1981, Starring Stephen Lack, Michael Ironside and Jennifer O'Neill. Directed By David Cronenberg.
Guest Review by Rhett Miller
As Cronenberg has developed as a filmmaker, his focus has shifted from the horrors of the body to the ambiguous depths of the mind. His first effort, Shivers, was about parasites and the complications of the physical act of love. Rabid shifted to more personal territory, offering both a lead character (which Shivers did not) and the mental anguish that goes along with disease. Moving further into the mental, The Brood considered psychiatry, although it still represented it in the physical through those pesky little demon children. Scanners, Cronenberg's fifth film, represents a turning of the corner from body exploits to those of the mind. There are no physical manifestations this time, all the conflict occurs within the mind. Cronenberg would take this a step further with more pretentious efforts like Naked Lunch and Spider, where he would actually go into the minds of his characters. Before his artistic conceit though, Cronenberg was channeling the darker voids of Canadian B-movie cinema, and with Scanners he did a damn good job of it.
The film begins in a relatively empty (where are all those extras?!) Montreal mall, where a homeless and tormented Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) wanders. In his head he hears voices not of his own making. They are other people's thoughts, and they ring like loud reverberations throughout his mind. Vale has an altered brain, like 236 other " Scanners" in the world, that not only makes him susceptible to hearing everyone's thoughts, but it also gives him the power to control others' minds. When he hears a lady patronizing him in the mall for being a homeless outcast, he uncontrollably causes her to have a mental hemorrhage. This outburst leads to his capture by leading Scanner " psychopharmacist" Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan).
Ruth takes Cameron to an abandoned apartment, where he ties him up and subjects him to scrutiny by several of his colleagues. As they all pile into the apartment, Vale picks up all their thoughts like a radio does signals, and the thought overload sends him into convulsions. Meanwhile, other doctors involved in Scanner research are meeting in a theatre, where one attempts to read the mind of a volunteer. As the Scanner concentrates, the volunteer seems to channel his thoughts even more intensely, eventually causing the Scanner's head to literally explode into a sea of brain and skull fragments. The volunteer's name is Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), the future leader of the Scanner revolt.
Revok's proposal is to assemble all 237 Scanners and lead them on an attack against the society that irresponsibly created them. The Scanners, like all bad things in Cronenberg's universe, were created by medical research gone awry. When mothers were administered the drug called Ephemerol during maternity, it caused for mental aberrations and a hyperactivity of the brain synapses in their unborn children. Revok has a listing of all the affected Scanners, Vale being the final name. Either Vale joins them, or Revok will ensure his death.
As Dr. Ruth helps Vale increase his mental strength in preparation for the conflict that is to ensue with Revok, Vale runs into Benjamin Pierce (Robert A. Silverman), a Scanner who has been able to control the thoughts in his mind by externalizing them through art (much like Cronenberg). As the violent antithesis of Pierce, Revok achieves the same effect by drilling a hole in his head to release the voices (an actual medical procedure called "trepanning" Ed.). Now, Revok is able to use his mind to kill Pierce, knocking the artistic balance of the world off its course.
Teamed up with another Scanner, Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neill), Vale heads off to the biological plant where Revok has been carrying out his operations. Revok and Vale eventually cross paths, and go at each other (literally) head to head. It is a violent battle of wits, as both use their telekinetic powers to destroy their bodies to the point where only one man and one mind are left standing.
On the surface, Scanners is yet another of the exploitive splatter flicks of the early 1980s that Canada was so notorious for producing. Beyond the surface, the film is a deep meditation on the state of the mind in a time of medical and technological experimentation. Like with all of Cronenberg's early efforts, this is a film that seems to be created in direct scrutiny of Canada's ever-controlling public health care system. If a single drug can nearly bring the apocalypse in Scanners, then what can happen when an entire system of state medical control makes a mistake? Cronenberg makes no attempts to hide his bias against medical experimentation, as evidenced by his witty naming of the harmful drug, " Ephemerol" . A play on the word "ephemeral", the irony is that the drug leaves anything but an ephemeral side effect... the Scanners are affected for life.
Unlike Shivers and Rabid, which questioned these themes of medical intervention and technology more broadly, Scanners is ultimately more personal. The film is less about the dichotomy between Scanner and human and more about the battle between Vale and Revok. The way Cronenberg negates a female love interest (O'Neill's character is wasted) puts the focus entirely on the two male characters to the point where their mental sparring takes on a homoerotic subtext. Like homosexuals in an AIDS-afraid early 80s, the Scanners are treated as outcasts, and as a result, they must sense their kind through mental guessing rather than audible comments. Connections between Scanners had to be made by interpreting subtext, much like the conservative society had forced gays to keep their sexuality repressed within their minds.
The final battle between Revok and Vale, accentuated by Dick Smith's amazingly gory effects work, extends the homoerotic undercurrent even further. Both Vale and Revok penetrate each other's minds, complete with moaning, gyrating and bodily stiffness. The swelling of veins on their outstretched arms very much resembles an erect penis. As their mental duel reaches its climax, bodily fluids are shot out of their bodies in a very sexual form of release. In the end only one remains, and the fight serves as a homosexual counterpoint to the climactic battle between husband and wife in The Brood. Cronenberg would extend the homosexual allegory featured here even more explicitly in his later Naked Lunch.
In a time when sex in Canada was only really being explored in detail in Quebec, it is no surprise that much of Scanners was shot in Montreal. The Le's and La's attached to store names in the mall at the opening clearly indicate the film's French locales. Yet, despite a passing reference to Thunder Bay, the film, like the rest of Cronenberg's work, tries to avoid all its associations with Canada, opting for a generic "North American" backdrop.
In a way, the undistinguished setting helps to emphasize the universal concern about the state of man's mind in an ever more scientific age. " With all those voices, how do you develop your own self?" Ruth asks Vale, and this is a question Cronenberg asks the viewer. In an age of extreme medical and technological experimentation, where chips can be implanted in the brain to aid hearing or cells can be cloned, the mind is increasingly becoming a battlefield of control. Like how Revok exposed his brain by drilling a hole in his skull, society has very much exposed the brain to experimentation and media scrutiny. Nothing in the sciences or in the media is off limits today, and the mind, more than ever, is losing its privacy.
Scanners questions many major concerns surrounding the mind, and Cronenberg executes it with some of his most intense direction. Although very little is shown on screen (as the conflicts lie within the mind), Cronenberg manages to keep the pacing and intensity of the film at a much more involving rate than most of his other works. A strong turn by Canadian B-movie villain extraordinaire, Michael Ironside (Prom Night II, American Nightmare) also gives the film a strong jolt of energy. Although Scanners seems more like a blueprint of the Cronenberg to come, it nonetheless is a solid genre effort that ranks as the best in the pantheon of Canadian horror films of the early 80s. Deeper and more ambitious than the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Prom Night, and Happy Birthday to Me, it is more than just a splatter film. It is a splatter film with a mind.