenberg is one of those directors whose dissections of his movies sometimes outshine the movies themselves. He is a smart and articulate man, well aware of, philosophically, what he’s trying to achieve in his films. The book Cronenberg On Cronenberg is a fascinating series of interviews in which Cronenberg discusses both the making and meanings of his films, in a way far more insightful than any critic ever has (myself included).
Getting back to its look, Scanners is a cold, gray movie. There are few exteriors to give it a sense of place, and those we see are almost all shiny office buildings seemingly alone in the middle of nowhere. It’s as though they’re removed from any actual city. No people are seen walking past. The idea was for the movie to be set in a near-future, but with little money and no time, these odd, displacing exteriors were his answer to the lack of special effects. What budget he had for effects was used for important matters like blowing up heads.
If you’ve ever seen the X-Men, you know the plot. Some 237 people were born as scanners, owing, we later discover, to experimental drugs given to their mothers when pregnant. Two of these scanners are especially powerful. One, Darryl Revok, intends to take over the world. He’s gathering together as many scanners who will join him, and killing those who won’t. The other, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), is a derelict living on the street, going mad because of what his brain is capable of, and having no memory of his past or understanding of why he is what he is.
Vale is “found” by scientist Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who knew where he was all along, and is trained to harness his powers, and eventually to hunt down and stop Revok. McGoohan works for ComSec, a company making weapons and whatnot, that originally intended to train scanners as spies.
Relationships become more complicated as the story progresses. The drug used to tamp down the scanner effects, allowing scanners to chill out now and again, is the same drug given the pregnant women who gave birth to scanners in the first place. And Revok is deeply involved in a company that manufactures the drug. A company McGoohan knows all about. Hmm. Looks like Revok is working on birthing a new army of scanners.
Revok and Vale face off at the end, in a battle of two guys making scrunchy faces and thinking super-death-thoughts at one another, which fortunately includes eyes blowing up, faces peeling off, lots of gutteral howling, and humans bursting into flame. Who wins and how is actually quite strange and unexpected. It is, in a sense, a happy ending, abeit a typically weird and unsettling kind of Cronenberg happy.
I saw Scanners the other night for the first time in many, many years in a theater, projected in a lovely 35mm print, and I liked it quite a bit more than I thought I would. I recalled the strange, non-cinematic way Cronenberg shot his early films, but didn’t realize how purposeful that style is. It’s a unique look and feel Scanners has going for it, raising it far above typical movies of its kind, that is, action-packed low-budget sci-fi flicks. It’s different and odd, and is it a bad thing that some of the characters and dialogue are laughable? Not at all! Laughing is good. The off-kilter, deadpan dialogue helps makes the movie as fun as it is.
Lacking the clinically disturbing sexual angle in so many Cronenberg films, Scanners doesn’t show him at the top of his game. It’s a far cry from the excellence of his next film, the demented, sexually perverse, hallucinogenic Videodrome. But Scanners still stands out as a uniquely strange and enjoyable movie.