David Cronenberg was a big deal for me during the 1980s. Discovering his work during that formative decade was extremely impactful on my taste in movies, starting with Videodrome inappropriately blowing my 13-year-old mind, then discovering the nightmarish reproductive body horror of 1979's The Brood, and culminating in his masterpiece, the 1986 remake of The Fly. Even digging back farther into his earlier work, like Rabid and Shivers, I appreciated his unsettling tone and daring content, but the one movie of his from that period that never stood out for me was his 1981 thriller Scanners. It was legendary among my peers for its famous exploding head, but the overall movie made so little impact on me that I went for decades misremembering it as about people who work for a telephone company and can explode heads over a phone line. Rewatching it this month, I still found stretches of it quite dull, and some parts well beneath Cronenberg's usual intelligence, but the whole is elevated by a few great scenes, including a compelling ending.
Decades after a pharmaceutical test endowed its child subjects with telepathic abilities, powerful interests jockey for control over the now-adult recipients, nicknamed "scanners." As Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) hunts downs and kills his fellow-scanners, a security firm enlists a comparably powerful telepath, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), to locate and neutralize Revok.
Scanners has a lot of problems. In addition to a long, boring stretch in the second act, it's well below Cronenberg's usual standard in other respects, as if it was a movie he was forced to make or lost control of during production. Character development is shoddy, at best. Vale transforms almost instantly from a disheveled transient with no understanding of his gift into a cocky ace scanner with precision control, whereas all the other characters are completely static. Patrick McGoohan has a neat presence as Vale's mentor, and Jennifer O'Neill co-stars as another scanner who is almost completely inconsequential but looks very nice. the only engaging character in Scanners is Revok, who spends too little time on-screen, and the movie always springs to life as soon as Ironside appears.
Just like the largely irrelevant characters, there's very little substantial mystery in Scanners to create tension, but rather intermittent action scenes that are nearly inexplicable, such as four attackers armed with shotguns needing 19 close-range shots to hit one unarmed target, whereas later they open fire on a group in a small room, killing several before anyone reacts. the scanners seem alternately all-powerful and slow-witted, depending on the needs of the moment. There's a typical early-1980s exploding computers set-piece that is immediately compounded in its ridiculousness with the mystifying explosion of a telephone booth, as if it was filled with gasoline instead of loose change.
For all its pacing and credibility issues, however, Scanners still has Cronenberg's usual clinical but off-kilter atmosphere and a handful of stand-out sequences, starting with the exploding head and climaxing with a scanner-a-scanner showdown worthy of a better movie. I found myself deeply bored during the middle, but liking it considerably by the very end.