David Cronenberg, the Canadian King of Venereal Horror, writes and directs Scanners – a sci-fi/horror film about individuals with telekinetic powers, weaponised by the ConSec corporation. Let’s call it The Canadian Candidate.
Released in 1981, Scanners has the feel of a ’60s sci-fi film, with an almost old-fashioned conspiracy plot; the protagonist (Steven Lack) is like 007 with ESP. But this is a Cronenberg movie through and through, and he brings a number of trademark Cronenbergian flourishes to proceedings.
Firstly, there’s the astounding sound and visual effects, from the head-bursting opening to the face-shredding climax. Secondly, there’s the eerily cold tone; Cronenberg’s clean compositions and aversion to exposition create a severe vision of detachment – enhanced by the strange, strained score by his regular collaborator Howard Shore.
Cronenberg (whose recent novel Consumed is great too, by the way) also explores his usual intellectual themes, including the role of the human body in an increasingly technological world, and the physical manifestations of the unconscious mind.
His world is one of corporate-political institutions running sinister programmes from dystopian boardrooms, while underground groups experiment and challenge the orthodoxy. Throw in a mad scientist (Patrick McGoohan) and a drug called Ephemerol, and you’ve got yourself some classic Cronenberg.
He presents the same body-horror techno-conspiracy that would characterise his ingenious follow-up Videodrome. But Steven Lack is no James Woods, and the film is held back by a wooden lead performance; you’d have to be psychic to decipher his emotions. Fortunately, Michael Ironside is on hand as a chillingly brilliant villain.
The plot may not be as tight as the atmosphere, but Scanners is a searing success; clinical, cerebral and head-burstingly bold. If you want to see what a Cronenberg-directed X-Men movie would look like, look no further.