The premise is extremely interesting. Scanners takes place in a world where a special group of people, called “Scanners” can read minds and cause harm to them using telekinesis. The movie opens with a bang (quite literally), in the famous “exploding head” scene which occurs within the first 10 minutes. A scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) makes a man’s head explode using his powers early on in the film, and it is so shocking it instantly draws you in. We also meet our hero, another man with the gift named Cameron Vale, played by Stephen Lack. If you’ve never heard of Stephen Lack, it is probably for good reason: he is not a trained actor and it shows.
Cameron is a man who does not understand his powers, and can’t control them. He leads a tormented existence as he constantly hears the thoughts of everyone around him and can’t tune them out. He accidentally causes pain to people because of his lack of control. He is approached by a psychologist, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who attempts to help Cameron learn to use his powers in a way that will benefit mankind. Ruth informs Cameron that he is basically the only hope for the forces of good as Revok is in control of most of the other scanners. There exists an underground world of scanners who are attempting to take control of the world using their powers. Vale also learns of a small group of scanners, led by Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) who attempt to resist Revok and thwart his plans.
The film came at an interesting time for Cronenberg. His filmmaking ability was obvious by this time, but it was still somewhat of a raw and unpolished talent. His film right before Scanners was The Brood, an effective but flawed horror film. After this film he would go on to direct several excellent films in a row, including Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly and Dead Ringers. This film is better than The Brood but not as good as his subsequent efforts. His trademark style and fantastic storytelling ability were clearly there, but what set his next films apart were great performances.
Videodrome had James Woods, The Dead Zone had Christopher Walken, The Fly had a surprisingly excellent career best performance from Jeff Goldblum, and Dead Ringers had Jeremy Irons. Stephen Lack is not a trained actor and while sometimes untrained actors can give great natural performances, this one falls very flat. His line delivery is always in the same tone of voice, and he always has a blank facial expression. Some characters are written to display a lack of emotion, but in this film that doesn’t work. It would be so much better if we got the sense of how confused and scared Vale is, and how naïve and simple he is. We never get the sense of Vale being tormented by his psychic abilities and we never get the sense that his character changes or grows over the course of the film because he is constantly acting the same.
Now that the main criticism has been touched upon, it is important to note how great the rest of the film is. Patrick McGoohan as Dr. Ruth shows how to give a proper understated performance, and while his character doesn’t show a lot of emotion either, it works perfectly in this case because he is supposed to be the level-headed and wise expert. Michael Ironside is just about perfect as Darryl Revok, a man who we constantly sense is extremely intelligent but also extremely dangerous. His line delivery comes off as man who is constantly on the thin line between genius and insanity. It would be quite easy for his character to be over the top and cartoonish, but somehow he is believable. Ironside also has great screen presence and every moment he is on screen is intense. Jennifer O’Neill outshines Lack clearly in all of their scenes together, and it almost works to a disadvantage because we are constantly reminded of Lack’s lack (pun intended) of acting ability.
The real strengths of this film lie within the story, the direction, and the special effects. The plot never fails to be interesting, and Cronenberg is a master storyteller. The idea of a whole community of psychics waging war makes for a lot of suspense, and while the main character fails to be interesting, everything around him is consistently engaging enough to never be boring. There is a lot of talking but the subject is unique and the dialogue is smartly written, and the film does an excellent job of building towards the shocking, heavy-hitting moments. There is not a lot of wasted time in this film either, almost every scene and line of dialogue furthers the plot in some way. In terms of story structure, it would be hard to do much better.
This is a good film to watch as an example of a master of horror and suspense early in his career, starting to perfect his craft. The signs of Cronenberg’s future status as a horror icon are clearly there but not yet fully developed. It may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly an entertaining watch throughout. It is scary because of the possibilities, the story allows for almost anything to happen so the viewer is never sure what to expect next. The biggest drawback is the lack of a truly multi-dimensional main character, and this film would be much better if we could sympathize with Cameron more and understand his pain and confusion. Luckily Cronenberg would learn very well from his casting mistake and become one of the very best at directing horror film acting. For major Cronenberg enthusiasts this is required viewing. For the casual everyday horror fan, this is a worthwhile watch if you have some time and are looking for something unique and different.