The intriguing plot of the film “Scanners” centers around a group of individuals known by the same name as the title of the film, and who have extraordinary mental powers. Not only can they hear people’s thoughts, but they can also, when they choose, enter someone’s mind and make that person think and do anything they want, they can even go so far as to have the person kill themselves. Where did these beings come from? Were they born with the ability or was it genetic engineering that gave them their powers? By the film’s conclusion those two questions and a good deal more will be answered. Written and directed by BAFTA nominated David Cronenberg (Eastern Promises), “Scanners” was released to American theaters on January 14, 1981. The 103 minute film is a combination of the horror and science-fiction genres.
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is one such scanner. His powers are demonstrated in the opening minutes of the film, but the viewer can also discern that, far from being a gift, his abilities cause him to lead a tormented life. This is because he does not possess the ability to control his powers. While Cameron is eating food off a discarded tray in a shopping center, two women are making unflattering remarks about him. Cameron doesn’t take kindly to the women’s remarks, so he causes one of them to have a violent seizure. His actions, while unnoticed by the rest of the mall’s patrons, are observed by two men who know what Cameron is, and have been tasked to bring him in. A short lived chase ensues and Cameron is shot with a tranquilizer dart. When he wakes up in an unfamiliar location, he has been cleaned, is wearing pajamas, and is strapped to a bed.
Cameron has been captured by men who work for a corporation known as ConSec. The head of the scanner program, Dr. Paul Ruth, is played in an understated way by BAFTA and Emmy winning actor, Patrick McGoohan (Columbo). The doctor is an individual who has a duel personality: one is that of the cold, clinical scientist; the other is a father figure. As it turns out, Dr. Ruth is the only fatherly presence Cameron has ever known. Vale is informed that he is one of only 237 individuals on Earth, who possess his unique abilities. Dr. Ruth wants to train Cameron, not only to be able to harness his powers, but to utilize his abilities in order to take down the most powerful of all scanners, Darryl Revok.
Michael Ironside (V) convincingly portrays the broody, villainous Revok, who sports a self-inflicted scar in the middle of his forehead. Ironside brings an intensity to the character that straddles the line between intellect and psychosis. Revok is introduced to the viewer early on in the film. During a presentation by ConSec to demonstrate the scanners’ powers to a select group of people, Revok volunteers to allow a fellow scanner (Louie Del Grande) to demonstrate his abilities to those assembled. What happens instead, is that Revok causes the other scanner’s head to explode. ConSec security manages to subdue Revok. While in the process of transporting him to another location, he further demonstrates to the viewer more of his abilities by taking out every member of the security detail. (As an aside, the exploding head scene, which is the most famous from the film, was done by filling a latex head with dog and rabbit food. Afterward a member of the crew stood behind the head, and fired a 12-gauge shotgun causing the explosion).
While the majority of those at ConSec want to end Revok’s existence, their corrupt head of security, Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), is secretly working with Revok to help destroy the company from within. At the start of the film, after the incident with Revok, he recommends to the board of directors, that they shut down the ‘scanner program.’ The only thing that saves the program from being discarded is the recent capture of Cameron.
One of the first things Dr. Ruth does to help Cameron is inject him with a drug called Ephemeral. This drug, when injected into a scanner, acts as a sedative and silences the constant voices in a scanner’s head. Afterward, Dr. Ruth begins Cameron’s training. The scenes involving the training don’t take up much screen time. Overall, there is very little filler during any part of the film.
Initially, with not very much information to go on, Cameron seeks out another scanner; a deeply disturbed artist, Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman). While searching for Revok, Cameron also comes across an underground group of peaceful scanners, led by Jennifer O’ Neill’s character, Kim Obrist. Unfortunately, Revok does not like those who are unwilling to join him in his quest to take over, so he sends a hit squad to kill the members of Obrist’s group.
Through a series of events, Cameron and Kim, are led to a factory which, as it turns out, is run by Revok. The factory produces the drug, ephemeral, the same drug that was given to Cameron to silence the voices in his head. The ephemeral is being produced under the auspices of something called ‘The Ripe’ program, and is being shipped to ConSec. Armed with this information, Cameron places a phone call to Dr. Ruth, indicating, that he wants to come in, and that he has an informant from Revok’s organization who is willing to talk. Dr. Ruth makes the necessary arrangements to have Cameron and Kim brought safely to ConSec headquarters, but they are hardly safe; in fact they are heading into a trap arranged by Keller.
When Vale and Obrist arrive, Keller allows Dr. Ruth to interview Cameron. He is insistent, however, on interrogating Kim. He informs the doctor that if he has a problem with his actions he can take it up with the board, knowing full well, that by the time any sort of decision was made, it would be too late. Keller intends to find out exactly what Obrist knows and then execute her.
The film does have its detractors who are quick to point out flaws in the movie. For example, Stephen Lack’s wooden performance as the leading man. Lack was not a trained actor, his profession was that of a painter, and it does show. The rest of the cast, however, give spot on performances and the story held my attention throughout, which made overlooking Lack’s performance an easy thing to do. Some have also found portions of the dialogue to be too expositional, as well as some of the scenes to be overly contrived. Again, I take the movie in the context of that of a low-budget, science-fiction and horror film, from a director who was still in the early stages of his career.
The film, never ceases to entertain, and minus the presence of the dated technology showcased throughout, it holds up well. The fact, that for the most part, the film was met with critical praise and did achieve commercial success, means that the overall positives of the film, outweigh any of the negatives. The real strength of this film relies on its story, the direction, and the special effects. Dick Smith, who created the effects for the film, won The Saturn Award at the 1981 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films, USA for Best Make-Up. Credit must also be given to Howard Shore’s score, which perfectly accompanies what is being shown on screen, and, never fails to help add to the tension.
What will happen to Cameron and Kim, once they arrive at ConSec? Will Keller succeed in killing an unsuspecting Kim? Does she escape and inform Cameron and Dr. Ruth that Keller is really one of Revok’s pawns in his quest for world domination? Will the origin of Darryl Revok be revealed? Do we as viewers find out why he has gone rogue and decided to use his abilities for evil, as opposed to helping make the world a safer place? What is Revok’s ultimate goal when it comes to the ephemeral drug? “Scanners” takes the viewer on an interesting journey, where all of those questions will be answered. I should caution those of you who have not yet seen the film, but are interested in doing so, that while the exploding head scene is something which is widely known, even amongst film fans who do not consider themselves connoisseurs of the horror genre, it happens within the first ten minutes of the movie. Don’t go into watching the film, thinking that you are going to be viewing an array of special effects of that caliber because you will be sadly disappointed.