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Should I Watch..? 'Scanners' (1981)

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Film's poster

Film's poster

What's the big deal?

Scanners is a sci-fi horror film released in 1981 and was written and directed by Canadian auteur David Cronenberg. The film follows a troubled man known as a 'Scanner' who possesses extraordinary levels of psychic ability as he is tasked with tracking a rogue Scanner using his powers for evil. The film stars Stephen Lack, Jennifer O'Neill, Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside. The film brought Cronenberg international attention to his body-horror style of filmmaking and was arguably the first of his films to find a global audience. The film received a mixed response from critics at the time but quickly became a cult classic with many of Cronenberg's fans calling it one of his better films. It would go on to earn $14.2 million in the US and its success allowed Cronenberg to secure major Hollywood backing for what would arguably become his best film, 1983's Videodrome.


What's it about?

Downtrodden vagrant Cameron Vale suffers from hearing multiple voices inside his head. After accidentally causing a woman to have a seizure in a shopping mall, he is captured by members of ConSec, a private security firm specialising in tracking down powerful psychic individuals known as 'Scanners'. Under the watchful gaze of Dr Paul Ruth, Cameron learns that he is one such Scanner and is capable of both telepathy and telekinesis. His only respite is a drug called ephemerol which limits his abilities as well as silence the voices he has been hearing telepathically. Dr Ruth explains that ConSec, and perhaps the world, is being threatened by a rogue Scanner called Darryl Revok who recently announced himself to the world by publicly assassinating one of ConSec's own Scanners.

After being trained by Dr Ruth to harness and control his abilities, Cameron is tasked with finding Revok who is the self-appointed leader of an underground group of Scanners, infiltrate the organisation and stop Revok's reign of terror. As Cameron sets off to track down a known associate of Revok, reclusive sculptor and fellow Scanner Benjamin Pierce, Dr Ruth clashes in the boardroom with ConSec's new head of security Braedon Keller who is championing shutting down the Scanner research program for good.


What's to like?

I confess that I'm not usually one for this type of horror film which seemingly relies on gory special effects and jump scares rather than psychological chills that mess with your mind. Scanners is certainly a competent movie, one which is well made and definitely disturbing for the majority of its runtime but I just felt that there was something missing. There's no arguing that Cronenberg knows exactly what he wants on screen and how to get it by delivering a film that is well-paced, full of mood and atmosphere and actually quite cold. It doesn't invite you in but instead presents itself as a passive observer of these events in a matter-of-fact way. It doesn't completely forget about its audience and the introduction of mystery elements works well to keep your attention once the film has established its unlikely premise.

But rightly or wrongly, it is the infamous 'exploding head' scene that most people will remember when the film finishes. It's a shocking contrast to much of the psychic abilities seen on screen which mostly seems to consist of people gurning and pulling faces over a distorted synthesizer score that feels oddly reminiscent of John Carpenter's work in Halloween. But the film's more visceral effects are undoubtedly impressive, on a par with the equally disturbing The Thing as huge veins bulge on people's arms and faces before spurting blood everywhere. Cronenberg loves this sort of stuff, creeping his audience out with graphic depictions of bodily mutilation and anatomical oddities. He's like a ringmaster at some circus freakshow and if that's what you're after then this is as good a place as any to introduce yourself to his work.

The film is frequently unsettling rather than disturbing although the infamous 'exploding head' sequence is what ultimately stays with you.

The film is frequently unsettling rather than disturbing although the infamous 'exploding head' sequence is what ultimately stays with you.

Fun Facts

  • The exploding head sequence involved a lot of trial and error on the filmmakers part as they couldn't quite get the finished effect right. In the end, they used a plaster skull covered in gelatin and filled it with latex strips, bits of wax, corn syrup "blood" and what was described as leftover burgers. Special effects supervisor Gary Zeller then laid down behind the dummy and blasted the back of the head with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with kosher salt. The producers, fearing the dreaded X-rating, was both appalled and ecstatic at the same time as they reportedly reacted "It's perfect - we're screwed!"
  • Cronenberg once called the film one of the most difficult and challenging of his career. In addition to clashing with O'Neill and McGoohan on set, Cronenberg had to rush into production without a completed script in order to secure funding from the Canadian government. Cronenberg spent the morning before filming writing each scene.
  • Although a number of sequels and spin-offs were produced, none of them involved Cronenberg in any way. A remake was proposed in 2007, written by David Goyer (who wrote The Dark Knight trilogy) and directed by Darren Bousman (who directed a number of sequels to Saw) but Bousman turned the offer down when the project did not receive Cronenberg's approval. A TV series as proposed in 2011 and 2017 but again, nothing came about from the idea.
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What's not to like?

Sadly, the film's effects and creepy atmosphere can't disguise a number of flaws. For starters, Lack is not good as the good guy Cameron Vale - he isn't an easy character to get behind thanks to the uneasy use of his powers and he doesn't display much in the way of emotion or personality in the film. I was also disappointed in the supporting cast with the exception of Ironside, who is as reliable a baddie as you could possibly cast. McGoohan was a let-down as the scientist with a hidden agenda while O'Neill, as another Scanner trying to survive on her own, does better but we don't really understand her role in the film - she simply appears about halfway through and ultimately doesn't contribute much to the story. Speaking of which, the film's central mystery felt underwhelming and the finale that finally sees Cameron and Darryl engage in a bloody gurn-off felt unsatisfying and frankly, a little silly.

The film never really delves too deeply into this strange alien world where powers are apparently limitless. For every scene when characters thrash about like fish out of water or churn their face up in an effort to stop someone's heart, there is a lack of a more visible demonstration - why couldn't objects move by themselves, for example instead of relying on characters being possessed? Obviously, the film suffers from some budgetary restraint but they clearly had enough to blow up gas stations, melt telephones and have a number of characters shot at close range. I'm afraid the blame is probably the fault of the screenplay which, as discussed above, was produced pretty much on-the-fly. With a more concentrate idea of where the film was going, Scanners could have been a gloriously demented and deliciously bloody horror classic. Instead, it's a fairly middling effort - perhaps not one of Cronenberg's best pictures but maybe a demonstration of what the man and his twisted mind is capable of.

While Ironside's villain is more memorable, Lack's performance isn't as good and he fails to engage with you as a hero.

While Ironside's villain is more memorable, Lack's performance isn't as good and he fails to engage with you as a hero.

Should I watch it?

Scanners is a decent enough chiller for those unused to the warped world of its director but it lacks much of the commentary and allegory Cronenberg likes to make. While it's not a classic, the film offers plenty of memorable moments and is a fine demonstration of his skill as a filmmaker. With a bit more ambition and a bigger budget, this could have been something special. As it is, it feels like a missed opportunity instead of the unsettling spectacle I associate with David Cronenberg.

Great For: fans of the director's work, anyone looking for a realistic exploding head in a film, synthesizer sales

Not So Great For: non-horror fans, the squeamish, my mother

What else should I watch?

Cronenberg has produced quite the body of work over the years, first finding fame with the third film in 1975 with Shivers. That film laid the foundations for much of the rest of his career, focusing on body-horror and psychosexual themes to repulse and revolt much of his audience. Perhaps no film encapsulates this better than Videodrome, a bizarre and shocking film which sees James Woods' sleazy TV executive on the trail of a strange snuff broadcast and discovering an unsettling conspiracy. The film pushes the boundaries of both sex and violence in truly disturbing ways and it could only come from the mind of someone like Cronenberg. The only other film I can think of which comes close to it is David Lynch's Eraserhead which also left me utterly creeped out.

Cronenberg has revisited the body-horror genre he helped popularise a number of times, most successfully in 1986 with his remake of the classic 1958 film The Fly. Perhaps his most controversial film is 1996's Crash, an adaptation of JG Ballard's novel which sees James Spader's film producer discover an erotic affiliation with violent car crashes along with other disturbed individuals. In 2005, Cronenberg began a long and successful collaboration with Viggo Mortensen with A History Of Violence which was another adaptation, this time of a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke. This has continued to this year when they teamed up again for Crimes Of The Future, a dark and dystopian return to Cronenberg's body-horror origins for the first time since 1999's eXistenZ. As a film (and unrelated to Cronenberg's earlier film of the same name), Crimes Of The Future straddles the boundary between arthouse drama and disgusting exploitation and is further proof that the old master can still deliver the goods.

Main Cast


Stephen Lack

Cameron Vale

Jennifer O'Neill

Kim Obrist

Patrick McGoohan

Dr Paul Ruth

Michael Ironside

Darryl Revok

Lawrence Dane

Braedon Keller

Robert Silverman

Benjamin Pierce

Technical Info

DirectorDavid Cronenberg


David Cronenberg

Running Time

103 minutes

Release Date (UK)

23rd April, 1981




Horror, Sci-Fi, Thriller

© 2022 Benjamin Cox

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