Horror Movie Review: Scanners (1981)


Scanners is a science-fiction horror film from the mind of Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg. He is one of the originators of what is commonly known as the body horror or venereal horror genre. This style of filmmaking explores people’s fears of bodily transformation and infection. In his films, the psychological is intertwined with the physical. In the space of just five years, Cronenberg gave us Scanners, Videodrome, The Dead Zone and the Sci-Fi/Horror classic, The Fly. He has been called “the most audacious and challenging narrative director in the English-speaking world.” For me, Scanners was always one of those films that I’d heard a lot about and even seen certain moments but had never actually taken the time to sit down and watch the whole thing. Well, I took the time so let’s see if it was worth the wait…..

Private security firm ConSec plans to showcase potential “scanners”, people with exceptional powers of telekinesis, telepathy, and mind control. However, when ConSec’s scanner attempts to read the mind of a volunteer from the invited group, the scanner’s head explodes. ConSec officials surmise that the volunteer was himself a scanner and initially take him into custody. However, he is able to use his powers to kill the men guarding him and escape.

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Interestingly, the effect for the infamous exploding head scene was accomplished by filling a latex head of the actor with dog food and rabbit livers, and shooting it from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun. If you slow the film down then you can see the exact moment in which the latex head is added, it’s still a very impressive looking effect none the less.

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ConSec security head Braedon Keller demands all scanner research to cease, but program head Dr. Paul Ruth disagrees, explaining that the assassination and escape have shown the weapon’s potential they had hoped to demonstrate. Ruth suspects the killer scanner to be Darryl Revok, who Ruth says has his own underground network of scanners in competition with ConSec’s program. He argues that ConSec should recruit scanners to their cause to infiltrate and bring down Revok’s group.

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To this point, scanner Cameron Vale has lived an unhappy life as a social outcast, due to his inability to cope with the never-ending stream of other people’s thoughts bombarding his mind and his not even knowing the cause or nature of his condition. After bringing Vale into ConSec, Ruth has administered a drug called ephemerol, which temporarily stops his scanning ability. Ruth asks for Vale’s help, explaining that he is a scanner and that Revok is killing all scanners who refuse to join him.

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With Keller working for him as a spy, Revok learns of Ruth’s plan and dispatches assassins to follow Vale as he begins his search for Revok by visiting a scanner named Benjamin Pierce. Pierce is shot and killed but before he dies, Vale reads from his mind a name – Kim Obrist. Vale tracks down Obrist, who has formed a telepathic alliance with a group of other scanners. Vale attends a meeting, but assassins for Revok strike again, with only Vale and Obrist escaping. Scanning an assassin, Vale learns of a drug company, which he then infiltrates. He finds that large quantities of ephemerol are being distributed under a program called “Ripe,” run by Revok himself through ConSec. Vale and Obrist return to ConSec, where Ruth suggests Vale scan the computer system to learn more about Ripe. Meanwhile, Keller tries to kill Obrist, but she escapes. Keller kills Ruth while Vale and Obrist flee the building.

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Vale accesses the computer network through a telephone and pulls ephemerol shipment information. When Keller discovers this, he orders the computer system destroyed while Vale is plugged into it. The plan backfires and the computer explodes, killing Keller and leaving Vale and Obrist to investigate the shipments. They visit a doctor on the list of recipients, where Obrist suddenly discovers she is being scanned by the unborn baby of a pregnant woman. Vale concludes that Ripe’s purpose is to administer ephemerol to pregnant women, making their babies scanners. The two are ambushed by Revok’s men and abducted.

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Revok reveals that ephemerol was a tranquilizer developed by Ruth for pregnant women that had the unintended side effect of causing the unborn children to become scanners. Ruth learned of this from providing the drug to his wife during her pregnancies. The two resulting children were Revok and Vale, who, as the longest-term scanners are more powerful than any other scanners. By mass distributing ephemerol, Revok plans to create a new generation of scanners, giving him the manpower to execute a plan of global domination over non-scanners, with Revok heading this new empire. Revok asks Vale to join, but Vale refuses and the two have a final scanning showdown against one another. As their battle causes the blood vessels in their bodies to begin to burst open, Vale’s body ignites and his eyes explode. Revok’s eyes turn white and he shouts in agony.

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Soon thereafter, Obrist enters the room to find a charred body on the floor. She hears Vale’s voice coming from the corner of the room: in the corner, is Revok – his head scar gone and his eyes the same blue as Vale’s. He faces Obrist and announces, “We’ve won.”

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So that’s Scanners and quite honestly I think it has some major issues but deserves to be praised for its originality, story and visual style that reeks of David Cronenberg.

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The biggest problem with the film is the acting particularly that of Stephen Lack (Vale) who gives one of the most wooden performances you’re likely ever to see. He delivers all of his lines with a complete lack (pun intended) of emotion or conviction, he simply looks like he doesn’t give a shit most of the time. Now, it seemed possible that his character was meant to be this way due to being such a social outcast but Stephen Lack did very few acting roles before and after Scanners and has since stopped acting all together, I think that says a lot.

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This practically ruins the majority of the movie because Vale is the main character and his horrible delivery makes it pretty hard to take things seriously, I found myself in fits of laughter by the end at how bad he was.

Patrick McGoohan (Dr Ruth) is pretty good for the majority that is until he has a mental breakdown near the end once he figures everything out. He mumbles to himself and shouts “they must be stopped!” all while Keller slowly makes his way behind him and puts him out of his misery, it’s unintentionally genuinely hilarious.

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Now, Michael Ironside as Revok is predictably the highlight in terms of acting. He brings a lot of personality to the role, it’s a shame none of that personality went to his on screen brother Cameron.

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As I mentioned above, I thought the story was interesting and wrapped itself up nicely by the end but it could be difficult to follow for some as some scenes feel scattered. David Cronenberg once called this the most frustrating film he’d ever made. The film was rushed through production – filming had to begin without a finished script and end within roughly two months so the financing would qualify as a tax write-off, forcing Cronenberg to write and shoot at the same time. Cronenberg also cited difficulty with and antagonism between the leads, particularly Patrick McGoohan and Jennifer O’Neill, it says it all really.

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Scanners has a lot of interesting ideas, decent effects and an intriguing story even though it does move along at quite a slow pace. It’s worth seeing if you’re a fan of Cronenberg’s work but it doesn’t necessarily hit heights that would have it labelled a “classic”.

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