Best remembered for the iconic scene of an exploding head, courtesy of make up legend Dick Smith, Scanners has a fascinating central idea but is hampered by a wooden lead actor and a plodding, sometimes messy script which fails to make the characters as interesting as the premise.
Scanners are people with extraordinary X-Men style psychic powers, able to join with, read and control the minds of others, with sometimes terrible side effects, such as in the previously described head explosion. One of them, Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has clearly let that power go to his head as he is hell-bent on world domination using Scanners loyal to him. The mysterious Dr Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) wants to stop him, using both the resources of his employers, the shady ConSec Corporation, and one Scanner, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) who has not fallen under the spell of Revok. But as the bodies pile up, so do the questions, as nobody seems to be who they say they are.
Cronenberg made Scanners during the first phase of his career, a phase that also included Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, and out of this astonishing, disturbing and bloody body of work, Scanners is easily the weakest. At this stage of his career as a filmmaker, Cronenberg had never been one for involving human drama, preferring to use his characters primarily as a means to explore themes and ideas. In this respect Scanners is no different, but what those other films all had was a little something extra.
With Shivers and Rabid it is a lurid energy, betraying their exploitation film roots. The Brood had a human interest story, and for all the blood and perverse scenes still feels like a heartfelt and personal work. Scanners has none of these, and after the initial shock of the exploding head, Cronenberg moves away from the unique sexually charged body horror of his other earlier work towards a more conventional sci-fi / spy genre, crossover film, with evil scientists, car chases and guns. Disappointingly, the exploding head does not occur again, and, coupled with some clunky scenes of expositional dialogue, and an odd departure of one main character, it rather leaves the impression that not all the kinks and loose ends in the script had been ironed out before filming commenced. Perhaps the most notable missing element, certainly one I found surprising for a Cronenberg film, is sex, both in terms of sexual chemistry between the leads and any kind of sexual desire in any of the characters.
The other big liability is the actor in the main role, and while Stephen Lack may have surprising large blue eyes that make for a memorable face, here his delivery is stiff and wooden, sometimes to the point of sucking the life out of a scene. Scanners does have two aces in the cast, Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside. McGoohan brings gravitas and believability to the character of Dr Ruth, while Ironside gives Revok a charismatic unpredictable menace.
Smith's excellent make up skills make a comeback in the explosive finale between Vale and Revok, and also worth a mention is Howard Shore's score, a mix of dramatic sweeping strings and cold eerie synths that blend seamlessly with the images on the screen.