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Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Heroes, Villains, and Mind Control: Celebrating ‘Scanners’ at 40

By 1981, David Cronenberg had already gathered a great deal of respect in the Canadian film industry and was beginning to make his mark abroad. His first three major horror features, Shivers (1975, aka They Came From Within), Rabid (1977), and The Brood (1979), established him as a master of what is usually referred to as “body horror.” In 1981, under very difficult production circumstances, he released a very different kind of movie. Though it still contains some of the most memorable body horror effects in history, Scanners could perhaps more accurately be called “mind horror.” It delves deeply into the nature of the power of the mind as well as fears of mind control, particularly being manipulated by an outside force against one’s will. This internal struggle made external coalesces into one of the most inventive and intellectually complex horror films of the entire decade. 

For all its intricacies of plot, Scanners is ultimately a thematically focused film and structured very much like a superhero origin story. There is a gifted protagonist with unrefined abilities, a powerful and engaging villain, and a mentor with a hidden past. The hero encounters obstacles and allies along the way, ultimately leading him to an epic showdown with the villain. 

When we first meet our hero, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), he is unformed and unable to control his unusual skills. He is a directionless derelict wandering through the food court of a shopping center stealing leftover food from trays left on tables. As he eats, he overhears a conversation between two women that he should not be able to hear. His anger overtakes him. He focuses his rage on one of the women who suddenly falls into convulsions. This action makes him the target of two men who pursue him through the mall and sedate him with a tranquilizer dart. When he awakens strapped to a bed, we meet the mysterious mentor Dr. Paul Ruth, played by veteran actor Patrick McGoohan. Dr. Ruth confronts Vale with the reality of his situation as well as working as an informer for the audience, setting up the scenario. “You’re a scanner, but you don’t realize it. And that is the source of all your agony. But I will show you now that it can be a source of great power.”

Underlying all of Scanners is a sense of broad mythic storytelling that infuses so many memorable stories. As every hero needs a mentor, every hero also needs a villain. We are introduced to Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) in one of horror cinema’s most memorable moments. During a demonstration of scanning at ConSec before an audience of investors and world leaders, Revok calmly “scans the scanner” and causes his head to explode in an effect that remains shocking and visceral 40 years later. But even more important to his character than the act itself is the fact that Revok seems to enjoy it. 

The scene following the head explosion is, in several ways, more vital in establishing Revok’s character than that display of power. ConSec operatives attempt to capture him by injecting him with the drug Ephemerol, which suppresses scanning abilities. Unbeknownst to his captors, Revok causes the doctor to inject himself and Revok fakes sedation. As the security detail drives through the city with Revok supposedly anaesthetized in the backseat of one of the company’s cars, he takes control and causes one driver to collide with a barrier, killing himself and his passengers. This scene shows that Revok can do far more than simply read minds or accidentally cause convulsions. He can control the actions of others, even causing them to harm themselves and others. This taps into a deep, even primordial, fear of being out of control of oneself, or even worse being controlled by someone without our knowledge. The invasion of not only physical, but mental privacy is truly disturbing. By taking it a step further, Cronenberg taps into something even more frightening—the loss of personal autonomy.

The reaction of the ConSec executives introduces one of the main political themes of the film. When this international security and weapons firm learns of the events of the night before, the company president addresses his executive board. “Last night, we at ConSec chose to reveal to the outside world our work with those telepathic curiosities known as scanners. The result? Six corpses and a substantial loss in credibility for our organization.” It is clear in his statement that the loss of credibility is of much greater concern than the six corpses. The coldness of the corporate world is an ever-present undercurrent of the film. Dr. Ruth convinces the board to allow him to send Vale into the field to attempt to infiltrate Revok’s underground community of scanners in order to “eliminate the competition.” These human beings are seen as mere pawns in a game of corporate chess. In this scene, we also become more unsure of Ruth. It remains uncertain from this point on whether or not he can be trusted.

Dr. Ruth then begins his training of Vale, explaining to him, and once again to us, the nature of scanners and how their power works. He explains that scanners are a “freak of nature,” a mutation that emerged bringing about this new power. He reveals that Ephemerol can be used to prevent the flow of telepathy. He shows Vale a film of a young Revok just after he had attempted to drill a hole in his head to stop the voices. “At the age of 22, he was extremely self-destructive. Now, at the age of 35 he is simply destructive. In many ways, Cameron, he is your enemy. And mine.” He goes on to explain that Revok is trying to track down all the scanners and convert them to his cause and destroy the society that created them. Those who do not join, he murders. In this, Darryl Revok is not all that far removed from a character like Magneto in X-Men

We also learn from Dr. Ruth that telepathy in this film is much more than simply mind reading or even mind control. As he explains “it is the linking of two nervous systems separated by space.” This version of telepathy opens a far greater world of possibilities for the characters and the film. In a controlled environment, Dr. Ruth tells Vale to cause a man’s heart to beat faster. Vale is quickly able to do this, nearly killing the man. Afterward, Vale calmly states, “you were right, Dr. Ruth, it was easy,” giving us reason to wonder if Vale will slip into anger and evil as Revok has.

On his mission to infiltrate Revok’s underground, Vale meets scanner and artist Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman). While at Pierce’s studio, they are ambushed by assassins sent by Revok who kill Pierce. Vale scans them, sending them into convulsions and throwing them across the room, showing that his power is strong, but still an unrefined, brute force. As Pierce is dying, Vale learns of an alternate underground lead by Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill) that is far different from Revok’s army of “zombie killers.”

With Kim’s group, we find a cooperative community that seeks to link their minds to create a greater power. From here, the film becomes about the difference between voluntary and dictatorial control. These people do not force themselves upon others as Revok does. They acknowledge the fear that is innate in developing a bond of trust, but also the exhilaration and power that comes from it. Again, this introduces a major political subtext of the film. These two communities are a comment on sociological systems and how they function. In this context, it is the difference between democracy and fascism, cooperation and coercion, even light and dark, good and evil.

The final, powerful theme comes late in the film after Cameron and Kim discover that Revok is not underground at all but working for, and possibly even running, the pharmaceutical firm Biocarbon Amalgamate—and by extension, ConSec. Though explored much further two years later in Videodrome, Scanners touches on the combining of humanity with technology. Vale scans ConSec’s computer to gain access to information about the “Ripe program,” that has been reinstated after several years. Dr. Ruth explains to Cameron that since the computer has a nervous system, he can scan it as he would a human being. In a literally explosive scene, Cameron taps into the mainframe through a phone, gathering the information he needs and destroying ConSec’s computer network in the process.

In the final showdown between Vale and Revok, the element of mythic storytelling returns as Revok attempts to lure Cameron to his cause. In true supervillain fashion, he says, “we’ll bring the world of normals to their knees. Rule an empire so brilliant, so glorious, we’ll be the envy of the whole planet.” 

The practical effects in the final “scanner way” fight are simply astounding. Make-up effects master Dick Smith had been brought in to supervise this final sequence. Though Chris Walas (who would work again with Cronenberg on The Fly), Gary Zeller and others had done some very good work on this sequence, Cronenberg felt it wasn’t entirely working and needed something different. Smith utilized a technique he had been developing (and used the year before in Altered States), employing a plastic called Elvacite to create the popping veins of the blood-soaked finale. As with the head explosion early in the film, these effects are every bit as powerful and effective as they were in 1981.

With Scanners, Cronenberg started the 1980’s with a bang. He proved himself able to work calmly under extreme pressure and still produce a product that is viscerally horrifying and intellectually stimulating. He once again delved into humanity’s deepest and most intricate fears with an entertaining and engaging story. He made an even greater mark on worldwide cinema than he had up to that point and cemented his place as horror’s great intellectual.

Also Read: Michael Ironside’s Explosive Performance as One of Cronenberg’s Best Villains



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/editorials/3650748/heroes-villains-mind-control-celebrating-scanners-40/

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