Popular early Cronenberg where his excursions into physical and psychological breakdowns take on a decidedly more commercial bent. Compared to the more medical – and difficult – tone to his earlier works, a more straightforward thriller trajectory makes ‘Scanners’ a more accessible tale of battling psychics and exploding heads. Scanners are telepaths with remarkable mental abilities that allow for all kinds of random and telekinetic possibilities. They are being rounded up and recruited by Michael Ironside for a war against plain average humanity. The somewhat shady ComSec company find Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) on the street - a broken down, homeless Scanner, barely aware of his own powers - and recruit him to infiltrate Ironside’s secret army, tutored by splendidly grey-bearded Patrick Magoohan.
Not quite as theologically scary in implication as those that came before - 'Crimes of the Future', 'Rabid', 'Shivers' - 'Scanners' offers rather more action-orientated fun, heavily coloured by Cronenberg’s vision of untapped human potential unleashed by man’s experiments in technology and pharmaceuticals. There is still that typical Cronenbergian clinical objectivism, which perhaps make the characters less relatable and wanting in general, but Ironside produces great scowls and charisma even so and McGoohan knows how to keep a straight face.
That legendary early exploding head set piece is still thrilling and genre defining that perhaps not even the prolonging squishy scanner showdown can quite top it. An interview in a gigantic sculptured head also provides a wonderful moment of surrealism, as does a melting phone (Cronenberg even manages an exploding phone booth). The underground group of good scanners seems to present them as the inheritors of the hippie legacy, or at least of counter-culture (they're the homeless, disenfranchised and the artistic, for instance). The malignant corporation is typical of the conspiracy plot that is practically obligatory to this scenario, exploiting and corrupting for crazed ideology. Binding it all, Howard Shore score makes it clear that this is bombast and an updating of old-school horror.
The plotting and execution is thrown around, bordering on stream-of-consciousness and probably will not hold up under close scrutiny, but it is easy to digest and great pulpy horror. Tapping into the sub-genre of psychic-power fantasies - where just force of will can either pour bloody vengeance on all or can better anyone threatening you - proves a potent resource and Cronenberg mines it for as much head-popping and face-tearing as he can manage. The revelation that Cronenberg could be both cerebral and fun had never quite been so evident. Or maybe you just can’t go wrong with exploding heads.