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Cinema: This Is the Way the World Ends

3 minute read
Richard Corliss

SCANNERS Directed and Written by David Cronenberg

We are at the headquarters of CONSEC—one of those multinational, virtually preternatural corporations that specialize in almost everything—where an unusual lecture-demonstration is about to take place. The subject: “scanners,” people whose telepathic power enables them not only to read but to control another’s mind, and destroy the body attached to it. The lecturer, a mousy older man whose head is the size, shape and texture of a bowling ball, has called for a volunteer to demonstrate the power. After a moment, a rugged fellow in his 30s agrees to participate. “Think of something specific and personal,” says the lecturer. The younger man agrees and the two men stare ahead, rapt in concentration. But something is wrong. As the young man narrows his gaze, the lecturer shows signs of agitation, of discomfort, of pain, agony—sploooosh! The bowling-ball head explodes, the meeting ends in panic, and the young man—who we now realize is a renegade scanner—vaults out of the room.

In David Cronenberg’s films, things are always going bump! or aarrgh! or sploooosh! in the night. With They Came from Within, Rabid, The Brood and now Scanners, Cronenberg, 37, has joined the estimable company of John Carpenter and George Romero as a low-budget mahatma of the macabre. Like Carpenter’s The Fog and Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Cronenberg’s movies are hip parables of contemporary moral malaise, in which ordinary people are infected by a malignancy as invisible and pervasive as the most swinish flu virus. As his vision aged, like rancid fruit, the malignancy crept closer to home. In They Came from Within, it was a small, snouty bug, transmitted from mouth to mouth during sex. In Rabid it was a bloodsucking organ that sprouts from the carrier’s armpit. In The Brood and Scanners it is the mind itself, splitting the nuclear family and precipitating a psychic apocalypse.

Horror buffs rarely debate metaphysics; they want a director to deliver the chills-down-your-spine, heart-in-your-throat, you-can’t-watch-but-you-daren’t-leave goods. Cronenberg delivers. When the body of one of his characters turns on its owner, it does so with a sanguinary vengeance. In Scanners, the Force flings men against walls, drives them to shotgun suicide, creeps inside their muscles and works its way out. This last special effect is a gloss of the sequence in Altered States in which William Hurt’s face and arms assumed grotesque simian form (Makeup Wizard Dick Smith worked on both films): but Cronenberg goes beyond Altered States, beyond fantasy and physiognomy, for a climax that is literally mind blowing.

Cronenberg is a genuine writer-director—a man of vivid ideas and images. He can sculpt extravagant premises into scary narratives; he can clothe his plots in sinuous camera movements and dynamite film tricks. What he cannot do is write or direct convincing dialogue. Sophisticated actors tend to sound silly when they deliver his messages: in Scanners, Hero Stephen Lack is too hammy, Evil Genius Patrick McGoohan too wry. But pleas for Old Vic or New Hollywood performances miss the point. If Lack, McGoohan and Heroine Jennifer O’Neill act like mannequins in a punk boutique window, fine. At any moment—at least in a David Cronenberg movie—the figures could escape to the street, walk up to you and bump! aarrgh! sploooosh!

—Richard Corliss

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