Scanners marks the emergence of David Cronenberg from low-budget horror auteur to one of the most unique voices in filmmaking of the last thirty or so years. He first came onto the scene directing such low-budget horror films such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. These three films were later said to have had that Cronenberg propensity to show the horror of the body-politic at its most basic. Cronenberg pretty much points out of how true horror might not be lurking on the outside, but within the the human body. Cronenberg makes the human body as forever changing and mutating against the individual person’s wants and desire of what was suppose to be the ideal. The horror that we as a people do not and will never have control over our own body was where the true horror lie.
In 1981, Cronenberg moves from the purely physical horror to one where the technology man was forever trying to create and achieve perfection would turn on the biological aspect of the human condition. This new form of techno-organic mutation was as terrifying as it was seductive in its potential to those afflicted with it. Cronenberg begins this phase in his filmmaking voice with his excellent, underappreciated and cult-classic Scanners.
The premise for Scanners had alot in common with Stephen King’s novel Firestarter in the fact that in dealt with an omnipresent and powerful organization: the CIA’s shadowy branch that dealt with experimental weapons programs for Firestarter and the ultra-powerful CONSEC multinational corporation in Scanners. These two organizations experiment on random select individuals using experimental drug treatments under the guise of helpful medications. What results from these experiments are more than what was truly expected by their handlers. In Scanners the result comes from mental abilities never seen or documented in the past. CONSEC’s experiments have yielded a unique group of individuals, 237 of them, to manifest powers of the mind that make them living weapons of mass destruction. Instead of becoming a new wonder-weapon for CONSEC to sell to their government contacts, these 237 become unstable in personality, some going as far as to develop a God-complex. Others are driven insane by these new abilities and retreat away from the rest of humanity in order to achieve a semblance of mental peace.
These two different reactions from the 237 are keenly represented by two of the main character’s in Cronenberg’s film. There’s Cameron Vale (played by Stephen Lack who had an eerie resemblance to the same named character of Stephen in Dawn of the Dead) who we first see as a vagrant who seems to be suffering from some sort of mental problem. This is farther from the truth as Dr. Paul Ruth (father of the CONSEC drug effemerol that causes the mutation and played with eccentric flair by Patrick McGoohan) soon discover that Vale’s mental problems is due to him possessing preternatural mental abilities of the highest order. Ruth’s guilt over what his experiments have done and created leads him to use Vale to counter the growing underground of those 237 who have seen their newfound abilities as a stepping stone to supplanting the normal status quo with their own in a plan of global domination that would make fans of X-Men very proud.
Leader of this underground groups of scanners (as the 237 were called) is one Darryl Revok. A scanner whose abilities rival those of Vale’s but whose mental instability for wanting to dominate the normals of the world makes him the most dangerous individual on the face of the planet. Genre veteran Michael Ironside steals the film from everyone else. His grand and classic introduction early in the film has gone down in filmmaking history as one of the most shocking scenes put on film. Ironside’s performance as the scanner with the God-complex was truly megalomaniacal and it was easy to root against him, but hard to take one’s eyes from the screen when he was on. Revok truly made for one of film history’s classic villains.
In the middle of Vale and Revok’s war for control lies Kim Obrist (played by the beautiful Jennifer O’Neill) who tries to lead those who just want to be left alone from being used by both Revok and CONSEC. O’Neill’s performance was the most grounded in reality, as much as a film about people with mental powers could be, and tries to keep the film from getting too fantastic.
This I think was what made Scanners such a great film. As ludicrous a premise as the film had to base its sotry on, there was always a sense of realism to keep everything form becoming too much like a comic book. The story paints a story that could happen in reality since similar things have occurred in the past such as the LSD testing on US military personnel during the 50’s and 60’s. Cronenberg plays on such fears of outside factors introduced by scientists looking to forever improve on what nature took eons to evolve. It’s this hubris about man’s attempt to dominate his own body which interests Cronenberg and what would happen if he did succeed in doing something nature and humanity wasn’t ready for.
Scanners marked Cronenberg’s interest in examining the effect of man’s quest for better and better technology, whether mechanical or biological, on humanity’s physical and mental existence. What he brongs forth, first with Scanners then later on with Videodrome and The Fly, was something both horrific and seductive. Who wouldn’t want to have such abilities as Vale and Revok had at their command. But by the end of Scanners the film posits the question of how much of one’s humanity must be sacrificed for such huge leaps on the evolutionary ladder. Will the resulting amalgamation of nature and technology still leave something human or just something that pretends to look like one.
Some have called Scanners a horror movie and some have called it a sci-fi thriller. It’s both those and more. It’s really hard to pin down just exactly which genre Scanners falls under since Cronenberg never tried to stay within one particular one. The film works as a thriller, as a science-fiction story, a horror flick and a philosophical exercise in examining the human condition. Cronenberg’s skill was clearly evident in keeping all these differing themes and genres from becoming out-of-place and bringing the finished product from becoming too flawed. Cronenberg’s first foray into this new phase of his filmmaking career ushered in what some have called Cronenberg at his most daring and pure. I wouldn’t argue with such an argument. Scanners is a film of great quality that would forever be used as an example of Cronenberg’s genius as a filmmaker.