It’s exploding heads and corporate skulduggery in David Cronenberg’s queasy spy thriller
Nations at war will do whatever it takes to press their advantage, using whatever they have available. Technology, science, stealth, natural resources, the terrain, and good old fashioned fanaticism (in all its forms). The lowest common denominator, though, is manpower. Every army always needs a good soldier. The Nazis put a lot of emphasis on their soldiers, inflating their dedication and military prowess through incessant propaganda. They also gave them high quantities of speed so they would fight longer and more fiercely. The side effect was that many German soldiers got hooked on drugs, and some even went over the bend, becoming uncontrollable on the battlefield. During the Cold War, things got freaky with scientists and intelligence agencies East and West experimenting on live subjects with LSD and other mind-altering substances both chemical and natural. The CIA and the KGB wanted an edge, and they looked deep into the pharmaceutical jungle to find it. Could a compound be made to create the ultimate spy or the ultimate soldier. Could drugs be used to sharpen focus? Could agents operate with no sleep? What was their memory retention? Could their strength be improved? Could they read people’s minds?
Hard to say what those crazy sons-a-bitches were really doing during these secret experiments. After the CIA’s MKUltra mind-control experiments were exposed in the mid-1970s, a lot of data assuredly went up in smoke to cover their tracks. But that didn’t stop theories from circulating, especially in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world when it became frighteningly clear to many that governments are capable of anything. Does that go so far as creating a race of telekinetic assassins who can kill with their thoughts? David Cronenberg asked that very question and came up with a pretty scary answer in his 1981 horror/sci-fi thriller, Scanners. After exploring different facets of body horror in his 1970s flicks, Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, Cronenberg expanded on the concept of the body as a source of terror and dread by layering the story with an intense cat-and-mouse chase that you would expect to see in an espionage thriller.
Cameron Vale (played by a lackadaisical Stephen Lack) is a drifter, rummaging through half-eaten cafeteria scraps at the local mall. He draws the disgust of two women sitting nearby. They are not obvious in their disdain, but it is their thoughts that draw Vale’s attention. And in return, Vale shares some thoughts of his own, thoughts so powerful they send one woman pitching to the floor in an uncontrollable seizure. Vale tries to pull his thoughts back before he kills her, and his visible struggle is noticed by two ominous looking guys in trench coats, the type of coats worn only by guys who work for a mysterious organization. They tag Vale with a tranquilizer dart and cart him off. One could assume that they have been following Vale the whole time. Otherwise that would mean Vale just happened upon two sinister agents with tranquilizer darts at the mall, which would make him the unluckiest sonofabitch in the whole world.
Darryl Revok : This was a test campaign used in 1947 to market a new product. The product was a drug, a tranquilizer called ‘Ephemerol’. It was aimed at pregnant women. If it had worked it would have been marketed all over North America. But the campaign failed and the drug failed, because it had a side effect on the unborn children. An invisible side effect.
Cameron : It created Scanners.
But that is not true. The unluckiest sonofabitch in the whole world turns out to be a bespectacled character working for ConSec, a private defense contractor that is convening a demonstration of its scanners program, which is a means of using telekinetic and telepathic abilities to control your environment and those around you. Scanners are rare, supposedly only 236 of them exist, and belief in them is just as rare as the low turnout for the demonstration proves. The unlucky sonofabitch (played by veteran Canadian actor Louis Del Grande) tells the assembled group that he wants to scan each of them one at a time. He then drops the caveat that the demonstration may trigger nosebleeds, nausea, or earaches, then asks for volunteers. Everybody nervously looks at everyone else for a while, until one man raises his hand, unassuming, curious, willing to play along. This is Darryl Revok (played by the always on-target Michael Ironside). He joins the scanner on the stage and sits.
“I want you to think of something specific, personal perhaps.”
“Okay. I have something. Do I have to close my eyes?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
But the demonstration does not go as planned. Judging by the grunts and convulsions that follow, it is Revok who is giving the demonstration of just how powerful a scanner can be, causing the ConSec scanner’s head to explode in a giant globule of blood, meat, and viscera. Revok tries to walk away but is stopped by security personnel. Revok immediately says, “I didn’t do anything,” which is a great line when you consider what he is leaving on the table (which appears annoyingly clean in a subsequent long shot of the room). Revok is taken into custody and a doctor prepares to give him a shot of ephemerol, which will neutralize his scanning powers. Revok uses mind control to force the doctor to give himself the shot, then later causes a car crash with his mind and forces his guards to shoot each other and escapes. The heads of ConSec are freaked out by the attack, and a new security chief named Keller (a slyly malevolent Lawrence Dane) is brought in. This scene, which is almost pure exposition, gives the audience a chance to catch its breath after the intense opening minutes. It also gives us a sense of just what the hell is going on around here. In this sterile boardroom, ConSec leaders discuss what is to be done about their problem. Keller recommends shutting down the scanners program, saying ConSec should leave the development of dolphins and freaks as weapons of espionage to others.
Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan turning in another solid performance) disagrees. He believes that there is a well-motivated scanner underground led by Revok, and that ConSec should counterattack. The head of ConSec agrees. “At the very least we have to admit that ConSec was attacked. We have to retaliate in some fashion.” Which is just boardroom-speak for, ‘Screw law enforcement. We’ll take care of this ourselves. We’re a private security company, for Pete’s sake.’ It should be noted at this point that there is a complete lack of outside government authority in this film. All powers of authority are either with Revok’s group or ConSec, suggesting a lawless world in which governments cannot protect their citizens, if governments even exist at all. It gives Scanners a dystopian feel, but it is subtle enough to lend a feeling of dread and loneliness to the piece. Ruth explains that Revok knows the identity of all 235, now 234, remaining scanners in the world, and he’s recruiting them to join his cause, promising to make them the masters of the world instead of its slaves.
But there is one scanner, Cameron Vale, who is still unknown to Revok. Vale has been living a dead-end life as a slave to his powers. Scanners who cannot control their powers are constantly overwhelmed by the thoughts of people around them, and a benign emotional outburst can lead to catastrophic consequences. It’s no way to live, unable to hold a steady job or form close relationships. Ruth offers Vale a chance to control his power in exchange for tracking down Revok, telling Vale that Revok is recruiting scanners to his cause of destroying the society that created them. Those who refuse are murdered, extinguishing what Ruth believes are people who can help elevate society to a higher level.
The film follows a pretty conventional path for a while, turning into an espionage thriller in which the woefully outmatched good guy is sent out into the field to learn the plans of the villain. Vale’s first assignment is to track down an unaffiliated scanner named Benjamin Pierce, a reclusive artist who creates disturbing artwork that showcases some serious body horror writ large in plaster, paint, and other media. Vale goes to an exhibition, but Pierce is not there. He learns Pierce’s location by scanning the gallery manager, but then gets scanned himself by a woman at the party. Vale meets with Pierce, but he is only moments ahead of Revok’s shotgun-wielding assassins. Vale uses his powers on the assassins, and by all the convulsing and seizures going on, there is a macabre sense of anticipation as we wonder whether Vale will turn these people inside out. But there is no repeat of the exploding head. Instead, the bad guys are telekinetically tossed about the room like ragdolls and incapacitated. But not before shooting Pierce, who dies as Vale scans his mind and learns the name Kim Obrist. Vale meets her, and learns she is the woman who scanned him at the party. She is holed up in a safe house with a small group of unaffiliated scanners, which Revok watches from across the street.
Revok’s superior scanning abilities allow him to stay one step ahead of the good guys, as does the fact that ConSec’s Keller is snitching for him. Keller keeps tabs on Vale for Revok, and now Vale is unwittingly leading Revok to all the scanners he can’t locate himself. Revok’s assassins attack the safe house while the scanners are involved in a group-scan-séance. Only Vale and Obrist escape. They learn that a company with the catchy name of Biocarbon Amalgamate is manufacturing ephemerol in mass quantities and distributing it around the world. With a name like Biocarbon Amalgamate, you just know they are up to no good. And wouldn’t you know it, Revok is running the company. Ruth admits that Biochemical Amalga-whatever was originally his company. He sold it to ConSec years ago. He admits to only knowing that the company makes biological and chemical weaponry. Ruth instructs Vale to scan the company’s computer system to learn more about Revok’s plan, then is later killed by Keller. Vale goes into the computer through a pay telephone line, which may be one of the first known instances of dial-up Internet via telepathy. He is able to destroy the computer system through a cybernetic/telepathic scan attack. For some reason the computer can’t shut down before it blows up like a bomb, sending a hapless technician through a plate glass window and killing Keller in the process.
Vale and Obrist track down a doctor that is receiving ephemerol shipments from Biocalcium Amalga-whats. Vale goes snooping around while Obrist sits in the waiting room. She finds herself being scanned, and it turns out the scan is originating from a pregnant woman. Well, not the woman, but the baby in her womb. Revok arrives just in time to clear up the confusion. Ephemerol was developed by Ruth as a tranquilizer for pregnant women, but it turns out that the side effect was that the babies grew up to become scanners. The same drug that can control full-grown scanners also creates scanners, if administered in utero. Ruth discovered this after giving ephemerol to his own pregnant wife, and he followed the development of his own children, Revok and, dum-da-dum… Vale. Yes, these two are brothers. Revok wants Vale to join him in creating a new world with an army of scanners they will generate with ephemerol. Yep, Revok is going full throttle with the world domination gig. But, he’s kind of earned it. He’s a classy villain, if ruthless. He has a legitimate beef with his father, who basically used Revok as a guinea pig for his experiments. He’s also the most powerful scanner in the world who has done a great job of corralling or killing all the other scanners. Except Vale, who is woefully outmatched.
Darryl Revok : [strikes back at Cameron with scanner abilities] All right. We’re gonna do this the scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry! Everything you are is gonna become me. You’re gonna be with me Cameron, no matter what. After all, brothers should be close, don’t you think?
Revok vows to kill Vale when he turns down big brother’s offer of co-world domination. In this climactic battle, Cronenberg goes back to the body horror that started the film, with Revok and Vale engaged in a scanner battle that explodes eyeballs, boils blood, melts hearts, and sets Vale on fire like a roman candle. But Vale gets the last laugh. Obrist comes into the room after the fight to see Vale’s scorched body on the floor. Then, Revok is revealed hiding under a coat. But when he speaks, it is with Vale’s voice, telling Obrist that they have won. Vale switched his consciousness into Revok’s body right before he got burned up. It’s a sharp ending that appears to wrap up succinctly enough, but you can’t help wondering if it’s all a put-on by Revok to make Obrist lower her defenses. And who is to say that Vale wouldn’t go down the same route as Revok? He is a powerful scanner, and his increasing detachment throughout the film leads to speculation that he is removed from the human race and has little stake in its development or survival.
Lack’s performance as Vale took a lot of hits from critics for being stiff and shallow. Lack had no acting career before this film, and I don’t believe much of one after, but it is possible that the role of Vale required a certain level of detachment. When Vale, who spent his whole life in chaos, learns to control his power, he becomes aloof, emotionally indifferent. Obrist even tells him at one point, “You’re barely human.” Ironside, for whom Scanners is in one of his first major films, makes up for Lack’s weak performance with menacing stares and speech patterns that have become trademarks in his work.
The real star of the film is Dick Smith’s special effects. Smith, who previously made Linda Blair’s head spin around and spit out pea soup in The Exorcist, achieved the controversial head explosion in Scanners by firing a shotgun at a prop head filled with hamburger, latex scraps, and stringy material. The exploding head is the single most iconic moment of the film, and it is the first thing anyone thinks about when Scanners comes up in discussion. This was the scene that originally opened the film, but early audiences were so shocked by the effect they barely absorbed what came after. So Cronenberg decided to introduce us to Vale first.
Scanners is ultimately more than just a horror film. In fact, now that I’ve reached this point in my life and look at this iconic piece of Cronenberg cinema, I would say it is more of a spy thriller with all the trappings—menacing bad guys bent on taking over the world, slightly less than believable technology, and a melodramatic plot turns that seem unbelievable at first, but plausible in retrospect. Except for the gory set-pieces that bookend the film, much of the violence consists of conventional movie gunplay. The opening scene when Revok mentally squashes that guy’s melon is a shocker, so much so that nothing really has to top it for the rest of the film. The discomfort for the viewer comes in the anticipation that we are going to see something like that during the half-dozen or so scanner attacks that take place up until the third act. But we never do. There are elements that are always present in Cronenberg’s body horror work–perverted medicine, uncommon physiological happenings, and major, major body trauma. This film may also have been a prediction of things to come with its hints of cyber and biological enhancements and its commentary on our continued reliance on a multi-billion pharmacopeia business to make our lives better. Which is all well and good until someone can make your nose bleed on command, or worse.