My viewing of David Cronenberg’s catalogue of films has been anything but sequential. In fact, I have almost unconsciously been watching a number of his films in backwards order, which has inadvertently offered an interesting perspective on the evolution of Cronenberg as a director. However, this reverse analysis of his films does not always yield the most effective positive results, as the cracks begin to show in his earlier works.
Testament to this is the latest of Cronenberg’s films I have watched, Scanners, which is amongst these earlier works, having been released in 1981. The film offers a great premise, as Cronenberg wisely cuts right to the chase by introducing us to the films primary character Cameron (Stephen Lack), who is one of the scanners referenced in the title. Scanners possess telekinetic abilities, and can link up with, and manipulate the nervous systems of other people. The government captures Cameron, utilising his abilities in an attempt to infiltrate and take down a growing underground group of rogue scanners, led by Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside).
Where the film excels is in its execution of bodily horror, an area in which Cronenberg is a pioneer. Much like his later film Dead Ringers, which I previously reviewed a number of months ago, Cronenberg showcases his ability to generate a sense of relatable horror and discomfort by threatening the body itself. You need look no further than the film’s iconic exploding head scene for evidence. Though, the only problem here is that unlike Dead Ringers (and many of his later films), Cronenberg fails to give us any characters to relate to.
It is bad enough that Lack delivers a wholly wooden performance as Cameron, but this is aggravated by the fact that the most interesting thing about him is that he is an above-average scanner. Because Cameron’s abilities supersede his characterisation, I get the sense that the film’s characters are nothing more than vessels used to accommodate the film’s practical effects.
The narrative suffers similar issues, prioritising the film’s practical set pieces over the execution of its story. There is a telling instance of this, where the villainous company executive Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), who is working with Revok, tells Kim (Jennifer O’Neill), another scanner helping Cameron, that he has been informed by Revok that she has no scanner abilities. Kim then uses her abilities to escape, proving Keller to be arrogantly wrong in the process. The issue here is that I consequently found myself asking, why did these scanners, who know of all other scanners in existence, and can even sense each other, incorrectly tell Keller she is not scanner? Is there a story behind this? Does it feed into the film’s greater mystery?
Sadly, these questions go unanswered, along with a number of others. This leaves the narrative feeling more like a series of convenient ploys used to advance the plot, creating a sense of removal from the story and its characters. Nonetheless, Scanners is not without its moments of sheer craftsmanship, and it was certainly an important step in Cronenberg becoming the deservedly recognised filmmaker he is today.