Writer-director David Cronenberg’s startling Canadian 1981 futuristic sci-fi action horror thriller basically tells a good versus evil battle story, but with an exploding head refreshing the mix. It was a special effects-driven eye-opener back in its day and a mainstream hit for the film-maker.
Cronenberg’s story is all about good guy Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) battling evil mastermind Darryl Levok (Michael Ironside) with the power they both have as scanners, who are people with telepathic and telekinetic powers whose thoughts can control minds, inflict pain and kill. Vale is an employee of private weaponry and security systems company ConSec, which searches out scanners for its own use.
In the film’s most notorious opening sequence, famous or infamous as you will, Levok’s mental powers cause a man’s head to explode. Expert make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Amadeus) provides the prosthetics for the iconic exploding head effect and the gruesome climactic scanner duel between Vale and Revok. In between these two good highlights, Cronenberg involves us in a busy landscape of industrial espionage, intrigue, car chases, conspiracies and shoot-outs.
Cronenberg creates a sterile world of large corporations and emotionless people to focus on the mixed-up emotions and dangerous imbalance of the film’s ambiguous hero Cameron Vale and his psycho-pharmacist mentor Dr Paul Ruth, played by a subdued and sinister Patrick McGoohan. Dr Ruth converts the undiscovered scanner Vale and dispatches him destroy renegade Revok’s underground scanner movement for world domination in his war against ConSec.
Cronenberg’s screenplay lacks cohesion and logic, the performances are variable, and make-up artist Dick Smith’s exploding head effect and effects-filled climax overshadows the too low-key build-up in between. But it is still an idea-filled movie to reckon with. And Cronenberg manages to elevate it, and set it apart, with a sense of sadness and loss that most horror films never touch on.
Also in the cast are Jennifer O’Neill as Kim Obrist, Lawrence Dane as Braedon Keller, Robert A Silverman as Benjamin Pierce, Louis Del Grande as First Scanner, Lee Broker, Mavor Moore, Adam Ludwig, Murray Crutchley, Fred Doederlein and Neil Affleck as Medical Student in Mall.
Cronenberg said it was a nightmare to make because he had to begin shooting before the screenplay had been completed and with only two weeks of pre-production work. Each day of the shoot, he had to write the script between 4am and 7am. The crew drove around looking for locations to shoot as the production design team had no time to build sets.
It is followed by Christian Duguay’s two belated sequels, Scanners 2: The New Order (1991) and Scanners 3: The Takeover (1992), both using only the characters by David Cronenberg and without his involvement. There are also two spinoffs: Scanner Cop (1994) and Scanner Cop 2 [Scanners: The Showdown] (1995).
By 2017, plans for a remake and a TV series are in development hell.
© Derek Winnert 2017 Classic Movie Review 5157
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