“The one where the guy’s head explodes” has been stated so frequently as a means to identify Scanners that the phrase might as well be the movie’s unofficial subtitle. There have been plenty of movies featuring exploding heads (without thinking too much, Maniac and The Prowler come to mind) but the one in Scanners stands out as the best example of (arguably) the ultimate horror-movie death. Well Scanners has a lot more to offer than just one splattery scene and, though far from perfect, it stands out as a favorite of mine that should be on every horror fan’s “must-see” list.
Scanners are people with the psychic ability to hear the thoughts of others and, with a little training, influence their actions. Cameron Vail (Stephen Lack) is one such scanner who, after scrambling a lady’s brain at the mall for talking smack about him, has been brought to ConSec (a company specializing in weapons and security) for guidance from scanner expert Dr. Ruth (not that Dr. Ruth). Dr. Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) helps Cameron harness his power (explained as the ability to “connect two nervous systems separated by space”) and recruits him to help stop renegade scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, Visiting Hours, American Nightmare, Prom Night II, Watchers,) who just made some nice man’s head explode. But Revok, intent on carrying out his plan to destroy ConSec, has the help of a small army of loyal, shotgun-wielding scanners (Note: scanners love shotguns but are pretty terrible at using them) as well as ConSec-head-of-security-turned-double-agent Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane, (Happy Birthday to Me, Of Unknown Origin), and won’t go down without a fight.
When director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly) began filming Scanners, he wasn’t even done writing the script. In what seems to be a recurring theme for Canadian horror movies, filmmakers would see an influx of money during the last quarter of the year from investors seeking tax deductions along with demands the money be spent before the new year began. Rather than risk losing funding, Cronenberg decided to start shooting and finish the script as he went, adapting each day’s shooting on the fly. This could explain why the story seems rushed in places, and the abrupt ending makes me picture a producer walking on set and saying, “I know you’re supposed to have another week here, but if you could go ahead and wrap things up in the next ten minutes, that would be great.” But Cronenberg is considered one of the greats for a reason, and even with the time-crunch he put out a kick-ass movie.
The acting is mostly good throughout but with a fairly glaring contrast between the two top scanners. On the one and, Michael Ironside’s performance is nothing short of spectacular. In a movie filled with over-the-top facial contortions, his subtle expressions (relatively speaking) go farther to convey menace than all the psychic gyrations and gore F/X combined. He makes Darryl Revok one of my favorite (and criminally underrated) 80’s horror villains and his deadpan “I didn’t do anything” seconds after making a guy’s head explode is as sinister as any emotionless knife slash from a mask-wearing psycho. On the flipside, Stephen Lack’s performance as Cameron Vail is a bit of a weak point and many have questioned why he was cast for a lead. The differences between Ironside and Lack are most striking during their conversation in the final scene (If you’re watching the movie, look for my two favorite lines listed below to see what I mean) and during the big psychic showdown where Ironside is appropriately expressive about his face swelling and bubbling while Lack looks mildly bewildered that his hands are on fire. In Lack’s defense, he wasn’t even a trained actor, and although he had performed well as fast-talking hustlers in a couple of minor Canadian films, playing against type opposite strong fellow leads like Ironside and McGoohan was simply beyond his capabilities, so let’s not be too hard on the guy.
I think the Scanners exploding head is more memorable than other exploding heads because of the context in which it took place. Rather than a dark, violent atmosphere, the scene is set in a well-lit lecture hall full of slightly bored businesspeople and actor Louis Del Grande (Happy Birthday to Me, Of Unknown Origin) (owner of the soon-to-explode head) setting the mood perfectly with his almost arrogantly indifferent monologue. Ultimately, all we have are two men at a table, a gradual build-up, and then BOOM!!! Everything about it is awesome! Even the story behind how they made the head explode is cool, the short version of which is that after trying numerous techniques to blow up a head with none of them looking quite right, F/X man Gary Zeller loaded up a shotgun, laid down behind the dummy, and blasted the living hell out of it. Sometimes low-tech solutions are the best.
Any of my complaints with Scanners are fairly minor and far outweighed by the good. Sure, there are a couple of missteps with the acting and some fairly sizable leaps in the plot (Computers have nervous systems?), but for me those things have become part of the movie’s charm. The story is cool, lots of things blow up (apparently Canadian phone booths are made mostly out of C-4 explosive) and the gore F/X still look phenomenal even in the unforgiving detail of Blu-ray. Sounds like a winner to me.
“Keller murdered Dr. Ruth…he deserved to die.”