Though it's certainly one of the more 'dated' films in the David Cronenberg horror backlog, capturing its period through a number of unfortunate hair choices, computer clean rooms, mannerisms and way cool mall food court and record shop sets, Scanners remains one of my favorites from the director. It's one of the first films in memory to truly put a 'serious' spin on the entire psychic potential of the human race, and in that way it recalls traces of Bester's The Demolished Man or Silverberg's excellent Dying Inside, only with an exploding head to boot...and Michael FUCKING Ironside, in one of his defining roles, before his genius was rationed out to the B-movie circuit by directors and casting agents that simply cannot fathom or begin to utilize his talents.
***WHERE SPOILERS & GRATING SYNTHESIZERS COLLIDE***
You'd think I was joking, especially if you've seen some of the crap the guy has participated in for a mere paycheck, but I'm really not. He's a distinct actor, with a distinct look about him, and one of my favorites. As Daryl Revok, the rogue 'scanner' attempting to breed a new race to dominate mankind in this 1981 sci-fi/horror vehicle, he simply exudes menace, a magnificent demon that at one point drills a hole in his head to release some of the 'pressure' of hearing everyone's thoughts inside him. Opposite Ironside, we have Canadian painter Stephen Lack in a rare film appearance. Lack's bright blue eyes and demeanor seem perfect for the character of Cameron Vale, a vagabond Scanner who is being reserved as a foil for Revok, but the guy's acting does come off a little jilted in spot. Also appearing: Jennifer O'Neill as a female scanner, and Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame (the original, not the shitty remake) as the ponderous Dr. Paul Ruth, who is responsible for the outbreak of these psychic powers.
The plot is pretty simple, and we're not really insulted by some lengthy exposition. Cameron Vale is recruited by Dr. Paul Ruth to track down and defeat Revok, after the latter goes on a killing spree, eliminating a number of agents that work for ConSec, your basic corporation up to no good as you'll find in many sci-fi or cyberpunk staples. Turns out there is a greater conspiracy at work here, and Scanners throws a few minor surprises at us over the course of its 103 minutes, but the real 'horror' of the movie comes in its mere implications. What would happen if people really had these powers? Would they use them for the betterment of all man? Or attempt to destroy and replace all of us 'normals'? I feel that Scanners takes a pretty realistic approach to this, especially when considers the castigation and revenge motivation of its antagonist. Granted, the sequence of events flows along a little too easily for your average mystery based narrative, but it's still pretty cool, for two glaring reasons beyond Ironside's performance:
These would be the score, and the special effects. The score is by Howard Shore, who many of you know from blockbusters like The Lord of the Rings films. But here, he's experimenting with turbulent electric sounds and simplistic synth-waves among more standard fare, and the result here is fucking brilliant, like Kraftwerk or some other primal electronic artist overdosing on Ephemerol (the Scanner-suppressant drug central to the storyline). It may feel very much planted in the late 70s experimentation of tech-savvy Krautrock or progressive rock bands, but it's perfect for the story, the setting, and the effects. Speaking of which, these are superb here, especially the infamous 'exploding head' scene and the end fight between Vale and Revok, which is arguably one of the coolest conflicts where neither opponent does anything but glare at one another. Veins stand out, fire bursts, and eyeballs melt. It's fucking great, and exactly what I would predict a psychic battle might look like!
Scanners is a lot of fun, if you can immerse yourself into its time and place, a sense of perspective that is obviously required of any intelligent moviegoer. It's not perfect, and in retrospect it might not seem particularly scary, until you muse of the possibilities were such an accidental adaptation to occur in our real world species. The music and effects were top notch, and Michael Ironside excels in one of his earlier roles. I would love to have seen his 'method acting' between the various scenes, a Daryl Revok stalking about scaring the shit out of everyone in the cast and crew. However, I must caution the reader that all sequels for this film must be avoided! None of them involve Cronenberg. Scanners II and III are mediocre at best, and the Scanner Cop films are pathetic, without even an ironic entertainment value.
Verdict: Win [8/10]