For a good part of his career, David Cronenberg has been fascinated by secret societies, be it the New Age-y psychotherapist and his patients in The Brood (1979) or the people addicted to an immersive video game in eXistenZ (1999). With Scanners (1981), he explored a small, but growing number of people endowed with mental abilities that allowed them to read other people’s thoughts or literally blow their minds. This is evident in the film’s most iconic scene where a character blows up another’s head. This premise eerily mirrors Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978), but where it was more of a conventional thriller, Scanners incorporated more cerebral ideas as some of Cronenberg’s characters see themselves as the next rung in the evolutionary ladder.
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) leads a vagabond lifestyle and is kidnapped and brought to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) who works for a mysterious corporation called ConSec. He tells Vale that he is a “scanner”, someone with telepathic abilities and proceeds to teach him how to use his powers. Ruth soon finds himself at odds with Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), head of security at ConSec and who is secretly in cahoots with Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), the leader of an underground group of scanners. Ruth sends Vale to infiltrate Revok’s group and the film builds to an inevitable confrontation between the two powerful scanners.
Stephen Lack, who came from a performance artist background, delivers a wonderfully idiosyncratic performance as Vale, a man who is initially uncomfortable in his own skin, but gradually becomes more confident as he learns how to control his abilities. In one of his career-defining roles, Michael Ironside is excellent as the malevolent Revok who sees himself as a Che Guevara-type figure. Lack and Ironside’s contrasting acting styles compliment their adversarial characters nicely.
Scanners was part of a fantastic run of early films that Cronenberg wrote and directed himself as he explored the dark intersection where the science fiction and horror genres converged. The success of this film spawned two lackluster sequels that Cronenberg wisely had no involvement in. Unlike The Fury, Scanners goes into much more detail about how these mental abilities work and how they can be harnessed as evident in a scene where Ruth teaches Vale how to accelerate a man’s heartbeat, almost killing him. Cronenberg goes further than simply pitting good scanners vs. bad, but also touching upon the notion that they may be the next step in human evolution.