In the case of evaluating David Cronenberg, — or at least forming the sort of career narrative seemingly essential to auteurist analysis — it’s inevitable to propose something of a rupture within his oeuvre: the very evident graduation from grindhouse to arthouse, and, with it, an ascension from body to mind.
What dictated these labels on his earlier period was a fixation on physical transformation / harm, so pronounced that it created its own horror subgenre. While on the other hand, there are the “prestige” films, a number of literary and stage adaptations which, even amidst their own embrace of the bizarre and grotesque (this man brought William S. Burroughs to the screen, after all), began a gradual shift towards more blatantly intellectual surfaces.
It, in particular, reached a new height in his last two films, Cosmopolis and A Dangerous Method, which relied less on the force of blood, guts, and literal monsters than off-putting shot-reverse-shot patterns and the reverberation of words and gestures. Posing Scanners as something of a median between the two may thus seem odd, considering that, of all his early horror films, it’s the one least-considered for any kind of subtext, instead immortalized through its number of still-impressive gore effects. Yet the film, in both its virtues and flaws, shows Cronenberg’s themes reaching in new directions.
One of the consistencies evidenced in Scanners is its Canadian setting. Cronenberg’s aforementioned prestige ascension often took him from Canada to exotic locales such as China, Austria, and England; in comparison, his earlier work made a point of emphasizing the urban or suburban malaise of a dreary Canadian winter, which acted as some partial indicator of the ensuing chaos. Just as iconic as Scanners’ exploding head (in his oeuvre, at least) is the image of The Brood’s three monstrous children in those one-piece snowsuits every Canadian kid has to wear for four months of the year.
This familiarity extends to Scanners, seeing as it begins in the food court of a seemingly mundane Montreal shopping mall. If the picture isn’t quick to establish its stakes, a (somewhat limited) scope is still made clear. Taking place amongst a variety of urban and suburban spaces replete with French store signs, parking lots, home hospital offices, labs, and other rigidly bland forms of architecture, it would (initially) be easy to think of Scanners as a social-realist Canadian drama rather than something closer to the video nasty mold.
Of course, shifting a genre’s typical locations has always been a part of Cronenberg and many of his other contemporaries’ plan, being that, before his rise in the ’70s, horror was predominantly gothic or fantastic, taking place in castles or faraway planets. Scanners embraces another genre, though: the corporate thriller (almost an oxymoron of a label). The film, while using non-exotic locales for its many set-pieces, isn’t populated with the rather ordinary people of Cronenberg’s earlier films.
Instead of the middle-class citizens going through their everyday lives, it sees two corporate entities, the security company ConSec and the chemical-producing BioCarbon, wrestle for control. Fighting for the respective sides are Vale and Revok, who, as two of the titular Scanners, possess the ability of telekinesis — the dangerous height of which is established very early with the film’s aforementioned combusting head sequence — and, as weaponized men, represent a binary between man and technology. At one point in the film, the living and non-living forms even make a trade: Vale absorbs ConSec data through a payphone, and, in turn, provides the extremely Cronenberg-ian image of a bleeding phone.
This concept naturally leads to a certain desexualization, though ConSec, being represented onscreen by a small corporate board of old white guys, is already inherently stuffy — which it’s quick to mock. Cronenberg, who always likes to remind people that all his movies are actually quite funny, certainly gets a kick out of a certain kind of male panic, often having to do with image and control. In their words, Revok’s early act of terror results in “six corpses and a substantial loss in credibility for our organization.”
A number of his films presented the male psyche under attack, while the female’s manifested to murderous, monstrous heights — as has been seen in The Brood and Rabid, while, later, mostly removed of genre in A Dangerous Method. The two early films inspired one of Cronenberg’s biggest critics, Robin Wood, to state that he was rather regressive in his sexual politics, essentially presenting a fear of the woman as a dominant force. Though Scanners differentiates itself with a removal of female characters (for the most part) and situating squarely within the male mindset, the film’s flaws become evident in what it only hints at. This doesn’t just contain the thoughts read by Vale — which, more often than not, are simply presented as an assaulting blur — but also the female relation to all these male espionage hijinks.
A particular sign of what could’ve been is seen when the film’s rather perfunctory female Scanner, Kim, distracts a ConSec security guard by forcing him to see a vision of his mother in her place, which subsequently inspires him to have a nervous breakdown. Yet that’s the only onscreen mother, even with the reveal regarding the Scanners’ origins: the result of pregnant women being experimented on with BioCarbon’s chief drug product. This, if anything, insinuates the parent role as truly belonging to a corporate body — only another form of the mechanized man.
Seeing what’s missing is easy because, in Cronenberg’s next (and possibly best) film, Videodrome, he linked the body and mechanization while acknowledging sexual connotations by foregrounding it against perverted television programming of the early ’80s. In that case, male desire and its consequences were at their clearest.
While it’s perhaps too large an excuse to say Scanners arrives as a victim of its genre requirements, not having the time for sex and thought amidst shotgun blasts and car chases, a grotesque climax at least serves as the most satisfying marriage of its macho text and audience appeal: two men flaunting their powers — and, in turn, the film’s special effects — in the bloody psychic showdown to end all bloody psychic showdowns. Yet it cuts before the conclusion, which may have just been due to a budgetary restriction, but actually hits the perfect note, robbing audiences the final chance of getting off on what they’d wanted this whole time.
It naturally concludes with a fusion of the two different male forms: the soul of the biggest cipher of a lead in Cronenberg’s filmography now placed inside the body of one of its most memorable villains. To deem a victor in the battle — not between corporations, but rather special effects and intellect — it’s thus better to accept Scanners as this merged man, even though one hopes for a little more of the devilish, conniving Revok than the controlled, straight-arrow Vale.
Scanners is now available on The Criterion Collection.