We start with a hobo named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) who is arrested at a shopping mall after he seems to telepathically make a woman have a heart attack after she mocks him. Cameron is introduced to Dr Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who works for the ConSec corporation that is there for the purpose of researching ‘Scanners’ , telepathic beings who are capable of doing great harm to the human race. Around the same time we see powerful Scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) make a man’s head explode after going rogue from ConSec and learn that Revok is building an underground army of people like him. Vale is sent in to stop Revok and learns a few secrets about the origins of Scanners and his connection with Revok in the process.
Scanners has elements of horror, the celebrated exploding head is still impressive as is the climax although Blu-Ray allows you to work out quite clearly how they did all that vein popping, but is actually more of a science fiction story. It has shady corporations doing shady things, it has drug trials going wrong and it has a world of telepaths living underground and hiding from their gifts. It represents a period where Cronenberg was perhaps still trying to find his identity as a filmmaker. It has the celebrated ‘Body Horror’ elements that would come to prominence in Videodrome and The Fly as well as the cold science fiction of something like eXistenZ or Crimes of the Future. Although it is somewhat muddled by the science fiction superpowers, there is also the family melodrama that was present in recent efforts A History of Violence and Eastern Promises.
There are two problems with Scanners that have become more apparent as time has gone by. The first and fatal one is that Stephen Lack is a terrible terrible actor. Each line delivery is completely made of wood and Lack just moves wide-eyed and unblinking to each set piece and confrontation without any life to his performance. His performance is so bad that he makes villain Michael Ironside seem like he is terribly overacting where he is just being his usual reliable self. Lack doesn’t seem to have many more than 6 or so subsequent screen credits so it seems it might be a common problem. The second problem is that the final act is overtaken by revelations of family connections between certain figures but most of this information is communicated telepathically which because of the time and the effects techniques isn’t really as effective as it could have been and you couldn’t be blamed for scratching your head.
Despite these problems, most of which seem to occur through the prism of time, Scanners is still a thoroughly entertaining, action packed and occasionally nasty low-budget sci-fi film. Cronenberg’s world building is just as good here as it was in Videodrome or Crash and his characters living on the fringes as outcasts are believable and interesting. It would be great to see Cronenberg re-visit this world in a remake or reboot and see what he could do with it with the talents he has gained throughout his career and with modern techniques.