All October long, we’re celebrating HORROR with a series of retrospectives on our favorite scary movies. Welcome to A Very Porkchop Halloween!
Written By: François-Noël Vanasse
“My art keeps me sane”
Growing up, the films of David Cronenberg were always on the shelf. As a budding cinephile I was attracted to more recent works, but my gaze often lingered on the various special editions of his films; occasionally a friend would visit and urge us to gawk in befuddlement at the trippy imagery of Naked Lunch (1991). A growing understanding of my own Canadian identity drew me into Cronenberg’s works. Videodrome (1983) and eXistenZ (1999) exist in my brain like the little people Revok tried to drill out of his own forehead.
Everyone knows about the film with the exploding head, but there’s more to Scanners (1981) than that infamous special effect. 36 years later, this film is full of of treats for fans. Michael Ironside is a veteran method actor and a genre staple across film and television who appears here in one of his earliest starring roles as the villainous Darryl Revok. Opposite him is a powerful performance by former Danger Man (1960) and Prisoner (1967) Patrick McGoohan who gives yet another commanding performance as the enigmatic Dr. Paul Ruth. Our Hero and Heroine are the little known Canadian actor Stephen Lack as Cameron Vale and Brazilian-American CoverGirl model Jennifer O’Neill as Kim Obrist. Rounding out the cast are the shady businessman Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), the shut-in artist Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), and Louis Del Grande as the unnamed ConSec Scanner whose head blows up.
Scanners was filmed on a ridiculous budget and schedule, with incomplete scripts and without shoot locations. The near lack of built sets (filmed mostly around Montréal, Québec, Canada) and the Canadian-centric cast adds an otherworldly feel that furthers the film’s sense of weird creepiness. The over-pronounced t’s and masked French-accents of many of the Canadian actors are unusual in English-language cinema. The bilingual signage and the combination of Montréal architecture with Toronto’s metro system serves to create a city that doesn’t exist. Like the metropolis in the Matrix movies (really Sydney, Australia) the world of Scanners is at once futuristic and stuck in the late 20th Century.
The film begins with a vagrant (Lack) walking through a food court scrounging bites off abandoned trays when he’s snobbishly gossiped about by two ladies seated nearby. As he focuses on one of them she convulses into a seizure. The vagrant, Cameron, is approached and chased by men in trench coats who take him down with tranquilizer darts. He awakens in some sort of warehouse where he’s attended to by Dr. Ruth (McGoohan). Dr. Ruth explains that Cameron was born with powerful psychic abilities and is something called a “Scanner”. Ruth teaches Cameron how to suppress and harness these powers with the use of a drug called Ephemerol. It’s a clear substance injected with a needle making it look identical to prescription insulin vials. Meanwhile ConSec, Dr. Ruth’s employer, is having their Scanner give a demonstration at a private conference of industry professionals. The conference is interrupted by an assassin (Ironside) who volunteers to be scanned only to turn the tables on the man scanning him and causes the man’s head to literally explode.
Dr. Ruth believes that this assassin, whom he identifies as Revok thanks to the self-inflicted trepanation scar on his forehead, is the leader of an underground network of Scanners with destructive ambitions. Fearing that this network has been assimilating or murdering unaffiliated Scanners (there are a fixed number of known Scanners, about 236 in total), Dr. Ruth decides to send Cameron undercover to make contact with and infiltrate Revok’s group. Cameron makes his way to an art gallery selling the works of known scanner Benjamin Pierce (Silverman). He scans the location of Pierce’s cabin from the gallery owner and is himself scanned by an unknown woman (O’Neill). Cameron’s conversation with Pierce is interrupted by an armed assault of Revok’s goons who mortally wound Pierce but are all simultaneously defeated by Cameron’s psychic powers. Pierce’s dying thoughts are for Cameron to track down someone named Kim Obrist.
The scanner from the gallery and Kim are the same person and they agree to shelter Cameron for a time. Her small group of “good” scanners engage in a ritual of communal telepathy but are interrupted by more of Revok’s goons. The goons kill several of the scanners but are ultimately thrown against the wall and spontaneously combust. The rest of the movie is Cameron and Kim barely evading a series of gunfights and car chases, occasionally using their abilities in interesting ways such as when Kim causes a security guard to see her as his mother. Cameron eventually tracks Revok down to BioCarbon Amalgamate through their manufacture of Ephemerol. There we learn that Revok is connected to ConSec through Keller (Dane) for a secret project called RIPE. In order to access the RIPE programme, Cameron must use a ConSec computer and so he turns back to Dr. Ruth for help.
Dr. Ruth suggests to Cameron that he hack into the ConSec computers by using his scanning abilities and compares the computer to just another nervous system. This film brushed up against some interesting ideas about identity and self. When Cameron’s powers are suppressed for the first time Dr. Ruth asks him if he was ever able to form a self-identity due to having been confronted his entire life with the thoughts of others. Cameron himself appears tremulous at the prospect of being able to hear his own voice now that he is no longer being invaded by the voices of others. Stephen Lack’s portrayal throughout the film has aspects of a wide-eyed monotone and indeed Kim Obrist angrily accuses him of “barely being human”. Comparing the human mind to a computer is hardly the most interesting cliche these days but the very fact that Cameron successfully linked with the ConSec mainframe is perhaps his defining moment of growth; his final awakening to, and confidence in, his abilities.
Cameron’s final confrontation with Revok might verge on the ludicrous were it not for Ironside’s professionalism. Revok reveals that not only are the two of them brothers, but Dr. Ruth is secretely their father. Revok reveals an ad for Ephemerol in an old Life magazine where the drug is marketed, in pill form, as a sedative for pregnant woman. According to Revok, the good doctor administered the drug to his pregnant wife years prior to its public release and therefore was well aware of its dangerous side-effects. The real-world drug Thalidomide was still commercially available in Canada a full three months after it was pulled from markets in the UK and West Germany when it’s association with birth defects was discovered. Hundreds of Canadian children (thousands worldwide) were born with birth defects, including phocomelia. The infamous “children of thalidomide” are one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century, one responsible for much of the modern legislation surrounding pharmaceutical testing. Associating Dr. Ruth and others with so heinous a plan as purposefully poisoning unborn babies is horrifying.
The climactic psychic duel between the two brothers, after Cameron rejects Revok’s offer to join together, finally dives into Cronenberg’s trademark body horror. Veins on their arms and heads swell and burst. Cameron’s heart melts through his skin and clothes. He begins to pull the skin off of his face while his arms and body, now covered in blood, burst into flames. Revok’s eyes roll back into his head as Cameron’s swell and pop. The special effects employed here are not revolutionary but the gruesomeness of the scene surprised me and I found myself reacting audibly to the display of cringe-inducing, if impossible, suffering taking place. Obrist enters Revok’s office after the fact and find’s Cameron’s charred corpse on the floor. She also discovers Cameron, his mind now inside of Revok’s body, declaring that they’ve won. The proof of his words, apparently, being the sudden disappearance of Revok’s trepanation scar.
Scanners might not be the best of Cronenberg’s filmography, or his scariest, but it is the first of his films I can remember watching alone. Having not revisited the film until now, it feels like an entirely new experience and I find there’s a charm that has survived, or is perhaps amplified by, the passage of time. Scanners might not have the same polish as his more recent flicks (of which Eastern Promises remains a favorite) but it contains all the ingredients of the Cronenberg soup. A haunted past, a quest for identity and meaning, the twisted morality of manipulation and greed, and acts that are both horrifying and mesmerizing.
(Header image courtesy of Connor Willumsen via Criterion)