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Beyond The Meme: Revisiting ‘Scanners’

By  · Published on March 27th, 2017

Scanning one of David Cronenberg’s most popular, most flawed films.

Memory is a funny thing. Not funny, “haha,” so much, but funny in that hilariously terrifying way that makes you realize your own brain is out to destroy you. The fitting inspiration for this epiphany of corporeal opposition was a recent revisit of David Cronenberg’s Scanners.

You know Scanners. You may not have seen the movie, but at the very least you know it as a meme. If you’ve ever been scrolling through social media on that day when your geeky cousin (the one you forgot to wish a happy birthday because you could not spare the finger energy) has had just about enough, you’ve probably seen a colorful gif (that’s “G-if,” not “J-if” you heathens) of a man’s head exploding in gory detail.

Despite occurring a mere fifteen minutes into the film, that head explosion scene is certainly Scanners’ centerpiece; its sensational calling card. The problem however is that the bursting of that poor fellow’s noggin paints the movie (and the walls, but mostly the movie) as something it is not. Scanners is not as bombastic as we remember ‐ and certainly not as exciting as that instance of human pinata-ism ‐ and that false mem(e)ory is actually one of the few thrilling moments of an extremely dry political thriller.

Don’t be mislead, Scanners is a remarkable film, just as the hosts of the Junkfood Cinema podcast vigorously attest during this week’s episode. In all fairness however, its story is as thin on the ground as the chunks of brain matter are thick on the walls. The structural shortcomings of its plot were lamented by the likes of critics Roger Ebert and Vincent Canby in their respective 1981 reviews. Scanners is a back-loaded mystery in which the big reveal is largely just a buried treasure chest brimming with exposition that could have been parceled out through the previous eighty minutes.

These are not cheap shots nor is this assessment of Scanners anywhere near mind-blowing. Cronenberg himself has admitted that the production of Scanners was less than ideal, once calling it his most frustrating film. The movie’s shooting schedule was truncated in order that it could be considered a tax write-off, a shady studio move that tasked Cronenberg to write and shoot simultaneously. One could therefore forgive the haphazard, eleventh-hour revelations in the plot (of corporate maleficence and fraternal mutation). After all, how was Cronenberg to construct subtle signposts when he wasn’t sure where his road was leading?

Is Scanners a classic? Yes. Is that honor bestowed solely in recognition of Dick Smith’s explosive practical effects? Absolutely not. Even without the luxury of Darryl Revok’s powers, Scanners is an invasive investigation of the mind of David Cronenberg; vital to understanding his creative nervous system.

The most casual of horror fans will tell you that the name Cronenberg is synonymous with the subgenre of body horror. While that is true and Cronenberg is a filmmaker who helped create body horror, the term is reductive to the point of suggesting that, much as some might argue of Scanners, his entire style is predicated upon grisly gore effects. Rather Cronenberg is a man fascinated by the potential of the human body. Moreover, Cronenberg recognizes the danger of this power and his work reflects a marked mistrust of the scientists and corporations who, like Dr. Frankenstein, would seek to irresponsibly harness and utilize that power. The irony of weaponizing the human body and then witnessing how the use of that weapon can lead to a disintegration of our humanity, makes his films, again akin to Mary Shelley’s novel, cautionary tales played out with psychological and, yes, physical consequences.

In that regard, Scanners is a solidification of Cronenberg’s visual style and thematic wheelhouse. But beneath the visual style lie the germ of his substance. Scanners marks the ascent of Cronenberg’s storytelling style. He would learn from the experience of working on Scanners, a self-admitted frustrating endeavor, and with his subsequent films would experiment with story structure with magnificent results. The Fly is a sterling example. We are introduced immediately to Seth Brundle and his teleportation machine. We see, early on, his impetuous decision to test the machine on himself, but it is the deliberate visual distribution of the consequences of that experiment ‐ the slow metamorphosis leading to a foregone conclusion ‐ that proved Cronenberg himself was evolving as a storyteller.

But again, The Fly is an effects-driven movie so the evolution may seem slight. Leap then instead to 2005’s A History of Violence. Many filmgoers were startled at how divergent from his signature work this one appeared to be…on the surface. However A History of Violence is as Cronenberg a story as it gets. Tom Stall is a man whose lethal acumen literally makes his body a weapon, but like Scanners or The Fly, the audience learns their are limits to that control and gruesome consequences to trying to keep that weapon sheathed.

In another filmmaker’s hands, this would have been a standard action film building to a third-act showdown with Ed Harris’ Carl Fogarty. However A History of Violence just creeps into the third act before dispatching with Fogarty and revealing a bigger baddie in William Hurt. That loose end is tied up so quickly that it too feels like a foregone conclusion recognized by none but Tom. The loose end is tied up quickly because the real consequence of the story is how Tom’s family is emotionally and physically altered by the revelation of his former life and his capacity for brutality. He loses his domestic tranquility slowly and viscerally in a fashion not dissimilar from Brundle’s slow rot.

It may not be the movie you remember, but do not attempt to adjust your memory banks. Scanners is still a watershed movie. Without it, Cronenberg misses an opportunity to hone his style and advance his abilities as a storyteller. We may always think of that cranium bursting apart, but Scanners remains a classic for so much more than a meme.

Want to hear more? Why not let the latest episode of Junkfood Cinema into your head? No need to read our minds, you can download, listen and share below!

As a special treat, anyone who backs JFC on Patreon will have access to a weekly bonus episodes covering an additional cult movie, a new movie in theaters, or a mailbag episode devoted to your submitted questions! Have a couple bucks to throw in the hat, we’ll reward you!

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.