Robert A Silverman
Horror / sci-fi
Trivia William S. Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch" contains a chapter concerning "Senders," a hostile organisation of telepaths bent on world domination, a clear literary inspiration for this film.
The exploding head scene was accomplished by filling a latex head with dog food and rabbit livers, and shooting it from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Production stills exist of shots in the final duel between Cameron and Revok, where the top of Cameron's head explodes, sending sparks into the air. Apparently this climax was filmed but Cronenberg chose to omit it from the final print.
As of writing this review, a Scanners remake for 2005 has been announced.
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15th Sep 04
A homeless ‘scanner’ is found by a mysterious doctor who wants him to lead the resistance against a corrupt and deadly underground scanner movement.
David Cronenberg. Perhaps like when you see your first James Bond film, that Bond is your favourite – when you see your first Cronenberg film, that is the one you always hold closest as being the true (and the best) Cronenberg film. I first watched Scanners aged 10. I didn’t remember anything about it except for that infamous exploding head, but upon re-watching it much later in life I realised that it is an exceptional piece of work and can be easily placed in the same category as Shivers, Rabid, Videodrome and the like. An icily cold and clinically detached film, it fits in well with this group while Cronenberg went on later to direct more touching non-self-penned scripts such as the magnificently involving adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone (1983). A major criticism of Scanners is that Stephen Lack, who plays the lead character - Cameron Vale, shows a real ‘lack’ of acting skills. His performance is dry and wooden while alongside him we are asked to watch pros like the thoroughly watchable Patrick McGoohan and the thoroughly nasty Michael Ironside. Want some advice? Live with it. Scanners, as an assured piece of horror fiction, is worth it.
Scanners kicks off with some unsettling bright green opening titles and even more unsettling music by long-time Cronenberg collaborator Howard Shore. Everything about this opening is constructed to make you feel uneasy before you see any live action whatsoever. Then we see Cameron Vale, a homeless “piece of human junk”, scavenging through litter bins in a mall. When he sits down in a fast food joint and begins munching on someone’s leftovers, he sees an older woman talking to her daughter, referring to him as “disgusting”. Vale then focuses in on her, scanning her as she falls to the floor in a seizure, accompanied by the intensely intrusive electronic soundtrack which signals the torment inside Vale’s mind. As he leaves, nose bleeding, he is chased and captured by men in suits who shoot him with a tranquilliser dart. He wakes up in a huge room to see Dr Paul Ruth (McGoohan), a psychopharmacist who wants him to infiltrate and destroy the underground scanner movement led by the evil Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). Ruth needs Vale because he is an unknown scanner, a complete loner and thus should be able to more successfully infiltrate the Revok-led army of “social misfits”. The only way Ruth can help Vale to control the constant voices inside his head, is to administer an injection of a drug called Efemerol.
Crononeberg then subjects us to his masterclass in understanding where the scanner came from, what it is capable of, and how to stop it. Its one hell of an enjoyable (if intense) lesson, the highlight of course being the famous exploding head scanning session, held by the company Consec (who Dr Paul Ruth works for). When a Frank Oz lookalike scanner requests a volunteer ‘scannee’ from the audience, Revok casually offers his services, sits down beside the scanner like an authentic scanning rookie, and after pulling some interesting facial contortions wills his head to explode in gruesomely gory fashion. At this point in the narrative we are aware of Revok and what he is capable of. Don’t fuck with Revok, basically, because he can explode your head just by thinking about it. Moving on…
Michael Ironside is so fantastic in this role that it makes up for Lack’s acting deficits. Everything about his character implies pure evil albeit it in a slightly camp Blofeld kind of way, in that he wants to bring the world to its knees to be ruled by a superhuman scanner elite. His method? By supplying Efermerol, a drug for pregnant women, through the legitimate company Biocarbon Amalgamate, to various General Practitioners around the country. The babies are then born scanners, and Revok knows exactly where and when the scanners will be born by accessing the RIPE programme – a huge computer database which keeps track of where and when the drug is administered. Its is the RIPE programme, owned and run by Consec, which Vale must destroy before confronting his arch nemesis sibling who went to a better acting school.
Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) becomes Vale’s partner in helping to unravel the truth which eventually brings them to RIPE, Ruth, and a web of corruption involving a nasty Consec boss called Keller, Revok, Consec, and Biocarbon Amalgamate. Through the course of the story we learn that Dr Ruth is Revok and Vale’s father, and invented Efemerol, testing it first on his wife and unborn children, thereby creating the first and most powerful scanners in the world. Everything becomes clear. All that exists post-destruction of RIPE is a head to head battle between these two most powerful scanners and it does not fail to disappoint in all its vein-popping, eye-exploding glory! Not only that, but it treats us to an unexpected and downright unsettling surprise ending.
Unsettling? Yes. Food for thought? Most definitely. But this is David Cronenberg after all – the thinking man’s horror director. While his earlier 70’s efforts such as Shivers and Rabid possessed more of a nasty raw edge, Scanners is more assured, thoughtful and considered as a slice of cerebral cinema, paving the way for the classic Videodrome. Like a delicate narrative tapestry, it weaves together a plot more dense than one should expect from a horror film. What more can you ask for? A sci-fi horror film which in equal parts thrills, shocks, scares and most important of all, makes your brain work to piece together what is a brilliantly developed concept.
If your idea of a great horror flick is plenty of gore and gratuitous nudity then I recommend you watch only the exploding head scene and the final showdown scene, because everything in between will be wasted on you. Or just buy something else.
“We're gonna do this the Scanner way. I'm gonna suck your brain dry!”
Versions Fullscreen Region 2 PAL
Arrow Film Distributors Ltd.
DVD - September 20, 1999
Widescreen Region 1 NTSC
MGM Home Entertainment
DVD - August 28, 2001