You'd be hard-pressed to call mainstream a movie in which telepathic mutants cause heads to explode, but when you consider the filmmaker behind such a film is David Cronenberg, the unique director who has delved in the bizarre and out-there his entire career, then you can understand how straightforward and rather pedestrian Scanners (1981) is.
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is a homeless man taken by the ConSec corporation after he causes a woman to have a seizure just by looking at her. Turns out, as explained by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), Vale is a Scanner, one of 237 people in the world capable of reading minds and exerting control of people through telekinesis. Ruth wants to train Vale to control his power and use him to infiltrate a Scanner underground forming under Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a powerful Scanner who attacked ConSec and is murdering all Scanners refusing to join him.
The main problem with Scanners is it's too much plot and not enough character. The corporate espionage stuff - agents in trench coats, cover-ups, tranquilizer guns, assassinations, car chases, shootouts- is all rather routine, and in between all the gory action is mainly exposition. Vale is an uninteresting character, made by worse by Lack's wooden, stilted performance. Much better on the acting front is Ironside's intense, driven villain and McGoohan's morally-ambiguous scientist.
Cronenberg includes some memorable set pieces, the most famous of which is the exploding head. Revok attends a ConSec Scanner demonstration and causes the other Scanner's head to explode. There's also the final showdown between Revok and Vale as they psychically duel, the power of their minds devastating their bodies in the process. Another Scanner, Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman) finds mental solace from his power in his art, including nestling himself inside a giant head.
The mind and body as battlegrounds has long fascinated Cronenberg. In Scanners, we see the results of scientific experimentation manifest itself in an unexpected manner. Scanners were created when pregnant women received injections of a drug called Ephemerol. The "invisible side effect," as Revok calls it, is the psychic ability of the children who grow up to be dysfunctional, socially maladjusted misfits ripe for exploitation. Sadly, this theme ends up feeling shortchanged by the espionage aspect.
Scanners for a while was considered the premier Cronenberg film. It certainly has enough going for it to make it watchable, but Cronenberg has been better and more daring elsewhere.