Sucking Your Brain Dry – The Scanners Films

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Exploding heads, psychic terrorism and body horror in the David Cronenberg-created science fiction series.

Given the subsequent direction his career took, it’s hard to imagine now that Scanners seemed, in 1981, to be the first step into the mainstream for David Cronenberg. But at the time, it very much did. Coming hard on the heels of three visceral, bloody and increasingly personal horror movies, this bigger budget sci-fi action film felt like a step away from the extreme and into the more commercial, even if it did include an exploding head. It also marked a return to the obsessions of Cronenberg’s two underground movies, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, with it’s psy-wars theme offering a variation on the body horror that so defined his work.

The film tells the story of a new strain of humanity which has emerged thanks to the side effects of a drug used by pregnant women (a none-too-subtle reference to thalidomide). Around the world, there are 237 of these Scanners, who possess powerful telepathic abilities and who are being sought out by ConSec, the shady corporation who manufactured the drug on the one hand and radical terrorist Scanner groups on the other. Caught in the the middle of this battle is Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack),a highly powerful yet directionless Scanner who is recruited by  ConSec to track down the renegade telepaths and their leader Darryl Revok (Michael ironside).

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Scanners was a notoriously chaotic production, though you’d never guess by watching it – a few plot holes and continuity issues aside. Cronenberg keeps the action moving, with plenty of car crashes, explosions and shoot outs showing that he was more than capable of handling action scenes (his non-horror film Fast Company in 1978 was probably a good learning ground for this), while still giving his story a high level of intelligence. The film is genuinely thrilling, and has several spectacular set pieces. The most spectacular, of course, is the infamous exploding head – one of the most iconic movie scenes ever shot, I would argue, and one that still looks impressively realistic and gruesome even today. If you want a scene to show why physical effects are so much better than CGI, this is it. The final scanner battle between Vale and Revok is also impressive – reshot after the original finale proved ineffective, it mixes gore and intensity to provide a suitably explosive climax to the film. A pity then that the last scene falls rather flat.

The film is both helped and hindered by the cast. The supporting performers are great – Ironside and McGoohan bring a level of intensity to their roles, and are compulsively watchable, dominating every scene they appear in. They are helped in this by Lack though, who is pretty terrible. An artist dabbling in film, Lack delivers his dialogue entirely flatly apart from a couple of moments where he seems to be acting as a role model for The Room‘s Tommy Wiseau. A pity then that he is most of the film’s scenes. Scanners is ultimately too good for him to wreck, but he comes close to doing so at times.

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Lack’s poor performance aside, Scanners holds up remarkably well – rather better than a lot of its contemporaries. And at the time of release, it was a minor sensation, not least because of the spectacular exploding head that – in varying levels of gruesomeness – was reproduced in many magazines (my local cinema even had a cut out magazine page featuring the image taped to the front door while screening the film, clearly knowing what would pull in the crowds). In Britain, where Cronenberg had always received a sympatheic hearing from the censors, the film passed uncut even though a much less graphic exploding head had been cut from Dawn of the Dead just a year before. The film made a lot of money, by low budget indie standards, and would be massively poplar on home video.

Inevitably, the success of Scanners made follow-ups seem inevitable. Cronenberg was briefly involved in an ill-fated idea of turning the film into a TV series in the early 1980s – a project that always seemed doomed to failure without overly sanitising the project. A couple of years later, he had moved on, and the project seemed a thing of the past – in the early 1980s, sequels to minor hits were not as guaranteed as they are now, and the straight-to-video market was only just beginning to establish itself. So it’s less surprising, in retrospect, that it took a decade for the series to be revived.

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Scanners II: The New Order appeared in 1991, and retold the original film in a less cerebral, more action-thriller based format. The film does present a neat twist on the original format, having the dysfunctional scanners being exploited by a right-wing police chief, who uses them to dish out vigilante justice. There are some nice touches dealing with the addictive nature of the drugs used to control the telepaths too, and some good gore set-pieces. The lead performances are passable – certainly no worse than Stephen Lack’s in the first film – and it’s likely that if you were unaware of the original Scanners, you might well find this an impressively original movie.

As well as aping the first film’s broad story, Scanners II also throws in another exploding head, taking a dramatic image from the original film and turning it into a thematic point – the implication being that you can’t have a Scanners film without an exploding head. Obviously made with one eye on the prospect of further sequels, French director Christian Duguay – making his feature film debut -handles the material well, and although critics were generally dismissive, the target audience were generally happy with the film, making a third installment inevitable.

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Although it had taken a decade for the first Scanners sequel to appear, this third installment arrived within twelve months of its predecessor, milking the market while it was hot in true video franchise style. However, stylistically, Scanners III: The Takeover is light years removed from the first two films, presumably because the lack of any continuing characters meant that each film had to re-establish itself within the context of audience expectations for a film called ‘Scanners’. While Scanners 2 had more or less followed the template laid down by the original film, this second sequel throws caution – along with common sense, good taste and any sense of restraint – to the wind and in place of an intelligent science fiction thriller offers up a spectacularly cheesy exploitation movie.

Opening up with a title scroll which informs us that Scanners have been able to pass their powers down through generations – apparently having been able to raise children regardless of their previously explored social dysfunction. In fact, the film opens up with a party where Scanner guests are encouraged to show their powers as a party trick –  Times have indeed changed for the social misfits! But when one such trick goes badly wrong and results  in a death, the Scanner responsible heads off to a monastery in Tibet to meditate and learn self-control. Meanwhile, his Scanner sister is experiencing headaches and agrees to try an experimental new drug which it is hoped will help telepaths deal with the side effects of their condition. However, the drug has a curious side effect itself, turning Helena into a power-crazed megalomaniac who immediately hatches a plan to have Scanners under her control take over the world.

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It must be said that by all commonly accepted standards, Scanners III is rubbish. Any abilities that Christian Dugauy showed on the previous film are lost here as the film  flounders under a mish-mash of awful dialogue, ludicrous over-acting and sub-standard special effects. The fact that it took three writers is frankly astonishing.

But… once you accept that this is not going to be a cerebral experience, Scanners III is unquestionably entertaining. Okay, so it’s trash… but it’s lively trash, and the tacky gore effects (yes, there’s an exploding head!), abundance of cleavage and entirely gratuitous nudity and wild performances from most of the cast (the climatic Scanner battle is a real treat) combine to ensure that this is a genuine six-pack party classic. Special mention must go to Liliana Komorowska who is suitably sexy and thoroughly villainous as she unleashes her evil plan, vamping it up in a variety of ridiculous outfits. Her character seems to have strolled in from a Sixties Eurotrash superhero film, and is all the better for it.

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The Scanners franchise didn’t end here – the Scanner Cop series began in 1994, and the issue of whether these are additional sequels or a spin-off is a rather fudged one, depending on whether or not you call the next film Scanner Cop 2 or Scanners: The Showdown, the alternative titles apparently depending on just how popular Scanner Cop was in a specific territory. Both films star Daniel Quinn as the titular character, a cop with Scanner powers, but we’d argue that they exist as a side-project of the movie trilogy rather than direct sequels. Perhaps that’s just in order to avoid having to watch them again.

Of course, the Scanners project remains attractive to filmmakers – a remake of the original film was announced in 2007, to be directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, though the film seems to have stalled – Bousman has said that he was only going to make the film with Cronenberg’s approval, and that approval wasn’t forthcoming (though you’d think that after the sequels and spin-offs, Cronenberg would’ve been glad to have the series given a shot in the arm from a solid genre filmaker).

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By 2011, the project had once again evolved into a TV series, where Scanners could arguably now shine, given the censorial relaxations on broadcasters in recent years. Both the remake and the TV series were mooted by The Weinstein Compnay and Dimension Pictures, and they’ve had more pressing issues to deal with in recent years. In 2017, Media Res and Bron Studios won a bidding war for the Scanners rights, again with a TV series in mind. That project too seems to have stalled, though of course it may be in pre-production and could well be announced the minute we publish this.

Scanners certainly lends itself to a continuing series – we’re surprised that there hasn’t been a comic book yet. Perhaps the sequels diminished the project for many, or perhaps – and it seems ludicrous saying this – the franchise just isn’t very well known these days. Cronenberg has long left his body horror days behind, and although a big deal in 1980 amongst horror fans, the original film is still pretty obscure by mainstream standards. In a world where many self-described movie fans won’t watch anything made before 1990, and rarely explore the outer fringes of genre cinema (and as a low budget franchise, the Scanners series really is on the outer fringes for many under-thirties who only care about big budget blockbusters), the film probably has less name recognition than we might think. After several remakes of (relatively) obscure 1970s genre films have failed to set the box office on fire, maybe there is less appetite to remake these films and more interest in rebooting films from a decade ago. A pity, as a well-crafted Scanners TV show might well be just the thing for these paranoid times.

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DAVID FLINT

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One comment

  1. I’ve even found my knowledge of pre-millennial movies sneered at, as though I’m an idiot for watching anything which hasn’t been extruded from Disney’s butthole. What would these morons say if they knew I often sit down to watch films released decades before I was born..?

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