Review: Scanners (1981) – or – I’ve got a pounding headache

Scanners reviewScanners may be best known for its exploding head sequence, but it’s also got plenty of other things going for it. There’s a fantastic performance from Michael Ironside, even more great effects beyond an exploding head, and a story that continues with David Cronenberg’s odd fascination with doctors who tend to go a little too far.

The film stars Stephen Lack as Cameron Vale, a derelict who has extraordinary telekinetic powers. It’s kept him from building any sort of life, as he has difficulty drowning out the thoughts of people around him. After almost killing a woman in a shopping mall, he’s apprehended by two men who take him to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan). Ruth explains that Cameron is a Scanner, and claims that he can help Cameron control his powers, but in return, Cameron must infiltrate and destroy a group of rogue Scanners led by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). Cameron agrees, but there’s more going on than Dr. Ruth trying to be helpful, and when Cameron finally finds out the truth, will he still stop Darryl, or will he join their cause?

Written and directed by David Cronenberg, Scanners is certainly a film that fits well into his style at the time. Released a few years after The Brood and Rabid, Cronenberg’s obsession with disease, doctors screwing around with things they shouldn’t, and traumatic injuries to the body are all here. There is something that feels lacking though. The story just doesn’t feel quite as strong and strange as previous efforts. There’s a few good twists, but they’re more of the soap opera variety and not the really out there kind of stuff Cronenberg had previously been doing.

It doesn’t take much away from the power of Scanners, but it does leave it feeling a little more like a showcase for gory effects. Thanks to Michael Ironside, it doesn’t matter if the story may be lacking. His performance as the villainous Revok is outstanding to watch, and he’s the one character who actually gets a little bit more attention. His cause may not be as horrible as it seems at first, giving the character some layers that are missing from everybody else around him.

The fact that this film is probably best remembered for the exploding head scene, which I was surprised to see happens quite early in the film, shows one of the major reasons people seek out Scanners. It’s quite grotesque at moments, and the exploding head – while a wonderful effect – is actually just a small taste of the gore to come. Bulging, bleeding veins on people’s faces show up, eyeballs start popping, and the final showdown winds up leaving charred corpses, blood, and gooey gore everywhere.

Although Cronenberg rarely shied away from gore like this in his early career, Scanners feels like it has some of the more gruesome moments of his career. It wouldn’t be long before Videodrome and The Fly came along to overshadow this film, but there’s still something special about this one. It also feels a little overlooked. Even I hadn’t seen this film until recently, despite having watched Cronenberg’s other genre work multiple times. It’s definitely one that should be included in an evening of gory Cronenberg films.

Is Scanners Worth Watching?

Even though it does lack a little of the story that Cronenberg’s other films have, this is still a great addition to his early work. Horror fans won’t be disappointed with all the gory effects, so this will always be a great addition to a night of horror.

Scanners Trailer

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