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Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Cronenberg
Written byDavid Cronenberg
Produced byClaude Héroux
CinematographyMark Irwin
Edited byRonald Sanders
Music byHoward Shore
Filmplan International
Distributed by
Release dates
  • January 14, 1981 (1981-01-14) (United States)
  • January 16, 1981 (1981-01-16) (Canada)
Running time
103 minutes[2]
BudgetCAD$4.1 million
Box office$14.2 million or $6.3 million[3]

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science fiction horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Stephen Lack, Jennifer O'Neill, Michael Ironside, and Patrick McGoohan. In the film, "scanners" are psychics 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 (Ironside), a renegade scanner, to wage a war against ConSec. Another scanner, Cameron Vale (Lack), is dispatched by ConSec to stop Revok.

Scanners premiered in January 1981 to lukewarm reviews from critics but became one of the first films produced in Canada to successfully compete with American films at the international box office.[4][5][6][7] It brought Cronenberg and his controversial style of body horror attention from mainstream film audiences for the first time and has since been reevaluated as a cult classic.[8][9] It is particularly well known for a scene that depicts Revok psychically causing a rival scanner's head to explode.


Cameron Vale is a vagrant suffering from voices manifesting in his head. After involuntarily causing a woman to have a seizure with his telepathy, Vale is captured by the private military company ConSec and brought to Dr. Paul Ruth.

Ruth explains that Vale is one of 237 super-powered individuals known as "scanners" capable of telepathy, empathy, biokinesis, technopathy and psychokinesis. Ruth injects Vale with a drug called "ephemerol," which restores his sanity by temporarily inhibiting his scanning abilities, and teaches him to control them. ConSec is recruiting scanners to stop a malevolent underground ring of scanners led by Darryl Revok, a former mental patient who was driven mad from hearing uncontrollable streams of thoughts.

Revok, on his quest to kill opposing scanners, infiltrates a ConSec marketing event and explodes the head of a ConSec scanner. ConSec security head Braedon Keller advocates shutting down their scanner research program but Ruth disagrees, believing the scanners are the next stage of human evolution, and argues that the assassination demonstrates Revok's danger. Ruth brings in Vale and asks him to help infiltrate Revok's group.

Unknown to Ruth, Keller is working for Revok and informs him of Ruth's infiltration plan. Revok dispatches assassins to follow Vale as he visits an unaffiliated scanner named Benjamin Pierce, a successful yet reclusive sculptor who copes with his abilities through his art. Revok's assassins murder Pierce, but Vale reads Pierce's dying brain and learns of a group of scanners, led by Kim Obrist, who oppose Revok's group. Vale tracks down Obrist and attends a meeting, but Revok's assassins strike again; only Vale and Obrist survive.

Vale learns of a pharmaceutical company, Biocarbon Amalgamate, which he soon discovers Revok is using to distribute large quantities of ephemerol under a ConSec computer program called "Ripe." Vale and Obrist return to ConSec to investigate, and Ruth admits that he founded Biocarbon Amalgamate and suggests Vale cyberpathically scan the computer system to learn more. Keller attacks Obrist and kills Ruth while Vale and Obrist flee the ConSec building. Vale cyberpathically hacks into the computer network through a telephone booth and downloads ephemerol shipment information directly into his mind. Keller is killed when the computer explodes during his attempt to intercept Vale. Vale and Obrist visit a doctor on the list of ephemerol recipients and discover that it is prescribed to pregnant women, turning their children into scanners. Revok's group captures Vale and Obrist and take them to the Biocarbon Amalgamate plant.

Revok reveals to Vale that they are both children of Ruth, who developed ephemerol as a sedative for pregnant women. Ruth learned about the drug's side-effect during his wife's pregnancies, and he made them the most powerful scanners in the world by administering a prototype dosage prior to abandoning them. Revok plans to create and lead a new generation of scanners to take over the world, but Vale refuses to join him. Vale accuses Revok of acting like his father, enraging him. The brothers engage in a telepathic duel, which incinerates Vale's body. However, when Obrist encounters Revok, she discovers that Vale somehow has managed to take over Revok's body during the duel.


William Hope, Christopher Britton, and Leon Herbert have uncredited appearances as Bicarbon Amalgamate employees. Neil Affleck has a minor role as a medical student.



Scanners was based on David Cronenberg's scripts The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000, which he planned to pitch to Roger Corman before beginning work on The Brood.[10] Corman was shown the script, but did nothing with it.[11] Cronenberg has called Scanners one of his most difficult films to make; most Canadian film productions of the 1970s and the early 1980s were funded through a 100-percent Capital Cost Allowance tax shield for investors passed by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in 1974, and the film was rushed into production without a finished script or constructed sets in order to claim the subsidies.[12][9][13]

Victor Snolicki, Dick Schouten, and Pierre David of Vision 4, a company taking advantage of Canada's tax shelter policies, aided Cronenberg in the film's financing.[14] Vision 4 dissolved after Schouten's death and reorganized into Filmplan International.[15]


The film's first draft was not a script, but instead a series of ideas.[16] The film was given two weeks of pre-production while a script was not written yet.[11] According to Cronenberg, he would spend mornings prior to filming writing scenes.[9] The film was initially titled The Sensitives, but it was altered as Cronenberg felt "it was too wimpy" while Scanners "was very strong".[17] Cronenberg stated that the drug aspect of the film might have been influenced by Blue Sunshine.[18] Producer Jennifer O'Neill was given a script with all of the violence edited out and cried after seeing the uncensored script.[19]

The film was shot in Montreal from 30 October to 23 December 1979, on a budget of $4,100,000 (equivalent to $14,514,000 in 2021).[20] Cronenberg stated that "the first day was the most disastrous shooting day I've ever had" as "there was nothing to shoot" and a distracted truck driver watching the film crew hit a car killing two women inside it.[21]

The lecture scene was filmed at Concordia University, and the Charles J. Des Baillets Water Treatment Plant doubled as the 'Bicarbon Amalgamate' compound.[22] The "Future Electronique" building in Vaudreuil-Dorion provided the exterior of 'ConSec' headquarters.[22] The sequence of Revok (Michael Ironside) hijacking a car and causing another to crash were shot on Rue de la Commune. Additional scenes were filmed in the Yorkville neighborhood.[23] However, since the United States dominated the film industry and Canadian films were being marketed for international audiences, the film downplays its Canadian origin in favor of a generic "North American" setting.[24] The only indicators of its location are a scene of Revok and Keller meeting at the Yorkdale station of the Toronto subway and some visible bilingual signs.

Cronenberg stated that "Scanners had the longest post-production of any film I've ever done" due to its nine months of editing and reshoots.[11]


Make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Amadeus) provided prosthetics for the climactic scanner duel and the iconic exploding head effect.[25][26][27][28] Chris Walas, working at Lucasfilm at the time and later providing effects work for The Fly and Naked Lunch, also worked on the exploding head effect.[29] Cronenberg later said in 2006 that Scanners was his most difficult film to shoot due to its special effects and complex story.[18]

Scene of the explosion of a ConSec scanner's head

The iconic head explosion scene was the product of trial and error, eventually settling on a plaster skull and a gelatin exterior packed with "latex scraps, some wax, and just bits and bobs and a lot of stringy stuff that we figured would fly through the air a little better" as well as "leftover burgers." When other explosive techniques failed to give the desired effect, special effects supervisor Gary Zeller told the crew to roll cameras and get inside their trucks with doors and windows closed; he then lay down behind the dummy and shot it in the back of the head with a shotgun.[30]

The exploding head scene was filmed four times, but Cronenberg accepted the first shot and did not remain to watch the three others opting to instead take a nap in his Winnebago. The scene depicting the exploding head was trimmed down to allow for a R-rating from the MPAA. Cronenberg originally intended for the scene to be the film's opening, but placed it later in the film after test screenings.[29]


The film was distributed by New World Pictures in Canada, Les Films Mutuels in Quebec, and Avco Embassy Pictures in the United States. Scanners was released in the United States on 14 January, and in Canada on 16 January 1981.[20] It grossed $2,758,147 from 387 theatres in its opening weekend.[31] It grossed a total of $14,225,876 at the box office.[6] A novelization by Leon Whiteson, David Cronenberg's Scanners, was also released in 1981.[32] Cronenberg stated that it was his first film to be number one at the box office.[16]


Critical reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 68% based on 44 reviews, with an average rating of 6.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Scanners is a dark sci-fi story with special effects that'll make your head explode."[33] On Metacritic it has a weighted average score of 60% based on reviews from 8 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[34] Film professor Charles Derry, in his overview of the horror genre Dark Dreams, cited Scanners as "an especially important masterwork" and calling it the Psycho of its day.[35] In a contemporary review for Ares Magazine, Christopher John commented that "Scanners is top-notch entertainment. It is haunting, exciting, shocking and literate – an unusual combination to discover in a film these days."[36]

Some reviews were less positive. 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".[4] 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".[5] John Simon of National Review described Scanners as trash.[37]

A reassessment of Scanners in the 2012 issue of CineAction looks at the film in light of Cronenberg's use of allegory and parables in much of his work. The argument is made that Cronenberg uses iconic imagery that refers directly and indirectly to the thirty-something Scanners as 1960s political radicals, counterculture hippies, and as nascent Young Urban Professionals. As a result, the film can be seen "as an oblique reflection on what might happen when the counterculture becomes the dominant culture".[38] Kim Newman noted in an essay for The Criterion Collection that at the same time the film rejects the conservative values of the 1980s and the nostalgia for the 1950s present in contemporary science-fiction films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Back to the Future.[39] The film's fictional drug ephemerol also mirrors the real-life thalidomide scandal, in which the popular West German medication thalidomide caused severe birth defects in children born to mothers prescribed the drug for morning sickness in Western Europe and Canada.[8]


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.[40]


Mondo released the Howard Shore score for Scanners, alongside The Brood, on vinyl; it features cover art by Sam Wolfe Conelly.[41]


Scanners spawned sequels and a series of spin-offs; a remake was announced in 2007, but as of 2022 had not gone into production.[42] Cronenberg was not involved in the sequels as he was both uninterested and would not make money off of the characters or story he wrote.[43]



Canceled remake[edit]

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 film was planned for release on October 17, 2008, but the date came and went without further announcements and all of the parties involved have since moved on to other projects.[42] In an interview with Bousman in 2013, he recalled that he would not make the film without Cronenberg's approval, which was not granted.

Television series[edit]

Attempts to make a series include Dimension in 2011,[44] Media Res and Bron Studios in 2017,[45] and HBO, Media Res Studio, and Wayward Films in 2022.[46]


  1. ^ "Scanners". Library and Archives Canada. May 12, 2015. Retrieved September 28, 2021.
  2. ^ "SCANNERS (X)". British Board of Film Classification. February 10, 1981. Retrieved October 19, 2014.
  3. ^ Donahue, Suzanne Mary (1987). American film distribution : the changing marketplace. UMI Research Press. p. 292. ISBN 9780835717762. Please note figures are for rentals in US and Canada
  4. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Scanners". Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on June 6, 2011. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  5. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (January 14, 1981). "Scanners". The New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2021.
  6. ^ a b "Scanners". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  7. ^ "Scanners". Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  8. ^ a b "Looking back at David Cronenberg's Scanners". Den of Geek. November 23, 2012. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  9. ^ a b c "Exploding head aside, Scanners is one of Cronenberg's most conventional films". The A.V. Club. July 16, 2014. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  10. ^ Kurl, Daniel (January 15, 2020). "The Pain Begins! You Can't Breathe! You Explode! David Cronenberg's 'Scanners' Turns 39!". Bloody Disgusting!. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  11. ^ a b c Rodley 1997, p. 86.
  12. ^ "Canada's Tax Shelter Era". National Canadian Film Day. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  13. ^ "David Cronenberg: Scanners (1981)". July 27, 2018. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  14. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 75.
  15. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 85.
  16. ^ a b Cronenberg 2006, p. 58.
  17. ^ Cronenberg 2006, p. 59.
  18. ^ a b Cronenberg 2006, p. 61.
  19. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 87.
  20. ^ a b Turner 1987, p. 322-323.
  21. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 86-87.
  22. ^ a b "Scanners filming locations". Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  23. ^ "Scanners Movie Filming Locations – The 80s Movies Rewind". Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  24. ^ "Canadian Film Encyclopedia - Capital Cost Allowance/The Tax Shelter Years: 1975 to 1982". Retrieved December 29, 2020.
  25. ^ Vincent Canby "Scanners" The New York Times (14 January 1981)
  26. ^ Variety Staff (January 1, 1981). "Scanners". Variety.
  27. ^ "Scanners".
  28. ^ Kinnear, Simon (August 15, 2011). "50 Best Movie Special Effects". Archived from the original on January 26, 2012. Retrieved January 24, 2012.
  29. ^ a b Rodley 1997, p. 90.
  30. ^ Wickman, Forrest (July 15, 2014). "How They Blew Up That Head in Scanners". Slate. The Slate Group.
  31. ^ "'Crazy,' '9 To 5,' 'Which Way' Glow; 'Scanners' Strong". Variety. January 21, 1981. p. 3.
  32. ^ Browning, Mark (2007). David Cronenberg: Author Or Film-maker?. Intellect Books. pp. 91–. ISBN 978-1-84150-173-4.
  33. ^ "Scanners (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved August 11, 2023.
  34. ^ "Scanners". Metacritic.
  35. ^ Derry, Charles (1987). "More Dark Dreams: Some Notes on the Recent Horror Film". In Waller, Gregory (ed.). American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. p. 173. ISBN 0-252-01448-0.
  36. ^ John, Christopher (May 1981). "Film & Television". Ares Magazine. Simulations Publications, Inc. (8): 31.
  37. ^ Simon, John (1982). Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Film. Crown Publishers Inc. p. xiv.
  38. ^ Pepe, Michael (2012). "Lefties and Hippies and Yuppies, Oh My! David Cronenberg's Scanners Revisited". CineAction. No. 88.
  39. ^ Newman, Kim. "Scanners: Mind and Matter". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
  40. ^ Allmovie Awards
  41. ^ Mondo Selling ‘Scanners/The Brood’ OST On Vinyl Tomorrow
  42. ^ a b Fleming, Michael (February 27, 2007). "'Scanners' moves to new dimension". Variety. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  43. ^ Rodley 1997, p. 92.
  44. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (July 22, 2011). "Dimension To Develop 'Scanners' TV Series". Deadline Hollywood.
  45. ^ Andreeva, Nellie (September 27, 2017). "'Scanners': Media Res & Bron Studios To Adapt David Cronenberg Film As TV Series". Deadline. Retrieved September 27, 2017.
  46. ^ Otterson, Joe (September 21, 2022). "Scanners Series in Development at HBO With David Cronenberg Producing". Variety. Retrieved September 21, 2022.

Works cited[edit]

Further reading[edit]

  • "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]