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For other uses, see Scanner (disambiguation).
Theatrical release poster
Directed by David Cronenberg
Produced by Claude Héroux
Written by David Cronenberg
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography Mark Irwin
Edited by Ronald Sanders
Distributed by
Release dates
  • January 14, 1981 (1981-01-14) (United States)
  • January 16, 1981 (1981-01-16) (Canada)
Running time
103 minutes[1]
Country Canada
Language English
Budget $3.5 million
Box office $14,225,876

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science-fiction horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jennifer O'Neill, Steven Lack, Michael Ironside, and Patrick McGoohan. In the film, "scanners" are people with unusual telepathic and telekinetic powers. ConSec, a purveyor of weaponry and security systems searches out scanners to use them for its own purposes. The film's plot concerns the attempt by Darryl Revok, a renegade scanner, to wage a war against ConSec. Another scanner, Cameron Vale, is dispatched by ConSec to stop Revok.


Scanners are people with the ability to "scan" other people: the ability to connect two nervous systems separated by space, to involuntarily hear the thoughts of others, and to control the bodily functions of others. It also includes the ability to telepathically control computers and to start fires. Scanners have been identified across the world, with 237 scanners believed to be living worldwide.

Most scanners are unhappy people, condemned to "hearing" an unstoppable flood of strangers' thoughts, as they are unable to temporarily disable their power. Cameron Vale (Lack) has uncommonly powerful scanning abilities but cannot handle the pressure and has withdrawn completely from society. A homeless derelict, he lives in a shopping mall. When he psychically overhears two women denigrating him, he inadvertently induces violent convulsions in one, which in turn, attracts the attention of ConSec agents, who tranquilize and abduct him.

Meanwhile, ConSec is holding a conference where they are introducing their work with scanners to 25 VIPs from all over North America. The company's senior officer (and only scanner) offers to "scan" a volunteer to demonstrate the banality of the process. The officer is unaware that his volunteer, Darryl Revok, is a renegade scanner with formidable telepathic powers who has declared war on ConSec and all scanners who voluntarily work for it. The demonstration does not go well; the ConSec scanner's head explodes. ConSec security agents try to detain Revok but he escapes, killing several of them in the process.

Dr. Paul Ruth, head of ConSec's Scanner Research Section, meets with ConSec's newly hired head of security, Braedon Keller. Keller recommends shutting down their scanner program. Ruth explains that he believes Revok has his own scanner underground at work, and that ConSec was attacked because Ruth's program was the only obstacle to Revok. Ruth claims Vale might be the only scanner with sufficient psychic power to challenge Revok. Vale is reluctant; Revok's whereabouts are unknown, and the only lead is Benjamin Pierce, an artist and unstable scanner who tried to kill his family as a child. Ruth tells Vale about a secret drug, ephemerol, which ConSec uses to suppress scanners' telepathic powers. This drug is very important to Vale, as using it allows him to suppress the influx of other people's thoughts, thus supplying him with it becomes Ruth's way of establishing trust and dependency between him and Vale.

Vale tracks down Pierce after locating a gallery exhibiting his morbid sculptures. Pierce is in hiding from Revok; he has rejected Revok's offer to join his renegade faction, which makes him a liability. Four of Revok's men gun down Pierce. Vale flings the four assassins into unconsciousness, then scans the dying man's mind to learn what he knows about the scanner underground. Pierce's dying thoughts lead Vale to Kim Obrist, who has formed a telepathic alliance with a group of other scanners. Vale is invited to a meeting, but the gathering is ambushed by more of Revok's assassins, who kill Obrist's scanner friends before Vale and Obrist can kill them.

Vale infiltrates a company called Biocarbon Amalgamate disguised as one of Revok's men and learns that large quantities of ephemerol are being manufactured and shipped out in tankers under a program called "Ripe," an operation that appears to be run by Revok himself. Vale and Obrist travel to ConSec headquarters to inform Ruth of this development. Ruth tells a stunned Vale that he founded the company himself and sold it to ConSec. Ruth is in disbelief that ephemerol is being produced and insists Vale get the information by scanning the computer's electronic nervous system and learn more about the "Ripe" program; but Keller, who is actually a traitor working for Revok, attempts to kill Obrist. She escapes and Vale leaves Ruth to help her. Keller kills Ruth, then attempts to capture Vale and Obrist, who escape by scanning the ConSec guards. Vale infiltrates Revok's computer network through a payphone. When Keller discovers this, he orders ConSec computer scientists to rig the computer to self-destruct while Vale is plugged into it. The plan backfires and the laboratory explodes, killing Keller.

Vale and Obrist pursue their only remaining lead: the mysterious ephemerol shipments. Their investigation takes them to the office of Dr. Frane, an obstetrician on the list of recipients of ephemerol, where Obrist becomes aware that someone is scanning her. She realizes that she is being scanned by the unborn baby of a pregnant woman in Frane's waiting room. Vale tells a stunned Obrist that is the purpose of the "Ripe" program. Ephemerol doesn't just help adult scanners control their ability; it is artificially creating new scanners. The two are suddenly ambushed by Revok's men, tranquilized, and abducted.

Vale regains consciousness in Revok's office. Revok begins asking Vale about his life, which Vale does not remember. Revok explains that Ruth always knew where Vale was and what his life was like but only helped when he needed him as an agent against Revok. Revok tells him that they are brothers and that Ruth is their father. According to Revok, Ruth's company created ephemerol as a drug aimed at pregnant women as a morning sickness sedative, but it had an invisible side effect - creating scanners. Ruth had twice given the prototype of ephemerol to their pregnant mother, and saw what it did to his sons.

Revok's plan is to build an empire by finding and training the new generation of scanners - a new generation of which is just months from being born, thanks to the ephemerol shipment. He invites Vale to join him, but Vale refuses, and a psychic battle ensues. Visible physical changes result between Vale and Revok from the battle; Revok's forehead pulsates with veins and his head swells. Vale, less experienced than his brother, uses his body more and veins throughout his body emerge. Vale begins bleeding and peeling flesh from his face involuntarily as Revok pushes the advantage. Vale is able to compose himself, his body ignites, and he focuses on Revok as his eyes explode and he leaves his body and enters Revok's mind. Revok's eyes turn white and he screams as Vale takes control of his body.

Obrist awakens to find an incinerated corpse on the floor and begins to call out to Vale. In a corner, hidden under Vale's jacket, is Revok, his forehead scar gone and his eyes the same shade of blue as Vale's. "We've won," he says, in Vale's voice.



Scene of the explosion of a ConSec scanner's head

The story is structured as a futuristic thriller, involving industrial espionage and intrigue, car chases, conspiracies, and shoot-outs (including a gruesome scanner duel between Vale and Revok at the end). It was the nearest thing to a conventional science fiction thriller Cronenberg had made up to that point, lacking the sexual content of Shivers, Rabid, or The Brood; it was also his most profitable film until The Fly six years later.[citation needed]

Because of the oddities of Canada's film financing structures at the time, it was necessary to begin shooting with only two weeks' pre-production work, before the screenplay had been completed, with Cronenberg writing the script between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. each morning throughout shooting. Since the production design team had no time to build sets, in some instances the crew had to drive around looking for things to shoot. As a result, Cronenberg has said, Scanners was a nightmare to make.[citation needed]

Make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Amadeus) provided prosthetics for the climactic scanner duel and the iconic exploding head effect.[2][3]


Scanners was released in the United States on January 14, 1981 by Embassy Pictures, and grossed $14,225,876 at the box office.[4]


Scanners maintains a 79% on Rotten Tomatoes,[5] with positive reviews from Chicago Reader, the Austin Chronicle, and TV Guide.

Film critic Roger Ebert gave Scanners two out of four stars and wrote, "Scanners is so lockstep that we are basically reduced to watching the special effects, which are good but curiously abstract, because we don't much care about the people they're happening around".[6] In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Had Mr. Cronenberg settled simply for horror, as John Carpenter did in his classic Halloween (though not in his not-so-classic The Fog), Scanners might have been a Grand Guignol treat. Instead he insists on turning the film into a mystery, and mystery demands eventual explanations that, when they come in Scanners, underline the movie's essential foolishness".[7]

Awards and honors[edit]

Although Scanners was not nominated for any major awards, it did receive some recognition. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films gave the film its Saturn Award in 1981 for "Best International Film", and, in addition, the "Best Make-Up" award went to Dick Smith in a tie with Altered States. The film had also been nominated for "Best Special Effects."

Scanners also won "Best International Fantasy Film" from Fantasporto in 1983, and was nominated for eight Genie Awards in 1982, but did not win any.[8][9]


Mondo released the Howard Shore score for Scanners, alongside The Brood, on vinyl; featuring cover art by Sam Wolfe Conelly.[10]


  1. Main Title (1:37)
  2. Vale Captured (4:09)
  3. Ephemerol (1:21)
  4. The Ripe Program (2:52)
  5. The Injection (2:50)
  6. Dirge for the Assassins (2:38)
  7. Vale’s Lonely Walk (1:03)
  8. The Dart (1:34)
  9. Scanner Duel (5:48)


Scanners spawned sequels and a series of spin-offs; a remake was announced in 2007, but as of 2014 has not gone into production.[11] None of these projects has involved Cronenberg as director.

Although its name is similar, A Scanner Darkly is not related to the Scanners films.




In February 2007, Darren Lynn Bousman (director of Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV) was announced as director of a remake of the film, to be released by The Weinstein Company and Dimension Films. David S. Goyer was assigned to script the film. The movie was planned for an October 17, 2008 release, but the date came and went without further announcements, and all the parties involved have since moved on to other projects.[11] In an interview with Bousman in 2013, he recalled that he would not make the film without Cronenberg's blessing, which was not granted.

Television series[edit]

In July 2011, it was announced that Dimension was planning to adapt the franchise as a television series.[12]


  1. ^ "SCANNERS (X)". British Board of Film Classification. February 10, 1981. Retrieved October 19, 2014. 
  2. ^ Vincent Canby "Scanners" New York Times (14 January 1981); "Scanners" Variety (1 January 1981); "Scanners" Cinemafantastique
  3. ^ Kinnear, Simon (August 15, 2011). 50 Best Movie Special Effects. archive Retrieved January 24, 2012
  4. ^ "Scanners". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  5. ^
  6. ^ Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Scanners". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  7. ^ Canby, Vincent (January 14, 1981). "Scanners". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  8. ^ IMDB Awards
  9. ^ Allmovie Awards
  10. ^ Mondo Selling ‘Scanners/The Brood’ OST On Vinyl Tomorrow
  11. ^ a b "Scanners Remake Confirmed". The Plasma Pool. 2007-03-01. Retrieved 2008-09-07. 
  12. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. "Dimension To Develop 'Scanners' TV Series". Deadline. 
Further reading
  • "Scanners: Retro Classic Film No. 17" by Jonathan Hatfull, SciFiNow No. 77, pages 122 - 125. Discussion of the first film's story, actors, director, etc., and its production. Four pages, 10 photos including opening exploding head scene and final scene, large format British magazine; issue appeared on newsstands in the U.S. in March 2013.
  • "Heads you lose: Scanners", Total Film, No. 213, December 2013, pages 140 - 141. Illustrated discussion (color photos and drawings) of the exploding head scene with comments by writer-director David Cronenberg, producer Pierre David, and actor Stephen Lack.
  • "Explosions of Grandeur" by Michael Doyle, Rue Morgue Issue 146, July 2014, pages 30 - 32. Comments by Cronenberg and Lack on the difficulties of the production: unfinished script, motorist tragedy, and special effects of opening and closing scenes. Three pages, eight color photos, including behind-the-scenes.

External links[edit]