Scanners (1980) ***
It surprised me how quickly the time came when I started seeing signs that the pop-culture assumptions I grew up with were reaching obsolescence. Believe it or not, I can pinpoint a specific date for the appearance of one such sign: December 14th, 1999. That was the night when a fourth-season episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” called “Hush” aired for the first time, and not coincidentally, it was also the night when I saw half a dozen heads explode, on camera, on prime-time broadcast television. That would never, ever have flown with Standards and Practices when I was a lad. In fact, even in a movie, blowing up heads where the camera could see them was a good way to get threatened with an X-rating back then, and when somebody had the balls to do it, it was something that stayed with you for years. It was also something you told all your friends about, at least if you were the sort of horror fan that I was (and the sort with whom I associated). Consequently, even when I knew absolutely nothing else about Scanners, I knew that this was one of those rare movies where they detonated a guy’s head before your very eyes. All of which, I suppose, is really just a roundabout way of saying that if Scanners hasn’t held up to quite the same extent as some of David Cronenberg’s other movies, it’s probably because the transgression curve has caught up to it in a way that it hasn’t yet caught up to The Brood, The Fly, or Dead Ringers. Without that whiff of taboo about it, Scanners is left looking remarkably like a bargain-price version of X-Men, spiked with a bit of social criticsm about things that nobody under 30 much remembers anymore.
A very twitchy-looking man (Stephen Lack, of Dead Ringers) takes a seat in the food court of a shopping mall. If this were happening in an American city, you’d think the guy was a deinstitutionalized mental patient, but I don’t believe Canada’s psychiatric hospitals ousted their least dysfunctional inmates en masse in the early 80’s the way ours did. Whatever his deal is, Mr. Twitchy catches the disapproving eyes of two women sitting at one of the other tables, and they strike up a markedly disparaging conversation about him. A funny thing, though— the women’s dialogue is just a split second out of synch with their mouth movements, and their table is far enough away that Mr. Twitchy really shouldn’t be able to hear them as well as he does. The man focuses his attention on the older and more derisive of the pair, and after a few moments under his concentrated scrutiny, she begins having convulsions, as if she were in the throes of a stroke or a seizure. The commotion brings several bystanders to the scene, among whom are two men wearing the universal Shady Agent uniform of conservative suits and long coats. Ignoring the convulsing woman, they zero in on Mr. Twitchy instead, and one of them shoots him with a tranquilizer dart as he tries to run away. The chase goes on surprisingly long after that, but the result is really a foregone conclusion.
Mr. Twitchy’s real name, as we are about to learn, is Cameron Vale. He wakes up strapped to a bed in some sort of laboratory converted from a disused industrial space, where two of the walls enigmatically have several ranks of folding metal chairs lined up in front of them. A 60-ish scientist type comes over to Vale once he has awakened, and introduces himself as Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan). Ruth rather smugly informs Vale that the reason he’s been such a disgraceful mess of a human being for all his 35 years on Earth is that he’s something called a “scanner,” but promises to show him how to transform his condition from an insupportable burden into a tremendous power. Then he has an assistant show in 50 chattering people to sit down among that great mass of folding chairs. The thing is, once we get a close look at the members of this mob, we realize that not a one of them is moving his or her lips, and that the babbling cacophony is actually the busy churning of the crowd’s thoughts. I guess we know what a scanner is now, don’t we? Vale becomes increasingly agitated under the strain of the clamorous telepathic yakking, until he finally winds up on the very verge of catatonia. Dr. Ruth administers an injection at that point, and all the “voices” speedily fade away.
Meanwhile, at the headquarters of a private security firm called ConSec, representatives from a number of companies and government agencies assemble in an auditorium for a presentation on the subject of scanners. The man onstage (Louis Del Grande, from Happy Birthday to Me and Of Unknown Origin) is himself a scanner, and he proposes to read the mind of each man in the auditorium. However, he cautions the guests that the scanning process typically entails considerable discomfort or even pain for its recipients— nosebleeds, earaches, nausea, that sort of thing. That seems to put a damper on the crowd’s enthusiasm to volunteer, but a man with a curious scar low down on the middle of his forehead (Michael Ironside, of Visiting Hours and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone) eventually comes forward. The demonstration does not go exactly as planned. If anybody up on the stage is suffering pain and discomfort, it’s the scanner, and after going into convulsions much like those of the woman Vale scanned at the mall, he falls victim to a head-go-boom second only to the one in Maniac. The spectators flee in panic, and guards swoop down to take Scarface into custody, but the ConSec guys have a great deal more on their hands than they’ve bargained for. Scarface, as you’ve surely guessed by now, has scanning powers of his own, and he uses them most effectively to eliminate his captors and make his escape.
ConSec’s head (Maver Moore) is not a happy man the following day, when he calls a conference of his highest-ranking underlings to discuss the auditorium fiasco. Braeden Keller (Lawrence Dane, from Rituals and Bride of Chucky), the company’s newly installed chief of internal security, contends that the time has come for ConSec to abandon its program to recruit scanners for service as spies and assassins— the telepaths are too damaged and unreliable to be of any practical use, and last night’s demonstration humiliated ConSec in front of the very people who were supposed to become the customer base for the initiative. Dr. Ruth has a rather different perspective, however. If last night’s events were not a resounding vindication of the espionage potential of a well-trained scanner, then what the fuck would be? What’s more, Ruth believes he knows who the assassin was. Thirteen years ago, Ruth participated in the treatment of a disturbed young man named Daryl Revok, whom he is now convinced was far and away the most powerful of the 236 known scanners currently living. Rumor has it that Revok, having slipped through the mental health profession’s grasp, now leads an underground movement of terrorists and would-be revolutionaries— every last one of them a scanner. Think of Revok’s people as the Head-Popping Panthers, if you’d like. Ruth wants to send a scanner of his own to infiltrate Revok’s underground, and attack it from within. No bonus points for guessing that the scanner he has in mind is Cameron Vale.
Naturally, nothing is going to be as simple as Ruth envisions. True, Vale learns fast to control his mental talents, and to all appearances, he might even equal Revok in power. He also proves cooperative enough. But ConSec has a double agent on its hands, and a very highly placed one at that. Braedon Keller isn’t just a grade-A rat-bastard— he’s also Revok’s man on the inside, although he himself has no mutant abilities. Revok’s intelligence network is efficient enough on its own, and with Keller to feed him the inside scoop on Vale’s activities, Cameron is going to find accomplishing his mission an extremely tall order. It also happens that there are two scanner undergrounds. The second is led by Kim Obrist (Seven Notes in Black’s Jennifer O’Neill), and has an altogether more benevolent character. To go back to the X-Men comparison I made earlier, she might be the Professor Xavier to Revok’s Magneto. Then again, Kim might equally well be nothing more than a minor obstacle to Revok, as her pacifistic followers sure as hell don’t look like they’re gearing up for a fight. There’s also the little matter of Biocarbon Amalgamate, the chemical company that Dr. Ruth founded back in 1942, and sold to ConSec a few years later. Revok’s people have access to the same drug that Ruth uses to help his scanners manage their powers, and they’re apparently getting it from Biocarbon Amalgamate. We already know that Keller is playing for both teams, but would he really have that much influence over Ruth’s old firm? And what are we to make of the fact that the drug is being manufactured in quantities vastly greater than anything a couple hundred scanners could possibly require, or of the database of doctors and pregnant women that ConSec and BA have thus far managed to keep a closely guarded secret? Finally, isn’t it interesting that most of the scanners we’ve seen are about the same age, and that none of them are older than Vale or Revok— who were both born right about the time that ConSec bought Biocarbon Amalgamate from Ruth?
When I reviewed The Power, however long ago that was, I remarked upon the similarity between that movie and this one. It had been many years since I’d seen Scanners when I wrote that, and I see now that the resemblance is even stronger than I realized. Scanners, too, comports itself less as horror or sci-fi than as a weird hybrid of murder mystery and espionage thriller, the superhuman capabilities of certain characters serving largely as window dressing for what would otherwise be an extremely conventional plot. Both movies are eventually revealed to hinge on an incipient coup attempt such as one might see in many of the more sober Cold War-era spy films, but instead of communists, it’s a megalomaniacal psionic with friends in high places plotting the downfall of Western democracy. Both conclude with a paranormal grapple between the evil psionic and a good one, although they get there from opposite directions. (The existence of a good telepath is a climactic revelation in The Power, whereas it’s built into the premise of Scanners from the beginning.) Indeed, there are so many parallels that I have to wonder if Cronenberg had The Power in the back of his mind while he was retooling his old Telepathy 2000 screenplay into the final version of the Scanners script.
There are a few tellingly Cronenbergian divergences from the apparent model, however. George Pal, Byron Haskin, and John Gay never showed anything like the distrust for authority that is constantly on display in Scanners. No matter how thoroughly their villain managed to dupe the scientists, soldiers, policemen, and so forth against whom Jim Tanner had to contend, those puppet antagonists were almost always depicted as doing what would have the right thing based on the false and/or incomplete information they’d been given. Braeden Keller, however, knows exactly what he’s doing when he cooperates with Revok to bring down the very social and political order that he supposedly works to protect. Cronenberg also dwells at length (as is his wont) on the potentially ruinous downside of a condition that most previous fiction on the subject uncritically regarded as an unmitigated boon. Absent any sort of social support network equipped to handle the special talents they possess, most scanners are just barely able to function in society, and very powerful ones like the sculptor Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman, from Jason X and eXistenZ) are virtually guaranteed to be driven insane by the constant din of other people’s thoughts. The key difference between Scanners and The Power, though, lies in the origins of the two movies’ superhumans. In 1968, telepathy was merely the next step in human evolution, an inevitability whose time had come just a few millennia early for a few fortunate individuals. Cronenberg, by contrast, makes it something far more sinister. True to his most persistent creative obsession, telepathy in Scanners is an unforeseen side-effect of a medical-industrial complex fuck-up, and unprincipled visionaries of all stripes are scrambling over each other to exploit it for power and profit. The deeper Vale digs, the clearer it becomes that the scanners are Cronenberg’s answer to the Thalidomide babies (children born during the late 50’s and early 60’s with often severe birth defects, due to their mothers’ use of an insufficiently tested tranquilizer prescribed to relieve morning sickness), while ConSec’s Ripe Program is a sort of private-sector MK-ULTRA (the CIA’s vile initiative— also of 50’s and 60’s vintage, unsurprisingly— to test LSD and other drugs on unwitting human subjects in the hope of developing pharmacological mind-control techniques). For those who remember Thalidomide and MK-ULTRA, whether firsthand or as students of the history of institutional malfeasance, Scanners derives some much-needed edge from its status as a science-fictional analogue to two real-life horror stories. For those who don’t, however, the allegory might actually redound to the film’s detriment: “Oh boy— it’s another nefarious horror movie corporation! No sir, I never get even a little bit tired of seeing that…”