Horror Classics: Scanners (1981) Analysis

Every now and then, David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981) pops up in various subreddits, forums, and articles, primarily thanks to the infamous ‘exploding head’ scene. There’s more to the film than one iconic scene, though. While Cronenberg’s imagination often exceeds the grip of the resources at hand, Scanners (1981) fulfills the promise of a guilty pleasure for fans of low-budget science fiction.

Decades before cinemas were flooded by the endless line of copy-and-paste entries produced by a particular massive cash-making machine, independent cinema already fantasized about super-humans. That may sound almost iconoclastic to the die-hard fans of David Cronenberg, but the filmmaker always commingled the essence of the superhero subgenre with his rich Imaginarium of contorted limbs, swollen and twisted bodies, and other terrors that the human body can be subjected to.

One such non-ordinary man, Cameron Vale (played by the unimpressionable Stephen Lack), strolls in the streets, nailing the look of a proper tatterdemalion in a shopping mall. Following a bizarre incident in which Cameron uses his supernatural skills on a stranger, he’s scooped up by two goons working for the mysterious Dr. Ruth – a self-proclaimed researcher in the field of Scanning. Ruth’s the teacher archetype in the story, and naturally, there’s also the arch-nemesis. Quite a formidable one, to be frank. Played by Michael Ironside, Darryl Revok embodies chaotic evil that leaves a trail of destruction behind.

For the most part, however, Revok remains in the shadow, which is a shame considering the dedication and craft surrounding the role of Michael Ironside. With maddened eyes and a Jack Nicholson-esque wide and devilish smile, Revok could easily become an iconic villain. The screentime he’s given, however, allows Ironside to have a curious edge but not enough complexity.

Lamentably, Cronenberg’s writing was never his strongest artistic field – as I also pointed out in his latest film, The Crimes of The Future (2022) – and it also shows in Scanners (1981). After being recruited by Dr. Ruth, Cameron Vale sets sail for a poorly incentivized and explained mission, delving into a world that’s like an unfinished painting, with lots of great ideas taken out too early from the oven. Infiltrating the ranks of Revok’s army of Scanners sounds exciting, and yet the script begins to falter, frantically picking up pieces of the world-building puzzle or collecting supporting characters with little meaning or introduction.

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Aside from Michael Ironside, the actors leave much to be desired. Stephen Lack’s name captures everything that can be said about his charisma, with an undeniable chemistry deficiency between him and Patrick McGoohan, who plays Dr. Ruth. The latter immerses in a role that’s both terribly exaggerated and yet somehow dull, and hence the scarcity of Revok’s appearances intensifies.

But enough with the excoriating opinion, because for what it’s worth, Scanners (1981) overcomes at least some of its shortcomings. In spite of a minute budget, this is a piece of science fiction that doesn’t feel outdated, even after more than fifty years following its release. Although the abilities of the Scanners remain somehow muddled as a concept – they dabble in mind control but also cause physical pain to the target – it’s the vilification that pushed them to the margins of society and which still carries a certain degree of timeliness and gravitas today when looked at as a metaphor for minorities.

Finally, while I can’t say that Scanners (1981) possess the power to make one shiver from terror – it’s often too archaic in its form and sometimes laughably outdated technically – it’s hard to be left unimpressed by a few scenes. In its climax, which finds Vale clashing with Revok, Cronenberg goes bonkers and unleashes all the powers of prosthetic craftsmanship that earned him the royal spot among horror makers.

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