Scanners (1981)

Scanners (1981)

There are 4 billion people on earth. 237 are Scanners. They have the most terrifying powers ever created… and they are winning.

An experimental drug given to pregnant women gives birth to a number of people with extraordinary telepathic powers, known as Scanners. Cameron Vale doesn’t realise that he is a scanner until he finds his way to Dr Paul Ruth and his research team, who allow him to tap into his powers and try and control it. But they have a reason for training him – a powerful scanner called Daryl Revok is amassing an underground movement of scanners in an attempt to take over the world. Vale must infiltrate the organisation and put an end to Revok’s plans.


Before I go on, yes this is the flick with the exploding head! David Cronenberg shot to prominence with a series of low budget horror-sci-fi flicks in the late 70s including the likes of The Brood and Rabid but Scanners is probably the film which he will be most fondly remembered for. It’s another low budget take on Cronenberg’s favourite topic of the internal conflicts that the body has to struggle with and he milks that idea for every penny.

The scanners are all tormented souls, damned for something they can’t really control and destined to lead lives of constant suffering and misery. Even the most controlled scanners show psychopathic and unpredictable tendencies. In a film which could have been dominated by over reliance on gore and special effects, Scanners comes off as more effective when it’s dealing with the pains that the scanners have to put up with. Particularly disturbing is the scene where Cameron Vale is strapped and drugged to a table and can hear the voices of the other thirty-odd people in the room in his mind. The scanners are made out to be sympathetic but at the same time highly dangerous, even to those who are trying to help.

Of course, the film is going to be forever remembered for some of its gory set pieces. The effects team go into overdrive here and this is where the film gets a bit of a bad name. It’s not all about the gore but because there are two startling set pieces, the rest of the film gets lambasted as a result. The finale with two scanners fighting each other is horrific as skin bursts, veins pop and the unlucky loser bursts into flames. But the main talking point is pretty early on in the film during a scanner demonstration where one unlucky scientist scans someone without realising they are a scanner and has the process reversed on him in head-exploding fashion. It’s a set piece that was repeated and done to death in the two sequels but its effectiveness here is still top notch.

As for the acting, the two leads are pretty flat and wooden in their roles, mainly Stephen Lack. Despite the requirements of the Vale character to show emotions when needed, Lack is pretty bland in the role. It’s the supporting roles from which we get the best performances. Patrick McGoohan gives a sinister edge to his fatherly Dr Paul Ruth. You know that this guy has a shady past that he is trying to put right by helping Cameron Vale. Michael Ironside puts in a great nasty turn as Daryl Revok and Lawrence Dane is also impressive as his head of security. Though the film has become infamous with the splatter scenes, Cronenberg takes plenty of time out to allow his characters to develop thoroughly. He’s not afraid to slow the pace of the film down (which he does considerably in some places) to let his characters breathe a little and talk about themselves and their problems. The audience is allowed into their mindset quite frequently, turning the likes of Vale and Revok into well-thought out characters with motives, before he then places the mental barriers back up for the brutal splatter moments.


Scanners has one or two grey areas which Cronenberg would admittedly liked to have sorted but that’s not taking anything from the fact that this is a top notch sci-fi-horror film with a great story, good performances on the whole and those gory set pieces which you’ll never forget in a hurry.





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