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‘Splodin Heads with “Scanners”

Year: 1981
Genre: Sci-Fi/Horror
Director: David Cronenberg
Stars: Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Michael Ironside

A scientist sends a man with extraordinary psychic powers to hunt others like him.

So Josh Hadley asked me to watch these Scanners movies.  By “asked” I mean he damn right insisted.  He sent me the movies and then every day said “Watch those *Scanners movies.”  For awhile, every single coversation with Josh Hadley went something like…

Me: How are you today, Josh?
Josh: Fuck you, watch Scanners.

So I’m plodding my way through them and posting my thoughts… So far I think I can live through them.

Heads Explode

Let’s get this out of the way first.  In Scanners peoples head friggin’ EXPLODE!  Here’s a clip:

That’s just a start.  Scanners are people with extraordinary psychic powers.  They can use the power of their mind to influence others or control the biological functions of others or simply just toss people about.  A rogue scanner, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is assembling all the known scanners to create a revolution.  To combat this, Dr. Paul Ruth, working for a company called ConSec, finds one unaffiliated and untrained scanner, Cameron Vale (Stephen Luck), and tasks him with hunting down and stopping this organization of super psychics.  As part of this conflict we get to see Scanners doing all kinds of crazy things to people.  Sure there’s the head explosion but we also see scanners tossing people around, setting them on fire and even more.  It’s not just people they can do this to either as Cameron destroys a computer using only a phone – a phone he causes to melt and explode.  Visually, Scanners is quite memorable for these great horror elements alone.  The story connecting these visuals isn’t bad but, in my opinion, Scanners is all about the wonderful effects.  I will address the story soon enough but I wanted to get this highly positive statement about the movie out there first – Scanners looks awesome.  Despite any faults I will point out with the movie, just know what they still look awesome.  What’s best is that these are absolutely convincing practical effects.  I know that sounds rather snobbish of me, but there have been constant rumors of a Scanners remake – a remake you know will be stuffed full of CGI effects and that god-awful CGI blood.  Scanners really goes to show that one can do amazing things through traditional means.


It’s All Cronenbergy

scanners 2Scanners is directed by David Cronenberg and, as such, it bears the distinct visual style of the man who would later direct The Fly, Videodrome and Naked Lunch.  There is a term one constantly comes across when reading about the films of David Cronenberg: “body in revolt.”  A majority of Cronenberg’s films deal with the human body, things being done to the flesh in unique and often sickening ways.  You could read this whole article about it ( which details all the philosophy of Cronenberg’s “body in revolt” which applies the philosophy of post-modern thinkers like Jean Baudrillard to Cronenberg’s visuals, or you could simply watch the movie and say “Damn, this shit is FUCKED up!”  Videodrome was all about “the new flesh” and a lot of visuals involved unnatural uses of the human bodies – video-playing orifices that shouldn’t be there.  The Fly reveled in the gross visual process of a man turning into a fly.  Scanners is no different.  These psychics recieved their power from drugs and are controlled through the injection of drugs.  They use the power of their mind to destroy people’s flesh.  Case in point would be the climactic showdown between Cameron and Revok – well I don’t have a clip handy but here’s a couple of screenshots to show just how much *Scanners is a part of Cronenberg’s “body in revolt” style of visuals.

Before I learned more about “body in revolt” and why Cronenberg’s visuals were uniquely Cronenberg, my thought was “his movies are weird.  Good… but weird.”  Scanners does fit that as well because there are a lot of directorial decisions that are just… weird.  Like when we hear scanners talking to each other in voiceover – it sounds like they’re talking underwater.  Sure it could have just been an unaltered voiceover and it would have conveyed the same exact thing.  Having this underwater sound applied to that though makes it a bit more effective.  It sounds weird, sure, but it certainly sounds more like telepathic communication.  It’s little things like this that make Scanners more than just a gory sci-fi flick and turn it into something unique.

Shotguns – The Only Gun

scanners 3Okay, this is a minor thing but all gunplay in this movie is done with shotguns.  There is one scene where a character threatens someone with a pistol but he never fires it.  Everyone else in the movie, they’re blasting away with shotguns.  All of Revok’s assassins, they’re carrying shotguns.  ConSec’s security guards – all with shotguns.  It started getting annoying after awhile as I wondered why only one guy in the whole world had a handgun.  Is it just because shotguns make a bigger mess when you shoot someone with them?  Nah, Cronenberg wouldn’t go for such cheap redundancy of only gory shotgun blasts.  It took me awhile to finally figure out why there are only shotguns in the whole movie.  It takes place in Canada – this I know from one shot where we see the Canadian registration for a ConSec helicoptor.  Canada, as I’ve learned, has different gun control laws than they use making it much harder to get a handgun or an assault rifle – but a shotgun, hell the Canadian parliament might as well be handing shotguns out like candy.  At least that’s how it seems from watching Scanners.

Well I suppose the scanners themselves are guns of a sort that shot MIND BULLETS but the movie actually never presents the idea that scanners should be used as weaponized people.  In fact…

What the Hell is a Scanner?

So I’ve established that a scanner is a person with powerful psychic abilities.  How did they get those abilities though?  How and why were they made by this company called ConSec?  Scanners has a wonderful, slow-burning suspense story to it as Cameron uncovers the mysteries about who he is and what Scanners are.  A great story… that I’m about to spoil.

A drug was developed by Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) called Ephemoral which was used as a sedative for pregnant women to treat morning sickness.  Unfortunately, this drug had horrible side effects upon the unborn child (can anyone say Thalidomide?)  The side effect was, of course, the child had extraordinary psychic powers.  All scanners are the children of unwitting women who had taken Ephemoral during pregnancy.  Dr. Ruth isn’t too happy with the development but worse is Revok’s plan to conquer the world with an army of scanners – even breeding himself a new generation of scanners through illegal shipment of Ephemoral.  Yeah, Cameron stops him but the fact that this is the first of a long franchise means he probably didn’t really stop the gears that were already set in motion

scanners 4

The Cast

Josh Hadley would kill me if I didn’t talk about how awesome Michael Ironside is and how rather lacking Stephen Lack is. But Patrick McGoohan… he was in the television series The Prisoner.  And for fuck’s sake has this ever been pounded into my head.
scanners 5To be perfectly honest, I actually haven’t seen The Prisoner but I’m sure it’s great.

Overall Scanners is terrific fun.  Michael Ironside makes one of the greatest villains ever, Patrick “I fucking KNOW he was in The Prisoner” McGoohan does a fantastic job as Dr. Ruth.  The story is a great mystery/sci-fi/suspense blend.  Really it is now my favorite Cronenberg movie (Sorry but Videodrome, while it has its moments, just doesn’t completely do it for me).  It makes me worried about the sequels though.  Even though the entire franchise is from the same producer I have a feeling that he found a way to take a good thing like Scanners and completely fuck it up.

About The Author
Matthew Coats
Matthew Coats
Formerly known under the pseudonym of Alex Jowski. Site owner, movie aficionado, and film school grad. Matthew Coats presents reviews, some written, some as vlogs, and some as weekly shows, for a variety of different movies and television shows. After years of struggling to get his own projects off the ground amidst the normal routine of living, Matthew Coats decided to create a site in order to share and promote movie reviews, video games and much much more from talented and original people all across the internet.

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