40 Years Later, SCANNERS Is Still Sucking Your Brain Dry

From Jeff Goldblum regurgitating food and peeling off his fingernails in The Fly (1986) to James Spader finding an imaginative and erogenous utilisation for Rosanna Arquette’s leg wound in Crash (1996), David Cronenberg’s record over the last half century for depicting unforgettable and shocking imagery onscreen remains untethered to this day.

For some, Scanners (1981) will be forever locked in their cinematic brain vault as the ‘exploding-head-go-boom,’ movie, as one of the first ‘video nasties’ of the era, with young teenagers of the time hushing the VHS spools of their behemoth tape deck to be quiet, while their parents slept upstairs.

It’s been nearly forty years, but even those who haven’t seen the movie have likely used a gif or meme of its most infamous scene in a text message. A low-level telepath (Louis Del Grande), working for mega conglomerate research company ConSec, is attempting to demonstrate his telepathic abilities to a room of VIPs. He requires a participant to help him with this exhibition, but unfortunately picks Michael Ironside’s villainous Darryl Revok, all-round general badass and psychic assassin. Rocking the distinguished receding hairline look with the vocal intensity of an Olympian God, things don’t go well for the low-level telepath and after a moment of cerebral struggle, succumbs to Revok’s scanning and quite literally explodes from the pressure.


“David Cronenberg’s record over the last half century for depicting unforgettable and shocking imagery onscreen remains untethered to this day.


Go to your last WhatsApp message. Search for Scanners in your gif section. I guarantee you the exploding head image will be the first you see.

His other works may have earned Cronenberg the title of Grand Daddy master of gore and body horror, but this futuristic (for its time) sci-fi thriller centred around industrial espionage, following a more conventional and traditional thriller aspect that jettisoned some of the more gruesome components of his earlier films. Anyone coming in to expect head popping havoc may leave disappointed, as Cronenberg kept the head splattering to a minimum. For the most part, a scanners greatest skill seems to involve staring maniacally at the viewer, whipping their head back and forth like a L’Oréal model on acid. I’m still waiting for someone to put together a compilation video based on these scenes, accompanied by some asinine pop music.

Coming at a time when conspiracy thrillers were fashionable, such as Brian De Palma’s Blow out (1981), Telefon (1977), Coma (1978), and Capricorn One (1978) – Scanners exemplified the genre of ultimate suspicion. Much like Stephen King’s Firestarter, which was published originally in 1980, a shadowy group and main antagonist attempt to hunt down other scanners and dispose of them. Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is one such Scanner.

It seems Cameron has spent most of his adult life as a vagrant, with his inability to control his gift leaving him a shuffling drifter, stealing French fries at malls and generally looking shifty out in public. In the opening sequence, he sends an elderly lady into a seizure as she makes a comment to her friend about his appearance and he picks up on her negative energy. He’s quickly darted with a tranquiliser and sent to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), soft-spoken researcher who works for ConSec, specialising in the training of Scanners.



In an almost instantaneous transition, Dr. Ruth teaches Cameron the ways of The Scanner and sends him off to find out more about Revok and see if he can stop the psychic assassin before any more bloodshed occurs. There’s no Yoda or Rocky montage here though, just exposition from Dr. Ruth explaining that a drug called Ephemerol was used in the fifties by pregnant women that led to babies with the Scanning gift.

Scanners is not without its faults. Some of the action scenes (especially the shotgun shoot out at an artist’s house) are inadvertently amusing rather than exciting, with actors convulsing like pumped-up techno mannequins before launching themselves in the air. As mentioned before, there’s a lot of exposition involving shoptalk that could have been trimmed to keep the pace going and there’s a scene towards the end where Cameron finds he can Scan ConSec’s computer system that smells like whiffy bad sci-fi from the 70’s as opposed to the tone already established. Cronenberg has called this one the most frustrating films he’d ever made due to the forced rush job through production.

Filming had to begin without a finished script, making the director write and direct simultaneously. And it feels like it. There’s a lingering sense that the film is constantly just a little off, whether it be the wooden acting from Stephan Lack, or the forced cerebral element of the topic being discussed, leaving the viewer with a paranoid headache feeling that Cameron experiences throughout the film.


“[…] Scanners exemplified the genre of ultimate suspicion.


But, in the end, Scanners is really Michael Ironside’s film. He dominates every time he opens his mouth and there’s a menacing thrum that reverberates in every scene he has. He’s the quintessential parallel force to Lack in every aspect. Lack’s widened blue eyes juxtapose with Ironside’s dark intense stare to form a great villain/hero dynamic.

Cronenberg’s regular composer, Howard Shore, brings an ominous and dark orchestral, synthesised score to the proceedings and great make-up effects that still hold up nearly forty years later from legend Dick Smith top Scanners off to be a violently eccentric sci-fi thriller. In retrospect, the movie seems more like a transitional steppingstone for Cronenberg rather than an essential one. If you’re a fan of the director than it’s likely you’ve already seen it, and it was successful enough to inspire two official, albeit inferior sequels, as well as a pair of Scanner Cop spin-offs. Scanners may not be a complete success and might not appeal to everyone, but it’s still a great example from one of cinema’s most original and unsettling directors.


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