David Cronenberg's movies are an acquired taste. That's kind of appropriate because Cronenberg's movies are often about acquired tastes like the uncontrollable desire to have sex in the smoldering wreckage of a horrific car crash, for instance. And, like with any festish, once you're hooked, you're hooked. So beware before diving into Scanners, one of his really Cronenbergian movies. Know what you are getting into, that being, some seriously heady shit.
The title refers to a group of about 300 humans who have developed psychic abilities. They can read people thoughts or, if they get really aggressive, can use their powers to control people's minds or actions. The film is sort of notorious for a scene where one scanner attempts to demonstrate his powers on a volunteer from an audience, but he unwittingly selects Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) from the crowd. Revok is, in fact, an incredibly powerful scanner and he uses the opportunity to show what a scanner can really do, by blowing up the other dude's head in front of a live audience. ("Heady shit," get it? I know, terrible.)
Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a corporate scientist with an interest in scanners, decides that Revok is too dangerous to live and so he recruits another scanner named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) to go undercover in the scanner underground, sniff out Revok, and kill him. It is interesting that there are no governments involved in Dr. Ruth's various experiments only giant faceless conglomerates with names like Biocarbon Amalgamate, something that happens a lot in movies nowadays, but feels pretty prescient for 1981.
Scanners isn't Cronenberg's first film by any stretch of the imagination he'd already worked for years in television, and made The Brood and his ode to stock car racing, Fast Company but there is an agreeable roughness to the material and its presentation. The story isn't particularly polished and the actors are fairly dreadful (except Ironside, who even at this tender age is already a magnificent movie badass), but the ideas are wild and the visuals are grotesque in the best sense of the word. Clearly, he was working free of gatekeepers and filters. There is a sense that a lot of this movie was downloaded straight from Cronenberg's subconscious even the names have weird echoes of movie terminology and dream logic. The hero is Cameron, which sounds like camera; a key doctor in the film is named Frane, which sounds like Frame. Don't ask me how Revok fits in. Sounds like havoc?
I love Cronenberg's incredibly bleak perspective on the world. The scanners concept is straight out of a comic book; you could mistake the synopsis of this movie with any number of popular series about beings born with extraordinary gifts beyond the comprehension of mortal man (X-Men springs immediately to mind). But Cronenberg turns this power fantasy into a nightmare. Being a scanner is no great shake even under optimal circumstances you're going to pop a few blood vessels while scanning and, if you're not too careful, you could lose an eyeball or the top of your skull. And those things are difficult to fix. In Cronenberg's verson, there are no superheroes, just super burdens (an idea he returned to recently in the marvelous A History of Violence).
So yeah: gruesome visuals, borderline silly dialogue ("We're gonna do this the scanner way!" Ironside belches before a confrontation that visibly swells the vains in his forehead) and total Canadian awesomeness. If you don't love the Cronenberg, if you haven't acquired the taste yet, I suggest you expand your palette and take the plunge.