Canadian director, David Cronenberg, has a truly eclectic filmography. Though his films cross genres, Cronenberg has largely staked out his fame in horror and science fiction with movies like Scanners. Today, he is synonymous with ‘body horror’. Academic Philip Brophy coined the term, body horror, in an article entitled Horrality – The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films. Briefly, it refers to movies that focus on graphic transformations, violations, or destruction of the. Film critics hail Cronenberg as one of the originators of the subgenre.
On January 16, 1981, Cronenberg released Scanners, his most conventional effort to date. Often remembered for one scene, Scanners has age remarkably well in spite of its low budget. Similar to the best science fiction stories, Cronenberg’s ideas in Scanners have arguably become more interesting with time. For our first edition of The Vault for 2019, I take a closer look at Scanners
Cronenberg’s Most Conventional Story
Upon its release in 1981, Scanners represented Cronenberg’s most conventional movie. Prior to 1980, Cronenberg’s movies including Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, were irreverent and transgressive stories that defied categorization. Though Scanners is soaked in the same low-budget atmosphere as those early entries, it represented a departure for the director.
Yet Cronenberg’s movie has several interesting threads that can be interpreted in a number of ways.
Science fiction, with a bit of mystery thrown in for good measure, Scanners sets its story in a hypothetical timeline where powerful telekinetic people , or ‘scanners’, exist. Private security firm ConSec searchers for and trains ‘scanners’ for their own purposes. But renegade ‘scanner’ Revok is assembling a private army of scanners for his own nefarious purposes. With its elements of espionage, on the surface, Scanners seems like a straightforward story. Yet Cronenberg’s movie has several interesting threads that can be interpreted in a number of ways.
Scanners Challenges With Interesting Themes
Where Scanners diverges from the conventional is with its introduction of the drug, ephemerol. Yes, there’s some convenient story-telling in the movie. But the introduction of a drug originally intended as a tranquilizer for pregnant women that inadvertently creates ‘scanners’ immediately draws parallels to the thalidomide tragedy. However, Cronenberg adds a wrinkle by blurring the lines between ‘good’ and bad’.
In a post-9/11 world, with concerns over biometrics, security, and privatization, Scanners takes on new meaning.
On one hand, Michael Ironside’s ‘Revok’ is clearly the major antagonist. His plan to use ephemerol to create an army of ‘scanners’ could be an Austin Powers’ story. Maybe the idea of a private security firm using psychics as ‘bio-weapons’ didn’t raise eyebrows in 1981. In a post-9/11 world, with rising concerns over biometrics, security, and privatization, Scanners takes on new meaning. Even the film’s line, ‘We’ve won’ feels less like a triumphant conclusion than skepticism. Recall that the movie’s protagonist, Cameron Vale, works for a large private security firm that’s just eliminated any competition.
Nothing To Lose Your Head Over
As previously mentioned, Cronenberg and body horror go hand in hand. Not surprisingly then, horror fans remember Scanners for one scene. I grew up in the 1980’s and the ‘head-exploding’ scene is an absolute highlight. Even after over 30 years, it’s a special effect that holds up. There are few comparable horror moments. Arguably, Tom Savini’s ‘head-exploding’ effect in Maniac comes to mind. But there’s not much else that compares.
Scanners Deserves Re-Interpretation Among Horror Fans
Ultimately, Scanners typically gets lost among the shuffle of Cronenberg’s work. To a large extent, its legacy has largely been tied to one scene. Yet many of the themes Cronenberg explored have only become relevant over time. There’s a certain level of ambiguity in the movie around its heroes, villains, and motivations. In spite of its occasional simplistic story-telling, Scanners boasts some interesting ambiguitity and challenging morality worthy of some critical re-interpretation.