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Cronenberg’s Misunderstood Mutants - "Scanners" Review

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films.


In a historic context where blockbusters were starting to make their way with high budgets and the sci-fi pulp plots were relegated to the underground, Scanners decided to be a perfect hybrid between the aesthetics of B-type cinema and a film with an artistic vision.

“Scanners” are mutated human beings with telepathic curiosities that allow them to mentally manipulate their victims, to the point of forcing them to do anything, making them hallucinate or simply cause them to explode and/or burn. All thanks to a failed 1940s experimental drug in pregnant women that ended up creating this anomaly in their babies.

ConSec, a powerful multinational company dealing with weaponry and security systems, obviously wants to monopolize scanners. Their biggest threat is Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), the most powerful scanner and a dangerous assassin whose mission to conquer the world begins by destroying ConSec. The multinational, thanks to the efforts of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), decides to recruit Cameron (Stephen Lack), an amateur-but-with-great-potential scanner, to infiltrate Revok's terrorist cell and neutralize him.

It sounds downright pulpy, right? Like coming out of an episode of The Twilight Zone.


Scanners surprised audiences and critics because Cronenberg was a serious filmmaker, with enviable artistic confidence. Where films with similar plots relied more on the gore-splatter humor, the comic relief and the absurdity of their moments to entertain, Scanners stood firm in its need to create a severe atmosphere of horror, suspense, and paranoia.

Let me remind you that this is a movie where tension is basically built by the performances of characters (one of them being a really lousy Stephen Lack) glaring intensely at their victims. That's already an achievement in itself. Of course, Cronenberg's directing and Howard Shore's epic score (in one of his earliest works before becoming the legendary Triple Oscar winner for The Lord of the Rings movies) supports the actors in their intense staring sessions.

The payoff is also memorable. Decades later, the exploding head scene remains a must-see for iconic special effects moments in cinematic history. A wonder made with a latex head, lunch leftovers, dog food, rabbit livers, fake blood and a 12-gauge shotgun from below blowing everything up.

Obviously, Scanners is much more than a great visual effect achieved by a great team led by the legendary Dick Smith (Creator of other iconic makeup wonders in films such as Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, Amadeus and The Godfather). Its themes about the fear of what is different as the cause of their exclusion, are universal. Scanners are the X-Men with the Cronenbergian body horror twist.

That's why even when its retro technology feels dated and absurd, the film still feels engaging and relevant. The tension of paranoia, feeling excluded, monitored and misunderstood are issues that are more current than ever. And yes, pharmaceutical multinationals are still clear antagonists.

Cronenberg, Shore and Smith are geniuses in their work, but Scanners owes its cult status in large part to the great Michael Ironside. Originally hired to play the small black & white interview scene of a random scanner that just drilled his forehead, Cronenberg understood that he had his ideal villain in Ironside and rewrote the whole story to engage him in the core of the action. Ironside's performance has the merit of making his savage and sadistic theatricality grotesque and credible.

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Revok is a real scary character with understandable motivations, with the perfect dose of cartoonish, rated R villain.

And on top of that, like the whole movie, his final destiny is narratively revolutionary.

Movie Details

Title: Scanners

Release Year: 1981

Director(s): David Cronenberg

Actors: Michael Ironside, Jennifer O'Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, a.o.

© 2019 Sam Shepards


Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on April 05, 2019:

Hi Stan,

Thank you for the comment. You are right.

There is one thing I can say about most Cronenberg movies if you watched them when you were growing up, they are often very unsettling. I remember most of those first experiences quite well. The Fly is another one of those and eXistenZ...

Stanley Johnston on April 05, 2019:

Awesome music score. I enjoy the whole look, sound, and feel of this too. Also, it's a film I saw growing up too.

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