Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Stephen Lack, Jennifer O’Neil, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane and Michael Ironside.
A man with extraordinary psychic powers is recruited by a secretive agency to hunt down others with powers similar to his own.
Mind readers, mediums and mystics, the world is full of people claiming to possess psychic abilities, all the while conveniently asking for hefty fees to demonstrate these powers. Cinema is full of many great films tackling the subject of psychic abilities, ranging from big-budget action-packed superhero stories to smaller, low-key dramatic affairs. Among the most memorable cinematic takes on psychics comes courtesy of David Cronenberg’s cult sci-fi horror Scanners, a film fondly remembered for having one of the most spectacular deaths in horror history.
While Scanners is often labelled as a horror film, this is not an entirely accurate description. If anything, with its plots of espionage, conspiracies and underground networks, Scanners is more akin to a spy thriller. A bit like a low rent Jason Bourne knock off albeit with more head explosions. This genre-mixing is not a mark against the film, as it allows for a suitably intriguing plot that manages to squeeze in a few twists and a masterful and spectacularly gruesome ending. The film even finds time to dip into social commentary, with the origin story of the fictional drug Ephemorol, a drug given to pregnant women that caused birth defects, much akin to the real-life birth defect causing drug thalidomide. It’s an engaging and fun story whose construction is all the more impressive given that, due to a rushed production (to take advantage of a Canadian government funding scheme), Cronenberg often wrote scenes the morning he had to shoot them. Essentially, he was making the story up as he went along.
While the film is full of intrigue and social commentary, it is sorely lacking in horror, a frustrating fact given that the plot is ripe with potential for a terrifying horror story. Perhaps one following a scanner using its powers to act as a psychic serial killer as they are pursued by perplexed detectives unable to understand the power they’re up against, among other possible alternate stories. Quite simply, a scarier story was possible. The plot, while decent given that it was made up on the fly, is not immune to falling into trite cliches and clunky plot twists. Such as a final reveal about the connection between the hero and villain that comes across as less a natural plot development and more like Cronenberg said: “that’ll do” as he frantically scribbled his script.
Stephen Lack, a man with all the charisma and emotional range of butter, cuts a bland figure as our hero Cameron, giving a performance in which he spends the runtime looking like a plastic robot man, almost as if he’s just learned how to speak again after an extended coma. On much better form is Patrick McGoohan as Dr Paul Ruth, the actor delivering a commanding but understated performance as Cameron’s mentor on all things scanner related. The scenes the two share highlight one and the other’s strengths and weaknesses, Lack’s lacklustre (pun intended) screen presence markedly contrasting with McGoohan’s subtle but effective performance.
We also have a decent villainous turn from Lawrence Dane as the corrupt Keller, a kind of classic 80s corporate minion who cares not for the potential danger of the scanners but more so on how to line his pockets. The real ace in the hole among the cast is the legendary Michael Ironside as Rovek, a powerful and dangerous scanner with ambitions for the rest of humanity. Ironside, with his distinct ominous voice and fearsome eyes, never ceases to strike terror and amusement, clearly relishing every second of playing a villain. While his screen-time is limited, Ironside is easily the best thing about the film, playing the role with such overpowering charisma that he can even make an overly detailed exposition dump entertaining.
While I could talk more about the plot and the acting, we all know the real reason why Scanners has become a cult hit. And it’s all because of one scene early in the film. Here’s the set-up, a scanner (played by Louis Del Grande) is holding a demonstration in which he offers to read someone’s mind and asks for volunteers. Then he makes the terrible mistake of accepting Michael Ironside’s obviously evil Revok as the volunteer. The two then compete to see who can make the silliest face, Ironside clearly winning with an expression that looks as if he enjoying the most evil orgasm ever. Then, suddenly, just as Ironside climaxes, his psychic sparring partners head explodes in a sudden and shocking display of extreme gore. The scene is brilliant in how it builds up the tension. The low hum of the score combined with the excellent sound design (signifying Revok’s powers at play) slowly ramping up in volume and intensity as Ironside’s victim becomes increasingly agitated before his mind is literally blown.
Sadly, the head explosion is perhaps the best example of a film peaking too early, with the rest of the film, while good, not quite matching that initial “holy shit” impact of watching a man having his head turned into mush. The climax, a psychic battle between Cameron and Revok, does come close to that early peak. It might not have an exploding head, but it does have many shots of bulging veins spurting blood like fountains, flesh peeling off deformed faces, organs burning through Cameron’s chest like acid and eyes bursting out of sockets in a grotesque but impressive display of special effects brilliance that has aged remarkably well. And to top it off, we get more shots of Michael Ironside showing us the world’s most evil “oh” face.
While saddled with a dull leading man and a plot that perhaps could have focused more on horror, an otherwise engaging story, hugely entertaining performance from Michael Ironside and gory special effects ensure that Scanners remains a highly original and fun slice of 80s sci-fi horror.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★