David Cronenberg’s visceral tale of mind-control assassins is a genre-bending world of distinctive weirdness.
Clint Caward

20 Mar 2017 - 3:06 PM  UPDATED 29 May 2019 - 9:24 AM

Riding my BMX through Revesby in 1982, I saw a rainbow of fairy lights flashing around the glass window of the old butcher shop. It had been boarded up and tagged in graffiti for years. The idea a shop might even open there was borderline creepy. Dropping my bike on the footpath I gently parted the plastic fly strip curtain and wandered in. The revolution had arrived.

It seemed apt our first video store was set up in an old butcher shop; splatter films pressed against the white tiles where meat hooks once glistened. Instead of cuts of carcass swinging gently in the air-con, it was The Corpse Grinders, Blood Sucking Freaks, zombie films like Dawn of the Dead, tantalisingly stamped 'Banned in Queensland'. And there was a North America we'd never imagined full of drug addicts and vigilante Vietnam vets who dealt pump-action justice to gangs infesting the rubbled suburbs of New York. For kids used to five TV channels and hanging out to see what Bill Collins would screen on ‘Sunday Night at the Movies’, it was one giant leap for viewing kind.

Not waiting to see whether VHS or BETA won the format wars, my tech-obsessed dad bought both players making my house the choice location for friends jigging school. Pulling the blinds, we’d escape the trucks cruising the industrial estate I lived on the fringe of. We’d cook spaghetti and fight for beanbags for rites-of-passage into low end perversity via top shelf video nasties.

Women in prison, Harlem drug lords, rape-victim hookers prowling the night with a forty-five, the ‘Silent Night Deadly Night’ of an axe wielding Santa and the amputee weirdness of Nazi-porn 'Salon Kitty'. The world was ours. Bring on the Apocalypse, Now. Multiple viewings of First Blood and Mad Max saw memorised dialogue give our ‘video generation’ a coded in-language that further separated us from parents terrified marathon doses of horror and violence were turning their kids into serial killers.

There was a great sense of serendipity - the joy of unexpected discovery - wandering the shelves, never knowing what bizarre glitch of cinematic flotsam might next catch the eye. In a world where 12-year-olds in Catholic school uniform could rent X-rated Caligula, it seemed normal the guy in the shop was ever thrusting R-rated horror into my hands. ‘There are 4 billion people on earth,’ blazed the cover of his latest recommendation. ‘237 are Scanners. They have the most terrifying powers ever created… and they are winning.’

Unable to peddle home fast enough, I had no idea Cronenberg’s previous experiments Shivers and Rabid hadn’t done so well at the box office, and while The Brood added to his cult cache, he’d needed to crack North America, or the Canadian Film Development Corporation would stop funding him. Scanners was his breakout, featuring one of the most iconic moments in modern horror - the exploding head.

Now that video stores have all but disappeared, that serendipitous magic found wandering the shelves can never come again. This sad fact has given rise to another army of outsiders. Analogue warriors in op-shop cardigans frustrated by the lack of choice offered by DVD vending machines, wanting to pump super glue down their slots. What a joy though, to rediscover, through a new kind of serendipity, Scanners in the SBS On Demand library.

How would it stack it up thirty-five years later?

From the opening credits, the funereal soundtrack primes the nerves for what already sounds like a nightmare. We meet Cameron Vale, a derelict snatching at people’s meals in a food court. When he overhears two women chatting about how disgusting he is, he turns his mind powers upon them, sending one into an uncontrollable fit. Two mysterious agents tranquilise him and take him to ConSec, a security firm that wants to weaponise his abilities. He learns he’s not mad, but a Scanner, one who can manipulate biological and electrical nervous systems.

ConSec gives him a drug, ‘Ephemerol', which quietens the voices, and they recruit him to infiltrate the Scanner underground and hunt down its rogue leader, who is building an army of Scanners hell bent on world domination.

Once in control of his powers, the fun begins. Vale sets out to find the Scanner underground, always barely one step ahead of assassins he mentally throws across the room or sets on fire. Part espionage thriller, part scientific horror, this genre bending world controlled by thought is still a lot of fun. The cold, rigid structure, giving us a sense of what it’s like to be inside Cronenberg’s thoughts. Instead of dating it, time has further abstracted Scanners into its own unique weirdness.

"Instead of dating it, time has further abstracted Scanners into its own unique weirdness."

Along with films like Dreamscape, The Fury and Brainstorm, Scanners lives in the loose genre of movies inspired by the ‘Stargate Project’, a secret US Army unit set up in the late '70s to investigate how they might exploit psychic phenomena. Paranoid the Soviets were investing millions in ‘psychotronic’ research, the CIA also had its own research project called ‘SCANATE’ (scan by coordinate), and while all the projects folded by the mid-'90s, they’d inspired a slew of films full of shadowy organisations, scientists who didn’t want their research taken over by the military, and the psychic guinea pigs who went AWOL to escape the program.

Roger Ebert, writing in 1981, thought Scanners failed because it was about plot instead of the emotional lives of the characters, but we don’t go to Cronenberg for rich life arcs, we go for ideas. We could nit-pick over Scanners' logic and continuity errors – hey it was raining a second ago, now it’s snowing? – but this is a world with so many interesting ideas, that, like watching a documentary on the sex life of ants, it’s so ‘other’, that while we might not care about any of the characters, there’s a repulsive kind of attraction that makes it hard to turn away from.

Cronenberg kept milking his visceral vein of body-horror through Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch and Crash, but, it’s a more traditional story-teller that brings us 2011’s A Dangerous Method, a historical drama about the early days of psychoanalysis. It’s a film that feels like full circle for Cronenberg. After a career using pioneering SFX to externalise madness, he’s gone back to examine the roots of a discipline that gave him such a rich frame through which to pitch, over three decades of his distinctive brand of horror.


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