Fresh Eyes: Scanners (1981)
I had never heard of David Cronenberg until very recently. I was aware of some of his work, like The Fly and A History of Violence, only having seen the latter. However, after watching the “Rick Potion Number 9” episode of Rick and Morty, wherein everyone on the planet gets turned into “Cronenbergs,” I knew I had to check out his filmography in some way. I had to see if his work contained anything like the gruesome monstrosities on display in Rick and Morty. Since then, I have seen Videodrome, and now Scanners. This week's film is simultaneously more gruesome and more compelling than I was initially expecting.
Scanners is the story of Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a telepath who gets picked up by a company called ConSec and brought under the care of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who trains him and sends Vale out into the world to hunt down a rogue Scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). As the film progresses, this fairly black and white conflict becomes more and more muddled, as Dr. Ruth is revealed to have created Scanners accidentally, as side effects of his drug Ephemerol which he was giving to pregnant women. The film ends with Cameron scanning his way into Revok’s body and taking control, leaving his own corpse behind.
I was immediately struck by the fact that Scanners treats the idea of telepathy with complete seriousness. Not one person scoffs or questions the existence of telepathy in this world, which was refreshing. That being said, telepathy itself is treated much like mental illness or a disability, rather than a superpower. This is further reinforced by the revelation that the telepathy is essentially a birth defect. The film stresses how painful scanning is for both the Scanner and person being scanned, which feels like an attempt to separate this type of telepathy from something like Professor X’s powers in general X-Men continuity. Scans cause nosebleeds, psychological trauma, and the occasional head explosion and body melting.
At the outset of the film, Cameron is unable to control his telepathy at all, and it essentially cripples his mental functions. Other Scanners have similar struggles that manifest differently. The character of Benjamin Pierce creates artwork to keep the voices at bay, and all the art shown are embodiments of his mental struggles, the horrors of being trapped within your own mind. Pierce’s art includes a cowering man spinning around in fear, trapped in a barbed wire cage, and demon-esque figures holding a man down, bearing down on him with syringes, ostensibly full of Ephemerol. Scanners makes an effort to show the burden this power would actually be on a person, and the effort makes it a better film overall.
However, the links between telepathy and mental illness do create some problems. Dr. Ruth and the rest of the ConSec constantly refer to telepathy as a “disease” or “derangement,” while referring to the Scanners themselves as “creatures,” “human junk,” “delinquents,” and “freaks.” If telepathy is read as a mental illness analogue, then this could further perpetuate the already prevalent idea that the mentally ill are somehow lesser than everyone else, that they are to be looked down upon and derided, that they are dangerous.
On top of that, Revok and his men make comments about ConSec trying to turn the Scanners into “robots” or “zombies” with the Ephemerol. While the film does its best to put Revok in the villain role, the ending revelation about Dr. Ruth’s involvement with the creation of Scanners and Ephemerol casts that into doubt, and makes the viewer question everything they have been told. My problem with this is that it could lead some viewers to the conclusion that antidepressants and other mental health medication will make them into “robots” or “zombies” as well. This would further contribute to an already existing idea that mental health meds make people not their true selves. It’s a potentially damaging mindset to be perpetuating, even accidentally.
I know this sounds really negative, but in truth I really enjoyed Scanners. The performances are all entertainingly over the top, especially during the telepathy fight sequences. The body horror is in top shape throughout, especially the head explosion at the start. I found the overall narrative compelling and one of the best superhero films I’ve seen in a while. That being said, I cannot help but point out the mental illness analogues and the problems I have with it. Art with problems is often the most important to talk about, and I feel like Scanners is something more people should see and be talking about.