|This week’s the 38th anniversary of David Cronenberg’s Scanners, a horror/sci-fi classic about pharmaceutically induced telekinesis that helped define “Body Horror.” But just as the film’s iconic exploding head scene — not just deliciously icky in and of itself, but a quote of René Magritte’s paintingLe Principe Du Plaisir — is more than just an exploding head scene, so is Scanners more than brilliant Canuxploitation.
In the film, Cronenberg knitted the body horror of William S. Burroughs’ fiction with the social horror J.G. Ballard’s science fiction. Cronenberg would, of course, adapt Burroughs and Ballard directly in 1991’sNaked Lunch and 1996’s Crash, respectively. Scannersis the Brundle-fly-esque gene-splice of Burroughs and Ballard that paved the way for those films.
Burroughs’ Naked Lunch features a shadowy, underground group of telepaths called “Senders,” who can gain “control of physical movements, mental processes, emotional responses and apparent sensory impressions by means of bioelectrical signals injected into the nervous system of the subject.” If that’s not a Scanner, what is? Burroughs is the junkie granddaddy of the Body Horror of which Cronenberg is the daddy. There’s the infamous scene in Naked Lunch featuring the man who learned to speak through an orifice other than his mouth, the hybrid mutants of his story “Spare *ss Annie” and the hijacking of human bodies in his “My Face”… corruptions of the human form that’d find partial expression in Scanners‘ climactic telepathic duel.
Ballard’s SF, notably in Crash and High Rise (which shares much with Cronenberg’s Shivers), explores the trespass of corporate consumerism onto human identity and personhood. At the center of Scanners is a conspiracy in a giant pharmaceutical company to rewrite the human race by rewiring human nervous systems. In works like Memories of the Space Age, Ballard wrote about corporate consumerist technology fusing with the human nervous system, making us into what Ballard critic Martin Bax called “bio-robots.” This is an actual plot point in Scanners, when a protagonist joins his nervous system with a computer mainframe, to gain needed information.
Scanners wraps these weighty ideas in eye-popping, vein-bursting gore effects by Dick Smith and his team in a way that makes us love it all the more even almost 40 years later.