in Shocktober

Scanners (1981)

Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a homeless man barely keeping himself alive. He sneaks around a mall food court, stealing scraps from abandoned trays. When he takes a seat to eat his pitiful meal, he overhears a woman call him disgusting. In that instant, his attention shifts to her and she collapses in terrible pain. Cameron runs, sparing the woman’s life, but he’s pursued by trenchcoated goons. Just when it looks like he’s about to escape, he’s tranquilized. He is awakened by a scientist called Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who explains to Cameron that he is a “scanner” a psychic with the powers of telepathy and telekinesis!

Needless to say, I was hooked by Scanners from the get-go. It didn’t let me down, either, as the movie followed this introduction with its most famous scene. A private security firm called ConSec is hosting powerful men from all over North America for a demonstration of the powers of scanners. The scanner doing the demonstration asks for a volunteers, and, when no one steps forward at first, a man way in the back (Michael Ironsides) raises his hand. That man comes down and the scanner starts to read his mind, only it goes wrong immediately and he looks incredibly uncomfortable for a few seconds. Then his head explodes.

The man that killed the scanner is revealed to be Darryl Revok, a powerful, rebellious scanner with ambitions for world domination. ConSec considers shuttering their scanner program after this public embarrassment, but Dr. Ruth speaks up and suggests they send Cameron to find Revok and they agree. But before Cameron can go, Dr. Ruth teaches him how to control his powers, as well as how to use the drug called “ephemerol” which inhibits scanner powers. With Cameron as prepared as he can be, the chase is on.

There’s no getting around the fact that Scanners is mostly about intense shots of people staring at each other, followed by over the tops special effects of one of them dying. This is a David Cronenberg film, after all, the man knows how to lean into the grotesque. That said, if you’re interested by the concept of people killing each other with their minds, I can’t imagine being disappointed by this movie. It starts with the assumption that people will use these powers to spy and kill and goes from there, like a super dark take on the X-Men.

I would guess that the most divisive aspect of Scanners would be its score, which was composed by Howard Shore. Personally, I enjoyed it’s over-the-top, synthy sound and oppressive presence, but I could imagine other people finding it off-putting. But that also describes Cronenberg’s films, doesn’t it? Either you’ll be feeling them or you’ll think they’re obscene and gross. Regardless, and in conclusion, here’s that scene of the head exploding, an important contribution to cinema if there’s ever been one: