From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Theatrical release poster
Directed byDavid Cronenberg
Produced byClaude Héroux
Written byDavid Cronenberg
Music byHoward Shore
CinematographyMark Irwin
Edited byRonald Sanders
Distributed by
Release date
  • January 14, 1981 (1981-01-14) (United States)
  • January 16, 1981 (1981-01-16) (Canada)
Running time
103 minutes[1]
Box office$14.2 million

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 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 (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.[2][3][4][5] 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.[6][7] It is particularly well known for a scene of Revok telepathically causing a rival scanner's head to explode.


In a shopping mall, homeless social outcast Cameron Vale telepathically causes a female gawker to have a seizure before being chased down, sedated, and captured by the private military company ConSec. Vale is part of a group of 247 super-powered individuals known as "scanners" capable of telepathy and psychokinesis which ConSec is attempting to recruit to stop a malevolent underground ring of scanners led by Darryl Revok, a former mental patient who trepanned his own skull to cope with an uncontrollable stream of thoughts which also drove Vale insane.

Revok, who is killing all opposing scanners, infiltrates a ConSec marketing event and telepathically causes ConSec's other scanner's head to explode before escaping. ConSec security head Braedon Keller advocates shutting down ConSec's scanner research program but program head Dr. Paul Ruth, who believes the scanners' abilities are the next stage of human evolution, disagrees and notes that the assassination demonstrates Revok's danger. Dr. Ruth brings in Vale and injects him with ephemerol, which restores his sanity by temporarily inhibiting his scanning ability. Ruth explains that Vale was driven mad by his uncontrolled powers and asks him to help infiltrate Revok's group. Guided by Ruth, Vale learns to control his scanning abilities.

Unknown to Dr. Ruth, Keller is working for Revok as a mole 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 shoot Pierce to death, 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 Dr. 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 responds by ordering the computer system shut down while Vale is scanning it to either kill or harm him, but instead causes the computer to explode and kill himself. They visit a doctor on the list of ephemerol recipients, where they discover that it is being prescribed to pregnant women and causing their children to become scanners. Obrist and Vale are ambushed by Revok and his men and abducted and taken to the Biocarbon Amalgamate plant.

Revok reveals to Vale that they are both Dr. Ruth's children, and he developed ephemerol as a sedative for pregnant women; Ruth learned about the drug's side-effect during his wife's pregnancies and made them the most powerful scanners in the world by administering a high dosage before abandoning them. Revok plans to create and lead a new generation of scanners to take over the world by mass-distributing ephemerol, but Vale refuses to join the plot and angers Revok by accusing him of acting like his father. The two telepathically battle each other, with Vale's body catching fire, and Revok's eyes turning white. Shortly afterwards, Obrist enters the room to find Vale's charred body on the floor. Revok emerges with his head scar gone and with Vale's voice and eyes, seemingly possessed by Vale's consciousness, and announces "We've won."


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.[8] 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.[9][7][10] According to Cronenberg, he would spend mornings prior to filming writing scenes.[7]

The film was shot primarily on-location in Montreal, Quebec and Toronto, Ontario.[11] The lecture scene was filmed at Concordia University, and the Charles J. Des Baillets Water Treatment Plant doubled as the 'Bicarbon Amalgamate' compound.[12] The "Future Electronique" building in Vaudreuil-Dorion provided the exterior of 'ConSec' headquarters.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14] 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.

Make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Amadeus) provided prosthetics for the climactic scanner duel and the iconic exploding head effect.[15][16][17][18]

Head explosion effect[edit]

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 the 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.[19]


Scanners was released in the United States on January 14, 1981, by Avco Embassy Pictures, and grossed $2,758,147 from 387 theatres in its opening weekend.[20] It grossed a total of $14,225,876 at the box office.[4] A novelization by Leon Whiteson, David Cronenberg's Scanners, was also released in 1981.[21]


Critical reception[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 70% based on 37 reviews, with a average rating of 6.69/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Scanners is a dark sci-fi story with special effects that'll make your head explode."[22] On Metacritic it has a weighted average score of 60% based on reviews from 8 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[23] 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.[24]

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".[2] 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".[3] John Simon of National Review described Scanners as trash.[25]

Christopher John reviewed Scanners in Ares Magazine #8 and commented that "Scanners is top-notch entertainment. It is haunting, exciting, shocking and literate – an unusual combination to discover in a film these days."[26]

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".[27] Kim Newman noted in an essay for the The Criterion Collection that at the same time the film rejects the conservative values of the 1980's and the nostalgia for the 1950's present in contemporary science-fiction films such as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and Back to the Future.[28] 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 pregnant women prescribed the drug for morning sickness in Western Europe and Canada.[6]


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.[29]


Mondo released the Howard Shore score for Scanners, alongside The Brood, on vinyl; it features cover art by Sam Wolfe Conelly.[30]


Scanners spawned sequels and a series of spin-offs; a remake was announced in 2007, but as of 2021 had not gone into production.[31] None of these projects has involved Cronenberg as director.




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.[31] 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]

In July 2011, Dimension was planning to develop a television series.[32] As with the film reboot, no further announcements have been made regarding a TV series. Another attempt to develop the concept into a television series was announced in September 2017 by Media Res and Bron Studios.[33]


  1. ^ "SCANNERS (X)". British Board of Film Classification. February 10, 1981. Retrieved October 19, 2014.
  2. ^ a b Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Scanners". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 8, 2009.[dead link]
  3. ^ a b Canby, Vincent (January 14, 1981). "Scanners". The New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2021.
  4. ^ a b "Scanners". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  5. ^ "Scanners". Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  6. ^ a b "Looking back at David Cronenberg's Scanners". Den of Geek. November 23, 2012. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  7. ^ a b c "Exploding head aside, Scanners is one of Cronenberg's most conventional films". The A.V. Club. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ "Canada's Tax Shelter Era – National Canadian Film Day". Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  10. ^ "David Cronenberg: Scanners (1981)". 3 Brothers Film. Retrieved December 28, 2020.
  11. ^ Lerner, Loren R. (January 1997). Canadian film and video: a bibliography and guide to the literature. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802029881.
  12. ^ a b "Scanners filming locations — Movie Maps". Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  13. ^ "Scanners Movie Filming Locations – The 80s Movies Rewind". Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  14. ^ "Canadian Film Encyclopedia - Capital Cost Allowance/The Tax Shelter Years: 1975 to 1982". Retrieved December 29, 2020.
  15. ^ Vincent Canby "Scanners" The New York Times (14 January 1981)
  16. ^ Variety Staff (January 1, 1981). "Scanners". Variety.
  17. ^ "Scanners" Cinemafantastique
  18. ^ Kinnear, Simon (August 15, 2011). 50 Best Movie Special Effects. archive[dead link] Retrieved January 24, 2012
  19. ^ Wickman, Forrest (July 15, 2014). "How They Blew Up That Head in Scanners". Slate. The Slate Group.
  20. ^ "'Crazy,' '9 To 5,' 'Which Way' Glow; 'Scanners' Strong". Variety. January 21, 1981. p. 3.
  21. ^ Browning, Mark (2007). David Cronenberg: Author Or Film-maker?. Intellect Books. pp. 91–. ISBN 978-1-84150-173-4.
  22. ^ "Scanners (1981)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved July 13, 2018.
  23. ^ "Scanners". Metacritic.
  24. ^ 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.
  25. ^ Simon, John (1982). Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Film. Crown Publishers Inc. p. xiv.
  26. ^ John, Christopher (May 1981). "Film & Television". Ares Magazine. Simulations Publications, Inc. (8): 31.
  27. ^ Pepe, Michael (2012). "Lefties and Hippies and Yuppies, Oh My! David Cronenberg's Scanners Revisited". CineAction (88).
  28. ^ Newman, Kim. "Scanners: Mind and Matter". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved April 20, 2021.
  29. ^ Allmovie Awards
  30. ^ Mondo Selling ‘Scanners/The Brood’ OST On Vinyl Tomorrow
  31. ^ a b Fleming, Michael (February 27, 2007). "'Scanners' moves to new dimension". Variety. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  32. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. "Dimension To Develop 'Scanners' TV Series". Deadline Hollywood.
  33. ^ Andreeva, Nellie. "'Scanners': Media Res & Bron Studios To Adapt David Cronenberg Film As TV Series". Deadline. Retrieved September 27, 2017.

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]