It’s always difficult watching or discussing a movie already deemed a classic with a fresh pair of eyes. The weight of the expectations from others can leave slight pressure on what is otherwise a fun experience. Whether or not I ended up liking the movie was only part of the discovery. Any discussions taking place after would merit the viewing. Having just seen Scanners for the first time I can tell you it is absolutely a movie worth watching. Out of the Cronenberg movies I have seen, it might be the most restrained in his use of body horror and psychological traumas, or so it would seem, with the exception of A History of Violence.
Scanners is less focused on body horror measured in traditional standards against the body, but deliberately assaults the mind instead – our minds, to be specific. In Scanners the ability of scanning involves everything from mind control to telekinesis. The tagline reads “10 SECONDS. The pain begins.” We are shown a woman in a shopping mall writhe on the ground in pain. “15 SECONDS. You can’t breathe.” This happens to pretty much everyone in this movie. “20 SECONDS. You explode.” (Thus this famous gif was born.) To be clear, I think the events of scanning people last more than 20 seconds. Either that or Cronenberg is able to rank an unbelievable amount of tension in the span of 30 seconds.
There are a thousand moving pieces when it comes to making a film. Even in a story this simple. But it’s still important to note that the journey Cronenberg takes us on is threaded with a simple Point A to Point B design. And yet it feels like there are years of mythology being discussed instead of exposition. Economic storytelling is always appreciated. The film’s only twist takes place in the opening. So why is this film such a cult classic? Economic storytelling is always appreciated but I have to wonder if the real reason this film works is atmospheric, established through uncomfortable visuals and incredible sound design.
Good lord, the sounds. When the mind of a man enters computer hard drives, it legitimately feels like we’re listening to a man in a computer. When an unborn child begins reading the mind of a grown woman, it is terrifying how much it feels like a fetus is reading her mind. Cronenberg’s sensory assault doesn’t end with the audio but it may be the movie’s greatest strength. Computer programming rarely has rarely sounded so alien, erupting body parts have the impact of a truck, and battles of the mind have more in common with nails on a chalkboard than a fist fight. Fleshy matter smacks pavement and walls with the same ferocity of a speeding car. All these sounds indicate an artist fixated on burrowing beneath our skin and into our brains by way of the ear canal.
And the visuals in this movie overlay claustrophobia even in the open streets of a faceless city. There’s never enough physical or narrative room for characters to flourish, but the characters satisfy the utmost perfunctory needs of this story’s requirements. The forever underappreciated Michael Ironside is one of the most entertaining villains I had never seen from the 1980s. Pure, unfiltered, yet calculated crazy. What he does in this performance should be the bare minimum of villains in the most middling entertainment. Michael Ironside or bust, as the kids say. Stephen Lack may have been hired exclusively for his ability to rather than his ability to emote, which in respective turns elevates the movie’s effect (when he’s staring) and drags the movie down a bit (when he’s doing anything else). Lack’s inability to fade entirely into the world of Cronenberg almost works in his favor, but not quite. If he was in the Ironside role of Revak, the emotional void may have been an interesting choice for a villain. But for the hero? It’s too distant and inhumane to be someone worth rooting for. Once the physicality of Lack’s role takes over – and his wonderfully insane eyes – the movie works remarkably as a science fiction conspiracy thriller.
I was so unsure of what to expect with this movie. Here’s the part where I confess to having only seen three Cronenberg movies; The Fly, A History of Violence, and Eastern Promises. I’m going to level with you, I did not enjoy Scanners nearly as much as any of those. Maybe it’s because I’m a jaded millennial or I just like having a good actor in the lead role. Who can say? But I’d be lying if I said part of me wasn’t thankful for having finally seen Scanners. If anything I at least know the source of the aforementioned gif. Furthermore, this more than any others of the aforementioned Cronenberg movies has inspired me to check out the rest of his directorial work. The man has earned his following and I hope to continue exploring it in the future.
Featured Image: Avco-Embassy Pictures
Editor’s Note: Initially, the headline of this post stated that the article’s publication date marked the “25th Anniversary,” which has been change to reflect that it actually marks the 35th Anniversary of the film.