Along with The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) marks what would be the beginning of David Cronenberg’s richest period of filmmaking. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986) or Naked Lunch (1991), Scanners is nonetheless every inch a Cronenberg movie. You could likely mark it as the film that started the trend toward splattery horror in the ‘80s—this is, after all, a movie that’s mostly remembered today for an exploding head—but simply paying attention to Scanners for its shock effects soft pedals Cronenberg the filmmaker. Take a look at the aforementioned exploding-head sequence, for instance. Besides being a brilliant piece of lo-fi effects work made possible by a latex head, some dog food and a shotgun, it’s a scene that’s brilliantly crafted for maximum suspense, amplifying the surprise of it all. And since it happens early in the story, it sets the tone for the rest of the movie, laying the foundation of the film’s psychic-warfare aspects, and their deadly consequences. This is no normal splatter flick, though, as we delve completely into the world of David Cronenberg, his penchant for body horror and his eye for conspiracy.
The film is based around the idea that there are a handful of people in the world known as Scanners, who can read minds and even inflict pain—or worse—on others. There’s a small, underground—and wholly violent—group of Scanners who’re bent on causing all sorts of issues for the rest of humanity. In order to stop them, human scientist Dr. Paul Ruth (the great Patrick McGoohan) recruits a Scanner named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), who heretofore has been living life as a derelict, driven crazy by his inability to control his powers.
From here, we enter the world of Cronenberg. There’s a certain amount of over-the-top violence, but it’s done in such a matter-of-fact fashion that it never quite turns goofy, despite how absurd it all seems. With its exploding heads, psychic stand-offs and exploding computers, Scanners certainly could’ve devolved into a purely entertaining bit of splattery horror. But it helps that Cronenberg has something on his mind, and with the film’s conspiratorial underpinnings—involving drug manufacturers and their product’s effect on unborn fetuses—it all fits snuggly within the the director’s oeuvre. Plus, the action scenes are all created with an eye towards either quirkiness (like the shoot-out that takes place in an artist’s studio), or simply being unsettling (the look of despair in one victim’s eyes when he’s forced to commit suicide).Scanners is a movie where you come for all the blood and guts, but stay for a movie made by a singular talent.