It seems as though I’ve been hearing about Scanners since before I could read. That’s probably as incorrect as it is inappropriate, but suffice to say I’ve been aware of the movie for a long time. Or at least, aware of one particular scene from the film. Anybody who is a fan of b-grade sci-fi and horror probably knows the scene. For those of a delicate disposition, I’m not going to include a picture here, let alone an animation, but let’s just say it’s one instance where one could say a film was “literally mind-blowing” without aggravating any grammarians.
David Cronenberg’s 1981 film certainly has notoriety, to say the least. The question facing me was whether it was worthy of any actual acclaim. After watching it, it’s still something of an interesting question.
In Scanners there are a small handful of telepaths who have been born and grown to adulthood, apparently mostly operating in the United States. One of them, played by Stephen Lack, has recently been picked up by a research lab run by Patrick McGoohan (of The Prisoner fame). Lack’s character, formerly a homeless man who couldn’t cope with his abilities, is trained to control them and then sent out into the world on a mission. There are other Scanners out there, not all of them benign. One of them, by the name of Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), is plotting to make war against the non-psychic population. The newly-trained psychic must find Revok, and stop him — fatally if need be.
If one were forced to pigeon-hole Scanners into a single genre, science fiction would be the only possible call. It’s a film driven more by the concept of ESP than by any innate horror of the situation. But it definitely has its horror side. It’s just that the horror comes into play not so much from the mental aspects, but the physical; “Scanning” is extremely physically damaging, and combat between Scanners is both explosive and bloody. The film combines the concept of body horror with the concepts of intrigue and a sci-fi exploration of psychic abilities. It is at once somewhat cerebral and somewhat base.
This dichotomy applies to the characters as well, and it’s at least somewhat deliberate. McGoohan’s professor is a deeply conflicted character; a man who has indications of a malignant past but a sense that he has acquired standards he does not want to see violated. Ironside’s Revok is a coldly calculating killer; with or without psychic powers, one gets the sense that he would have been both a charismatic leader of wayward individuals and a narcissistic sociopath. Stephen Lack’s character, on the other hand, is essentially a cipher. Described as “barely human” even after his training, he gives the impression of never having truly developed a personality of his own. As a result, Lack’s portrayal of him is rather flat, and it’s hard to appreciate him as a “hero”.
The film itself is strictly b-movie fare. The plot would not win any accolades even if it were only up against made-for-TV films. It could easily be summed up as “Go here, talk to this person, watch them blow up, repeat.” It is not a film that could reasonably be recommended to all viewers. But people who have an appreciation for b-movie science fiction with just a touch of the cerebral mixed in among the gore, Scanners is a memorable choice.