At the time of Scanners‘ release, the horror film was enjoying – arguably – its final great era. The post-Star Wars sci-fi boom had abated (primarily because low budget film-makers realised that the space opera genre required overly expensive special effects) and the success of Halloween, Friday the 13th and Dawn of the Dead had pushed the horror movie back into public favour. With a new magazine, Fangoria, on the stands to publicise independent, gory horror films – just the type traditionally disdained even by genre magazines like Cinefantastique – and the term ‘splatter movie’ a media buzzword, everything looked rosy for the genre, and for its new kings.
A group of directors who had honed their craft in the 1970s now seemed on the verge of mainstream acceptance: George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Tobe Hooper and Joe Dante all had exciting, high-profile new projects lined up, and joining them was Canadian director David Cronenberg, who was set to break through with his new movie Scanners.
The film was produced thanks to Canadian tax shelter rules of the time, which encouraged investment in movie production. Cronenberg’s previous two films, Fast Company and The Brood had both been made under this scheme, and producers Victor Solnicki, Pierre David and Claude Heroux were keen to repeat the success of the latter film.
Cronenberg took a screenplay he’d written in the 1970s called Telepathy 2000, which he had initially worked on previously as The Sensitives. Although the project had been shelved when the much more personal story of The Brood began to take over Cronenberg’s mind, the project still interested him and was rapidly reworked into Scanners.
The film tells the story of a new strain of humanity that has emerged thanks to the side effects of a drug used by pregnant women (a none-too-subtle reference to thalidomide). Around the world, there are 237 of these Scanners, who possess powerful telepathic abilities and who are being sought out by Consec, the shady corporation that manufactured the drug on the one hand and radical terrorist Scanner groups on the other. Caught in the middle of this battle is Cameron Vale, a highly powerful yet directionless Scanner who is recruited by Consec to track down the renegade telepaths and their leader Darryl Revok.
Scanners was Cronenberg’s biggest film to date, following his visceral, energetic and harrowing previous efforts. The film was less violent and unsettling than Shivers, Rabid or The Brood, and blended horror, science fiction and action in a clearly commercial manner. The film’s story harked back to his first two experimental feature films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, both of which dealt with similar themes to Scanners – telepathy and psychic mutation. Cronenberg took this concept and turned it into a fast-paced action thriller.
At the time of release, much of Scanners’ publicity centred around two gory special effects set pieces. The infamous exploding head scene – initially to have opened the film, but later moved back after Cronenberg rightly realised that such a spectacularly violent opening scene would alienate audiences and damage the pacing of the film, which has a relatively slow-burn start – made the cover of Fangoria and the pages of several movie magazines (the still, incidentally, is considerably less bloody than the actual scene in the film), and much attention was also given to the climactic duel between the main protagonists, which included literally eye-popping moments. This latter sequence had been completely reshot during editing when it became clear that the original version just didn’t work. This version, which had less bloody moments of combustion, was junked in favour of Dick Smith-created splatter scenes. Interestingly, although the British censors had cut a similar – though less grotesque – exploding head scene from George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead a year earlier, Scanners was passed uncut, maintaining a tradition of leniency by the BBFC to Cronenberg (even the ultra-gory Shivers passed intact in the mid-’70s). The film also escaped the dreaded ‘X’ rating in America, much to the director’s relief, although a shot on the headless body slumping down on the table was trimmed at the insistence of the MPAA.
Cronenberg had, in fact, shot an alternative to the exploding head scene, where the doomed character instead succumbs to a massive heart attack, both to appease the censors and help facilitate a future TV sale. Quoted at the time in Cinefantastique magazine, he commented that “it’s so grotesque that it’s probably worse than the head blowing up. I have a feeling we wouldn’t get the heart attack on television either”, and eventually, he decided not to even print or edit the alternative footage, feeling that it would damage the film if included in any prints.
The Scanners cast was a mix of established actors and newcomers. The biggest name in the film was The Prisoner TV series star Patrick McGoohan, who would be quick to voice his frustration with script rewrites and not understanding just what the film was about. However, as production progressed, he developed a respect for the director and delivered one of his best performances. “He was… very interesting to work with”, Cronenberg told Fangoria at the time. “He’s certainly a very brilliant man, a very complex man and a very eccentric man. I’ve been very happy with his participation.” The female lead went to Jennifer O’Neill, an established actress whose role was – to be fair – pretty thin, and has little involvement in the main story.
The two scanners who eventually battle it out in the film were played by Steven Lack and Michael Ironside. Ironside had made a handful of forgettable films before Scanners, and his excellent performance as Darryl Revok would lead to a lengthy career playing villains, hard-nosed authority figures or reluctant good guys in films like Visiting Hours, and the successful TV sci-fi series V.
Steven Lack, on the other hand, was usually singled out by critics as the weak link in the film, his performance generally seen as wooden and ineffectual. Cast primarily because Cronenberg was impressed with his eyes – an important part of the character – Lack’s subsequent film career has been limited, though he did work with the director again on a small but pivotal role in Dead Ringers. He is now an acclaimed artist.
Scanners proved to be a surprise hit when released in 1981, helping establish the Canadian director in the all-important US market. The combination of action, science fiction, horror and graphic splatter-movie set-pieces proved a winning one with audiences, and – thanks to decent distribution from Avco Embassy – the film actually hit the number one spot on the US box office charts.
For Cronenberg, Scanners proved the catalyst that took him from low budget exploitation to mainstream studio genre films and his current position as an arthouse favourite. For his producers – Victor Solniki, Pierre David and Claude Heroux, it was their first mainstream hit too, and the nature of the story naturally suggested that it could be expanded.
When Scanners was released, home video was still in its relative infancy. The major studios were still looking at the format with suspicion and contempt, the term video nasty was still a twinkle in the nasty Daily Mail editor’s eye and even in the UK, where VCR take-up was the biggest in the world and cinema attendance was hitting an all-time low, video profits were still a lot less than those of theatrical releases.
A decade later, things were very different. The video recorder had become a ubiquitous accessory for most households, and video rentals were an increasingly important money-spinner for film distributors. This proved to be especially true for low budget genre films, which were finding it increasingly difficult to find screen space and audiences in cinemas as drive-ins closed and major studios established a stranglehold over the multiplexes. For the first time, a film that bombed theatrically could not only recoup its profits on video but could even become a surprise hit.
Another factor that film producers began to consider was the fact that home video audiences seemed to like familiarity. While films like Scanners came and went within a few weeks on the theatrical circuit, the home video was around for years, constantly finding a new audience. It became clear that many people, when faced with the choice of several hundred titles at their local video store, were choosing something that they knew.
In some instances, it was the recent theatrical hit, in others a movie with known stars. And in many cases, it was the sequel to a previous hit. Home video sequels rarely had anything beyond a token theatrical release and rarely made money in cinemas – but their success on tape would ensure that many unlikely franchises would emerge. Films such as Children of the Corn, Hellraiser, House and The Stepfather all became ongoing series despite poor theatrical box-office results. So, in 1991, Scanners was revived as another franchise.
Scanners II: The New Order appeared in 1991, and retold the original film in a less cerebral, more action-thriller based format. The film does present a neat twist on the original format, having the dysfunctional scanners being exploited by a right-wing police chief, who uses them to dish out vigilante justice.
There are some nice touches dealing with the addictive nature of the drugs used to control the telepaths too, and some good gore set-pieces. The lead performances are passable – certainly no worse than Stephen Lack’s in the first film – and it’s likely that if you were unaware of the original movie, you might well find this an impressively original movie.
As well as aping the first film’s broad story, Scanners II also throws in another exploding head, taking dramatic images from the original film and turning it into a thematic point – the implication being that you can’t have a Scanners film without an exploding head. Obviously made with one eye on the prospect of further sequels, French director Christian Duguay – making his feature film debut -handles the material well, and although critics were generally dismissive, the target audience was generally happy with the film, making a third instalment inevitable.
Although it had taken a decade for the first Scanners sequel to appear, this third instalment arrived within twelve months of its predecessor, milking the market while it was hot in true video franchise style. However, stylistically, Scanners 3: The Takeover is light years removed from the first two films, presumably because the lack of any continuing characters meant that each film had to re-establish itself within the context of audience expectations for a film called ‘Scanners’.
While Scanners 2 had more or less followed the template laid down by the original film, this second sequel throws caution – along with common sense, good taste and any sense of restraint – to the wind and in place of an intelligent science fiction thriller offers up a spectacularly cheesy exploitation movie.
Opening up with a title scroll which informs us that Scanners have been able to pass their powers down through generations – apparently having been able to raise children regardless of their previously explored social dysfunction. In fact, the film opens up with a party where Scanner guests are encouraged to show their powers as a party trick – Times have indeed changed for the social misfits! But when one such trick goes badly wrong and results in a death, the Scanner responsible heads off to a monastery in Tibet to meditate and learn self-control.
Meanwhile, his Scanner sister is experiencing headaches and agrees to try an experimental new drug which it is hoped will help telepaths deal with the side effects of their condition. However, the drug has a curious side effect itself, turning Helena into a power-crazed megalomaniac who immediately hatches a plan to have Scanners under her control take over the world.
It must be said that by all commonly accepted standards, Scanners 3 is rubbish. Any abilities that Christian Duguay showed in the previous film are lost here as the film flounders under a mish-mash of awful dialogue, ludicrous over-acting and sub-standard special effects. The fact that it took three writers is frankly astonishing.
But… once you accept that this is not going to be a cerebral experience, Scanners 3 is unquestionably entertaining. Okay, so it’s trash… but it’s lively trash, and the tacky gore effects (yes, there’s an exploding head!), an abundance of cleavage and entirely gratuitous nudity and wild performances from most of the cast (the climatic Scanner battle is a real treat) combine to ensure that this is a genuine six-pack party classic.
Special mention must go to Liliana Komorowska who is suitably sexy and thoroughly villainous as she unleashes her evil plan, vamping it up in a variety of ridiculous outfits. Her character seems to have strolled in from a Sixties Eurotrash superhero film and is all the better for it.
The gloriously mad Scanners 3 marked the end of the direct sequels to Cronenberg’s original film, but the Scanners concept wasn’t quite finished with yet. Scanner Cop appeared in 1994, directed by original producer Pierre David, and this unleashed a sub-franchise when it spawned a sequel, confusingly titled Scanners IV: Scanner Cop in the USA and Scanner Cop II elsewhere. Both fall outside the remit of this article but will be covered separately…
David Flint, MOVIES and MANIA