Scanners: Mind and Matter

On Film / Essays — Jul 15, 2014

In 1981, David Cronenberg’s Scanners was known as “the one with the exploding head.” As originally intended, the film would have opened with this scene, but it so shocked preview audiences that they found it hard afterward to pay attention to the (admittedly complex) plot. Even edged back a quarter of an hour into the narrative, after we’ve met down-and-out telepath hero Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) and the fatherly yet mysterious scientist Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), the detonating cranium was the talking point of the picture. A generation on, it’s still an often remembered and excerpted moment, whether pulled out of the context of Scanners as an Internet GIF, highlighted in one of those 100 Scary/Shocking/Repulsive/Surprising Moments of the Movies TV specials, or assessed as a key moment in Cronenberg’s evolving, transgressive worldview. Few other filmmakers are as willing to put brains on the screen—literally and in the sense of displaying an obvious intelligence not always associated with midbudget science fiction and horror cinema.

Of course, the film endures because it has a lot more going for it than one spectacularly gruesome shock. Scanners was Cronenberg’s fifth commercial film—following the science-fiction horror movies Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979) and the drag-racing action film Fast Company (1979)—and seventh feature, taking the semiunderground science-fiction art-house efforts Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) into account. From the first, he had specialized in conceptually and physically shocking material. One strain of horror depends on things unseen or half hinted at, but the chilly Canadian preferred the sort of monstrosities that had to be seen to be believed—like the aphrodisiac mind-controlling slugs of Shivers, the penile armpit vampire tentacle of Rabid, and the deformed dwarf homunculi of The Brood. There’s a clinical, forensic approach in these films, which carries over into Scanners—the exploding-head effect occurs in what seems to be an academic setting, during a lecture delivered by a “psychic anomaly” (Louis Del Grande) to a roomful of executives, scientists, and experts. It’s prefaced by a warning: “I must remind you that the scanning experience is usually a painful one . . . sometimes resulting in nosebleeds, earaches, stomach cramps, nausea. Sometimes other symptoms of a similar nature.” Though that’s no preparation for what happens.

It was obvious to even the most casual cinemagoer that genre movies of the late 1970s and early 1980s were becoming more fantastically grisly. The skull sliced by a helicopter blade in Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the creature that explodes out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien (1979) were remarkable effects achievements but also coups de cinéma. Not only could the movies now technically show anything, but filmmakers in the horror and science fiction genres were ruthless and seemingly demented enough to want to show the sorts of things that had been only implied earlier. The Scanners exploding head was in this tradition, on a par with the groundbreaking werewolf transformations in The Howling and An American Werewolf in London (both 1981) or the spider-legged severed head of The Thing the next year. But there is one crucial difference: Filmmakers like George A. Romero, Ridley Scott, Joe Dante, John Landis, and John Carpenter stage their set pieces like conjuring tricks or sick jokes, anticipating a huge, astonished, appalled reaction from audiences but also the relief of laughter that comes from a knowing line or a black-comic joke. With Cronenberg, the shocks escalate—there’s no punctuating laughter. In The Howling, a werewolf digs a bullet out of his brain while snarling, “I’ll show you a piece of my mind!” Scanners refrains from such levity, and Cronenberg’s jokes are absurdist or conceptual rather than comic relief.

With Cronenberg, even more than with his confrontational genre auteur peers, there was a sense that he was as out of control as any “psychic anomaly” and would deliver shocks beyond the capacity of even hardened horror fans to get their unexploded but straining heads around. Scanners was, in many ways, a synthesis of Cronenberg’s works to date, and almost a sequel to Stereo, back-referencing a key incident in the earlier movie in which a telepath tries to get rid of the voices in his brain by drilling a hole between his eyes. However, rather than an elliptical, whimsical, black-and-white mock documentary, as Stereo—a student art film—was, Scanners takes the form of an espionage-action film, with conspiracy elements and a streak of visionary science-fictional transhumanism. It’s a literal mutation of 1970s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), tossing psychic abilities into the mix of assassins, cover-ups, and compromised spies.

Stories of humans born with psychic powers who represent a possible next step in evolution had been around for decades. Important novels on the theme include A. E. van Vogt’s Slan (1940) and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human (1953). Nigel Kneale’s TV serial Quatermass and the Pit (1958–59, filmed 1967) inverted the premise, suggesting that psychic abilities like telekinesis were throwbacks to a strain of humanity tinkered with by alien invaders in prehistory. Episodes of The Twilight Zone (“A Penny for Your Thoughts,” 1961) and The Outer Limits (“The Man with the Power,” 1963) featured psychic prodigies—usually meek little men transformed into superbeings along the lines of the protagonist of H. G. Wells’s fantasy “The Man Who Could Work Miracles.” Marvel Comics’ Professor X debuted in 1963, pressing his fingers to his temples as lines radiated from his bald head to signify his telepathic contact with the physical mutants of the X-Men. Byron Haskin’s film The Power (1968), from the 1956 novel by Frank M. Robinson, introduced the psychic superman theme to the cinema. Scientists at a research center realize that one of their number (Michael Rennie) is an enormously powerful superman with ambitions to rule normal humanity. The put-upon hero (George Hamilton) ultimately realizes that he, too, is a next-level human, and the film climaxes, like Scanners, with a psychic duel between good and bad mutants.

The success of Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), from the novel by Stephen King, made the dangerous ESP user a recurrent figure in horror/science-fiction cinema, and De Palma’s The Fury (1978), from the novel by John Farris, is a key precedent for Scanners, both in its genre mix and in its deployment of psychically wrought carnage for shock value. King followed the telekinetic Carrie with the pyrokinetics of Firestarter, whose title character would be played by Drew Barrymore in the 1984 film, another story that links psychic powers with espionage and conspiracy. There was some real-life basis for this: there had been all sorts of rumors—and trashy paperbacks—about Soviet ESP experiments and their application to spying and warfare, which eventually inspired a U.S. program that would have some of its peculiar history told in Jon Ronson’s nonfiction study The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004), made into a film in 2009. In Scanners, Cronenberg evokes this shadowy area of paranormal research, as well as contemporary scandals involving botched drug testing, the less-than-ethical behavior of some sectors of the pharmaceutical industry, and the rise of private security and espionage outfits.

Cronenberg’s script establishes a world in which scanners, a type of telepath, have been around since the trial use of Ephemerol, a drug prescribed as an analgesic for pregnant women, in the late 1940s. The film sketches in several factions of the scanner underground, headed by the fiendish Revok (Michael Ironside) and the sensitive Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), plus such lone freaks as the mind-reading sculptor Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), who lives inside a giant padded model of his own head. As Cameron Vale works his way along a chain of suspicious types in his search for Revok, he becomes aware of an intricate level of conspiracy whereby the ConSec corporation is unknowingly at war with its own subsidiary company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, and as a result, a new generation of scanners is in the offing.

At heart, this is an archetypal narrative of opposing brothers and the remote, unknowable father who has given them their gifts and set them against each other—it’s almost a version of the Thor-Loki-Odin triangle, if not the story of Cain and Abel—but because it suggests a wider world beyond this family struggle, Scanners is unique in Cronenberg’s oeuvre, where stories often end in apocalypses (for example, Shivers) or the continuance of a cycle of horror (The Brood), or just shut down completely, as in the transformative suicides or sacrifices of The Dead Zone (1983), Videodrome (1983), The Fly (1986), and Dead Ringers (1988). The finale of Scanners, in fact, can be seen as an optimistic mirror of the pessimistic finish of Dead Ringers, allowing for the mutual survival of the doppelgänger brothers in one melded form rather than ending in their shared death.

Scanners, alone among Cronenberg’s creations, spawned a franchise, though he has taken no creative part in it. All those films—Scanners II: The New Order (1991), Scanners III: The Takeover (1992), Scanner Cop (1994), and Scanner Cop II: Volkin’s Revenge (1995)—stress exploding heads (Scanners III features the cinema’s first underwater exploding head) but steer away from the philosophical angles explored by Cronenberg’s film. Stereo was already an exploration of mind sharing, and Scanners picks up on that to explore questions of identity. It’s unusual in the run of films dealing with psychic psychopaths in exploring telepathy as well as telekinesis, and also touches—in its “human modem” sequence—on the fusion of man and machine that becomes central to Videodrome and The Fly. Like Emil Hobbes in Shivers, Dan Keloid in Rabid, Hal Raglan in The Brood, Seth Brundle in The Fly, and Allegra Geller in eXistenZ (1999), Paul Ruth is a philosopher-scientist. And like Raglan’s patients and Geller’s beta testers, Ruth’s human test subjects are performance artists as well as walking advertisements for extreme techniques—even that exploding head is presented in an auditorium, and Benjamin Pierce channels his scanning into sculpture.

Scanners was the film where Cronenberg’s intellectual pursuits most obviously meshed with his love of staging shootouts, car crashes, and stalkings. Crucial to the effectiveness of the movie are the makeup effects of Dick Smith—a lauded veteran of the then burgeoning art form who was spurred to invent techniques to achieve the illusions demanded by Cronenberg’s script—and the ominous music by Howard Shore, who first came to notice for his innovative, avant-garde work for Cronenberg, before turning his hand to more traditional scores for Martin Scorsese and Peter Jackson.

Over thirty years after its release, the once cutting-edge Scanners has picked up an almost nostalgic charm—the green-screen dot-matrix end titles and the room-size ConSec supercomputer that explodes when Vale syncs with its nervous system over a phone line are yesteryear’s high tech, and the circle of humming hippie mind sharers seem even more like stranded leftovers from a psychedelic idealism superseded and squashed by Revok’s focused vision of a future scanner supremacy. But it’s a forward-looking film too. Like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Final Programme (1973), Demon Seed (1977), Apocalypse Now (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Brainstorm (1983), it embraces the transformative as well as the apocalyptic potential of the creation of a new stage of human life. In Return of the Jedi (1983), a film Cronenberg passed on directing, Darth Vader is redeemed by regressing from his Jedi state to become plain old Dad in death, inspiring his son not to develop his superpowers but, in essence, to go back to the farm. The eighties would be awash with such conservative fantasies, turning away from conceptual breakthrough to embrace suburban 1950s values, most obviously in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) or the perfectly titled Back to the Future series. But Scanners closes with hero and villain combined, Vale speaking through Revok, and the promise of continuing, endless mutation.

Long live the New Mind.