You don’t have to search the Internet hard to find the big centerpiece from David Cronenberg’s “Scanners”; YouTube clips and gifs abound of Michael Ironside imploding some poor guy’s head with his mind and funny faces. That scene made this shocker’s name back in 1981, and what wrought plenty of belated sequels and spin-offs through the ’90s. (Dick Smith, who recently passed, is responsible for the scarily realistic effects. He also did nicer work making Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman look old in “The Godfather” and “Little Big Man,” respectively.)
Not quite as shocking is how there’s plenty more gory/unpleasant/jaw-dropping business throughout the film. “Scanners” marks the end of an early era for Cronenberg. It’s right before he went next level brainy/aesthetically adventurous with 1983’s “Videodrome.” Before then he had been cranking out Canadian nasties like “Rabid” and “The Brood” (plus one total runt, the straight-faced racecar melodrama “Fast Company”). These could still be enjoyed on a purely gorehound level, even as their intelligence and fascination with post-human biotechnology peeked just above the surface.
“Scanners” does play like a franchise-launcher, even if by the bloody/fiery finale you feel Cronenberg has said what he had to say. Stephen Lack plays a disheveled drifter with strong psychic powers who is picked up by a scientist (Patrick McGoohan, buried under a beard and a turtleneck) who recognizes him as part of a wave of people genetically experimented on at birth. They have mind powers that can be dangerous; indeed, one of them, Daniel Revok (Ironside), has been on the run, blowing up heads and threatening to create some master race.
Lack is a stiff lead, and most of the cast isn’t much better, though Ironside chews enough scenery for everyone, and McGoohan is in fine sage-Englishman-in-dirty-genre-movie mode. But that’s as it should be. Cronenberg would soon start playing with real actors (James Woods, Jeff Goldblum, Jeremy Irons), whose strong personalities pushed back against his obsession with humans as mere bodies destined for unthinkable mutations and abuses. But “Scanners” is a film about people going beyond people, who live primarily in the mind. His characters — even the non-psychic ones — are there to make silly faces while the soundtrack hums and buzzes with futurist electronics.
“Scanners” doesn’t go as deep into this idea as he would later on, or even as he did in 1978’s “The Brood” — a chilling look at the damage of divorce manifesting itself in psychotic creatures. It’s skin deep, and regularly punctuated with hair-raising set pieces and shoot-outs. In fact, there’s so much incident in it that it’s not always recognizable as Cronenberg — except that few others would be as revved up by action scenes played over people’s faces as they scan others, and that not many other directors would have the stomach for the nasty places “Scanners” goes with casual ease.
Special features: Criterion’s predictably beefed-up edition includes a doc on the effects, plus new chats with Ironside and Lack, an artist who is much more alert and fun than he is as an actor. It also includes the entirety of “Stereo,” his 1969 student feature that plays as a kind of rough draft for the ideas explored with more money in “Scanners” (and features the unforgettable preening of actor Ronald Mlodzik, who also appears in Cronenberg’s “Crimes of the Future”).
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