Characterised by his tendency toward mind-bending concepts and bulging practical effects, there are few filmmakers that carry the same influence and weight as David Cronenberg. Having long stood as the overlord of sci-fi filmmaking, the Canadian writer and director contorted the shape of 20th-century horror, manipulating its future with a pioneering approach to fleshy body horror. From Videodrome to Scanners, Cronenberg’s influence was unparalleled, with the blood, pus, and oozing gunk of his on-screen victims at the very heart of his young fans’ deep appreciation.
Scanners represented just one of the director’s many high-concept ideas, with his fourth feature film acting as a gunky DIY sounding board that would metamorphose into something far more realistic, raw, and explicit in his future career. Sharing similarities to his celebrated 1983 classic Videodrome, Scanners follows the story of a scientist who trains a man to embrace an advanced telepathic ability called ‘scanning’ to help stop a dangerous psychic from going on a murder spree.
It’s an insane concept that perfectly encapsulates the wild tastes of 1980s filmmaking, featuring a pulpy science fiction story and a preoccupation with excessive gore and special effects. Based on Cronenberg’s own script, The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000 which were both considered to adapt before the release of The Brood in 1979, the film sees Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a powerful psychic, take down his adversaries in order to claim human supremacy.
His biggest enemy is the private military company ConSec and the ‘Scanner’ Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) who appears to be the only man who can stop Darryl Revok in his tracks. Infiltrating a ConSec marketing lecture, Revok helps to orchestrate one of David Cronenberg’s most iconic scenes, forcing the head of a company lackey to explode under psychic pressure. Becoming an influential image of 1980s horror, the utter shock and joyous violence of Scanners’ head-explosion scene helped to elevate David Cronenberg into the public eye, following small independent films Shivers, Rabid and The Brood.
Orchestrated with thanks to make-up artist Dick Smith, who also helped to bring the terror of The Exorcist to life, the iconic scene itself was the product of trial and error, with the special effects team eventually using a plaster skull and gelatin exterior. As makeup artist Stephan Dupuis recalls, the head was then filled with “latex scraps, some wax, and just bits and bobs and a lot of stringy stuff that we figured would fly through the air a little better”. Hilariously, this also included bits of “leftover burgers”. Once several modes of explosion failed, however, Gary Zeller, the special effects supervisor, told the crew to find cover and shot the dummy in the back of the head with a shotgun.
Whilst Scanners certainly does not reflect the very best of David Cronenberg, it does show the early promise of a blossoming filmmaker eager to provocate the horror genre and represent a new terror for the future of filmmaking.