David Cronenberg had been making moody, cerebral horror films (and one drag-racing movie) in Canada since Stereo in 1969, and with each feature, his cult grew a little bigger. It helped that he gave audiences more than one reason to show up, offering increasingly elaborate (and explicit) visual effects with each film while anchoring the unforgettable visuals to resonant philosophical conceits, from Shivers’ sexual paranoia to The Brood’s brutal divorce metaphors. It took the 1981 film Scanners to bring him widespread attention, however, which makes sense in retrospect. Though labyrinthine compared to, say, My Bloody Valentine, the action-filled Scanners has a superficially straightforward evil-telepaths-vs.-good-telepaths plot not that far removed from Brian De Palma’s 1978 hit The Fury. And it has an irresistible hook in its most unforgettable image: It’s the movie where a man’s head explodes.
Advertising for the film went to town with the exploding head. Ads promised “Their thoughts can kill!” next to a graphic description of what it would be like to be on the wrong end of the psychic transaction. (“10 seconds: The pain begins. 15 seconds: You can’t breathe. 20 seconds: You explode.”) Yet anyone showing up for the exploding head alone got more than they bargained for from the first scene, in which the derelict hero, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack, now better known as a painter than an actor), forages for scraps in a shopping mall while disapproving shoppers look on and talk about him. The atmosphere here, like many of the environments visited in the film, is antiseptic, a place of glass and polished metal. The unkempt Vale clearly does not belong among the respectable shoppers, prompting one woman to comment, “I don’t know how they can let creatures like that in here.” Then Vale involuntarily turns the tables on her, prompting her to go into a seizure. In a sense, he is a creature with no place among proper humans. But what sets him apart also gives him the ability to bring it all to the ground if he chooses.
Vale doesn’t know this yet, but he quickly learns when he’s taken in by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a scientist at the research firm ConSec who informs Vale he’s a scanner, part of a race of people born with telepathic abilities. From there, Vale becomes aware both of other scanners in general and one in particular, the malevolent Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside, terrifying) intent on taking down ConSec. To prevent this, Ruth sends Vale to infiltrate Revok’s forces as Revok escalates his attack.
In an insightful essay accompanying the new Criterion edition of the film, critic and novelist Kim Newman points out that Scanners is part of a tradition of works about the evolutionary emergence of beings with powers beyond normal humans, from A.E. van Vogt’s Slan to Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human to the X-Men comics. Scanners occasionally plays like a tour of the metaphorical possibilities raised by that scenario, turning the hero into one type of outsider after another. Vale begins as a drifter, and at times resembles a junkie (Ruth administers a drug to suppress Vale’s painful ability to hear other people’s thoughts), a spy, a bohemian (one sequence involves a visit to a tortured scanner artist who channels his abilities into art), and, ultimately, a revolutionary. As Vale and his scanner partner on the lam Kim (Jennifer O’Neill) draw closer to Revok, it becomes clear that the future of the scanners, and the human race, depends on who wins their final confrontation.
As anyone who’s seen Scanners can attest, that outcome isn’t so clear, and Cronenberg fills the film with moments and images of identities melting together. The film matches shots of faces, letting one dissolve into the next. To disarm a guard, Kim appears to him as his mother. In time, a firm with a name as nondescript as ConSec’s, BioCarbon Amalgamate, emerges as its rival; that company is housed in a nearly identical blocky building. Even humanity and machines become inseparable from one another in a scene in which Vale infiltrates a computer system by entering its “mind,” to the consternation of the lab-coat-wearing men around it. It’s yet another moment in Scanners where an organized system in a carefully controlled environment—be it a mall, lab, or hotel conference room—falls into chaos with the introduction of a rogue element. The outsiders always find a way in, and they rarely leave things as they found them.
The generous selection of bonus features includes vintage elements, like a trailer made up almost entirely of the exploding-head scene, a handful of radio spots, and a 1981 Canadian talk-show appearance in which Cronenberg discusses his work up to that point, and what his children think of it. (“My daughter has seen all my films, and she loves them. She brings friends home to watch them on cassette. I insist on getting notes from their parents, though.”) New features include a documentary on Scanners’ effects—in which every interview subject talks about the genius of makeup artist Dick Smith—and long interviews with Leak and Ironside. Ironside is the more entertaining of the two, talking about how Scanners fit into his early days as a struggling Canadian actor, and how the film fit into a personal history that included psychic brothers and sisters he had to wake up “because I was having their nightmares and I couldn’t get to sleep.” The main attraction here, however, is Stereo, Cronenberg’s previously hard-to-find feature debut from 1969. The 65-minute film, soundtracked only by the occasional scientific-sounding voiceover, and featuring many shots of shaggy-haired people traipsing through the institutional corridors of the Canadian Academy For Erotic Inquiry, is very much a late-1960s film experiment. But it’s also filled with striking compositions, and its plot, which collides sex, science, and psychic phenomena, anticipates everything from Scanners to Dead Ringers.