Ten minutes into David Cronenberg’s Scanners comes a defining moment that changes the way we look at the film. ConSec, a private military organization, is known to produce individuals with telepathic abilities, branded as ‘scanners.’ At an event to demonstrate the company’s forte to VIPs, a ConSec representative asks the attendees to volunteer for a scan, which would allow the scanner to gain control over the person volunteering. While the hesitant visitors choose to remain in the audience, Darryl Revok, the antagonist, raises his hand. The ConSec scanner and Revok sit down in front of unevenly seated, eager spectators. So far so good, but there is an ominous sensation in the air. The scanning process commences, and an escalating high-pitch noise augurs the impending doom. By the time the visitors – and the viewer – discern things are getting out of hand, Revok makes the scanner’s head explode, and the ruptured flesh strews all over. This is not mind-boggling in 2021, but when Scanners was released in 1981, this was unimaginable in a film. As ironic as it may sound, the head-explosion scene became the film’s face over the years.
Cronenberg’s films never flinched from depicting bloodshed. In fact, his films thrived in it, with Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979) shocking the viewers upon their releases. Shivers had a grotesque parasite attacking the residents of an apartment on an island and triggering a sexual assault epidemic; in Rabid, a blood-sucking stinger pierces from the lead’s arm-pit; and the unnatural, deformed killer-babies of The Brood send a shiver down our spines. Cronenberg’s body-horror flicks – which he both wrote and directed – toy with wicked ideas that make us wonder whether they emanated from the mind of a compos mentis writer trying to pen a screenplay, or were the residuals of his hazy nightmares.
Looking back at Scanners within the context of Cronenberg’s entire career indicates the change in his brand of filmmaking. Only a handful of his post-Scanners films, such as Videodrome (1983) and Crash (1996), retain the overflowing weirdness and energy that’s omnipresent in the first half of his career. After Scanners, the films became less and less Cronenberg-esque as he drifted farther from horror, inching towards drama. This film, too, cannot be easily categorized as horror. It’s sci-fi-meets-thriller-meets-body-horror, but it doesn’t solely bank on gore either. After the shocking aforementioned head-explosion, we do not witness something as graphic until the very end.
Unlike The Brood, Scanners has a relatively simple plot. Cameron Vale, a homeless man with telepathic abilities, is captured by ConSec. In captivity, Dr. Paul Ruth tells him about Darryl Revok, a scanner gone rogue, and the desperate need to hunt him down. Scanners can be frightful but it’s on the subtler side of Cronenberg filmography. The screenplay allows the audience to breathe, contrary to the continual high-tension mode Shivers and Rabid operated in. At one point, Vale visits a scanner named Benjamin Pierce, who claims sculpting reinforces his sanity. What’s more interesting about the scene, though, is that Pierce and Vale sit inside the head of a giant sculpture while having the conversation, foreshadowing the ability of scanners to get into the heads of people. It’s such smart, calm moments that make it distinct. Their introspection is curtly interrupted by Revok’s thugs – and violence ensues – but we do get a moment of harmony.
Similarly, the green-colored credits make us question the choice of color, since the film doesn’t predominantly use green. Contrarily, red is apparent through the initial scenes of the film, especially those set inside the ConSec building. As Vale learns that a drug by an organization named Biocarbon Amalgamate creates scanners, the green color becomes increasingly prominent. It also aids in drawing an analogy between a computer and the protagonist’s mind, which acts as a major plot point towards the end, and the font of codes on the computer screen is green. The rolling-credits are stylized like codes on a computer monitor too. Most importantly, the film’s last shot is an extreme close-up of Rock’s eyes, which are now green – the color of Vale’s eyes – after the hero succeeds in gaining control over Rock’s consciousness after a terrific showdown that includes eye-balls bursting out of the skull. This is when we realize that the answer has been hiding in plain sight from the very beginning.
Over the years, filmmakers such as Eli Roth, Guillermo del Toro, and Shinya Tsukamoto have spoken about the influence of Cronenberg. One such filmmaker is James Gunn, whose directorial debut Slither (2006) was highly influenced by Shivers and The Brood. What’s more fascinating is that Gunn wrote and produced The Belko Experiment in 2017, which is all about exploding heads, mimicking Scanners on Steroids. There have been countless sci-fi horror films in the past few decades, but having stood the test of time, Scanners still has the power to shudder the viewer with its ideas and imagery – which is why it’s a mind-blowing film, in the literal sense.