Every special effect is an idea, and Scanners packs some gnarly hypotheses. The notorious exploding head sequence, originally planned as the opening scene and an object of consternation for the MPAA, is both an outrageous demonstration of telepathic power run amok and the crystallization of a rigorous thematic. A tale of telepaths at war with each other and the corporate machine that engineered them, Scanners consolidates the ruling problematic of the Cronenberg project from the sex slugs of Shivers to the financial abstractions of Cosmopolis: what are the effects of signals on an organism? How do we process information? What are the consequences and by-products of synthesis, and what are the forms of a successful—or disastrous—output of alien energy?
Rushed into production to take advantage of tax shelter financing and shot during a grim Montreal winter, Scanners feels at once scrappy and minimalist. “It was meant to be very deadly,” Cronenberg remembers, “a cold, harsh, nasty film.” A significant portion of that chill is localized in the weirdly neutral central performance by Stephen Lack as the telepathic initiate Cameron Vale. Videodrome (83) would establish Cronenberg’s ability to evoke superbly textured performances, but Lack’s blank affect is characteristic of an entire subclass of productively awkward acting throughout his oeuvre. Character actor Robert A. Silverman, a minor axiom of the Cronenbergian here playing a paranoid sculptor, is an early exemplar of the style, which is more or less totalized in the ensemble of Crash (96) and received one of its wittiest variations by Sarah Gadon in Cosmopolis (12). Lack may well be a “bad” actor, though we’ll never know; following Scanners he returned to the avant-garde art circles he frequented and struck out for the nascent East Village scene. But it scarcely matters in a film with next to no investment in producing audience surrogates or sympathetic identifications; the most notable point-of-view shot in Scanners assumes the perspective of the scanning process itself as it merges with the “nervous system” of a mainframe computer—a proto-cyberpunk conceit predating Neuromancer by three years.
Scanners is something of an odd choice for the deluxe Criterion treatment given the number of Cronenberg masterworks languishing on subpar DVDs. Until, that is, you account for its packaging as a telepathic double feature with the early experimental feature Stereo (69), a wonderful bit of sardonic Burroughsian pseudo-science so comprehensively prophetic of the Cronenbergian that it reads like a Rosetta Stone of the New Flesh.