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John’s Horror Corner: Scanners (1981), Cronenberg’s plotty approach to mean psychics and detonating heads.

October 2, 2021

MY CALL:  This film boils down to two truly epic, memorable, gory scenes bookending an otherwise unhorror-ish but more thriller-ish cops’n’crime shoot’em up style movie. Clearly a classic, and it deserves to be recognized as such, but today it just doesn’t entertain or shock or titillate like so many of Cronenberg’s other films of the era (e.g., The Fly, Videodrome, The Brood) still do today.  MORE MOVIES LIKE The BroodFor more of Cronenberg’s social commentary on therapy and social engineering, consider The Brood (1979) or Videodrome (1983).

This film sets its dire tone very early when a man is “scanned” before a group of academics only to have his head explode into visceral chunks in one of the most famous on-screen head trauma death scenes of all time. The perpetrator of this cephalic party-popping is a dangerous rogue scanner named Darryl (Michael Ironside; Starship Troopers, Total Recall, Visiting Hours, Prom Night II, Watchers), the villain of our story.

Canadian director and writer David Cronenberg (The Fly, Rabid, Videodrome, The Brood) makes some serious statements about modern psychology and metaphysics in this 80s horror oddity. Scanners have psychic telepathic powers to read minds and control behavior. Such powers in the wrong hands pose significant threats to regular people. So to control these dangerous scanners, a drug called Ephemerol is developed to dull these psychics’ extrasensory powers, and thus keep their powers under control. It’s not unlike what we find in comic books and superhero movies when employing a mutant power-suppressing collar in Deadpool 2 (2018) or when exposing Superman to Kryptonite. Only here, it feels more a tool a social manipulation and suppression.

To infiltrate these rogue scanners, Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan; Braveheart) recruits his own psychic Cameron (Stephen Lack; Dead Ringers) to track down Darryl and stop him. As he learns to harness his newfound abilities, Cameron acquires the help of fellow scanner Kim (Jennifer O’Neill) along the way.

Outside of the one epic exploding head death scene in the beginning, very little of visual interest transpires. This is all plot and very little gore, limited to frequent bloody gun violence. That is, until the finale psychic duel which brings a heavy dose of practical effects including blood-spurting pulsating veins, exploding eyes, incineration and the like while staring so hard you look like you just might crap yourself!

All told, the film doesn’t hold up phenomenally (mostly considering first-time viewers)… but that’s not to say it doesn’t hold up at all. I still enjoyed it, even if it felt quite slow when considering the rate of special effects delivery—basically the two epic bookended scenes. Clearly a classic, and deserving to be recognized as such, but today it just doesn’t entertain or shock or titillate like so many of Cronenberg’s other films of the era (e.g., The Fly, Videodrome, The Brood) still do today.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2021 2:07 pm

    I watched Scanners again recently and was struck by how well the film has stood the test of time. Its a strange, brutal, and unflinching film about these mutant telepaths. I think its one of Conenberg’s finest films, beautifully filmed, with a great cast, haunting score, and of course that now infamous exploding head scene!

    • John Leavengood permalink
      October 9, 2021 10:50 am

      It’s a great film. But the unhorror-ish cops’n’crime shoot’em middle started to take me out of it for the that portion of the movie (a solid third of it). Had I remembered the movie better and knew what I was in for, that part may have been less a disjunct surprise for me. Either way, the finale third was… wow.

      • October 9, 2021 2:12 pm

        Its a very different kind of film from Croenberg, retrained in some ways, powerful in others, and that telepathic showdown in the finale was truly mind-blowing!

    • John Leavengood permalink
      October 9, 2021 3:41 pm

      What threw me for a loop was how the cops-crime violent action-thriller that was the middle majority of the movie was very well made. The car accident, the gunplay… all very well done. It just totally felt like our two main scanners from the beginning were dropped into this cop thriller after 20-30 minutes, then removed for the final 20 minutes.

      But sure, Cronenberg’s films are all very different in my eyes. The Brood, slow and steady until a holy shit ending. The Fly, body horror in your face all day. Shivers, well… that’s it’s own thing altogether. lol

  2. rdfranciswriter permalink
    October 24, 2021 5:17 pm

    My admiration and respect for Micheal Ironside starts with this film.

    I forget the publication. It was one of his very rare interviews. It might have been Shock Cinema. Anyway, Mike spoke about how he doesn’t like to discuss or analyze his films in the press (TV or print) as it plot spoils the movie for the goer, ruins the “mystery” of it all.

    That rare interview only heightened my respect.

    Ironside is an actor’s actor — and the only performance I remember from the Scanners. He even made the awful Visiting Hours, work. The Overdog in Spacehunter? Classic role. He even made me watch the abysmal Seaquest DSV on NBC after Roy Scheider had enough.

    • John Leavengood permalink
      October 25, 2021 7:49 pm

      He’s great. I even liked him in the ultimate bad movie Highlander 2. Great villain!

      • rdfranciswriter permalink
        October 26, 2021 9:31 am

        Yes. I forgot that one. He’s honest. He’s real. Zero ego: all about the work.

        He’ll go the grave, nary a Golden Globe or Oscar nod, let alone a win, but he’s still immensely, more effective at the craft than those who do. Leon Rippy is another, stellar under-the-radar guy.

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