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.

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


A private military company called ConSec plans to showcase a powerful new potential weapon: "scanners"; psychics with powers including extrasensory perception, telepathy/mind-control, empathy, biopathy, cyberpathy/technopathy, and psychokinesis/telekinesis. However, when ConSec's scanner demonstrates his powers, the volunteer—Darryl Revok—turns out to be a more powerful scanner, who causes the ConSec scanner's head to explode. When ConSec officials attempt to take Revok into custody, he kills them and escapes.

Stung by this embarrassing experience, ConSec security head Braedon Keller advocates shutting down ConSec's scanner research program. Program head Dr. Paul Ruth disagrees, saying the assassination and escape demonstrate scanning's potential. Ruth attributes the operation to Revok, who (according to Ruth) has his own underground network of scanners competing with ConSec's program. Ruth argues that ConSec should recruit scanners to their cause to infiltrate and bring down Revok's group. Dr. Ruth brings in scanner Cameron Vale, a homeless social outcast driven mad by his undisciplined power, and injects him with ephemerol, which temporarily inhibits his scanning ability and restores his sanity. When Vale's mind is clear, Ruth asks for his help, explaining that Vale is a scanner and Revok is killing all scanners who refuse to join him. Under Ruth's guidance, Vale learns to control his scanning abilities.

Unknown to Dr. Ruth, ConSec's security head, Keller, works for Revok as a spy. Revok learns of Ruth's infiltration plan, and dispatches assassins to follow Vale as he visits an unaffiliated scanner named Benjamin Pierce, who may know Revok's whereabouts. Revok's assassins brutally shoot Pierce to death. Enraged, Vale uses his telepathic power to kill some of the assassins. As Pierce 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 in opposition to Revok's group. Vale attends a meeting, but Revok's assassins strike again; only Vale and Obrist survive. Scanning an assassin, Vale learns of a drug company, which he then infiltrates. He finds large quantities of ephemerol are being distributed under a computer program called "Ripe", run by Revok himself through ConSec. Vale and Obrist return to ConSec, where Ruth suggests Vale cyberpathically-scan the computer system to learn more about the Ripe program. Meanwhile, Keller attacks Obrist and kills Dr. Ruth while Vale and Obrist flee the ConSec building.

Vale cyberpathically accesses the computer network through a telephone booth and pulls ephemerol shipment information. When Keller discovers this, he orders the computer system shut down while Vale is scanning it; Keller hopes to harm or kill Vale by doing so. The plan backfires and the computer explodes, killing Keller and leaving Vale and Obrist unharmed. They visit a doctor on the list of ephemerol recipients, where Obrist discovers a pregnant woman's fetus has scanned her. Vale realizes ephemerol also causes fetuses to become scanners when administered to pregnant women. Obrist and Vale are ambushed by Revok and his men and abducted.

Revok reveals to Vale ephemerol was originally developed by Dr. Ruth as a tranquilizer for pregnant women: Ruth learned about the drug's side-effect by providing it to his wife during her pregnancies; Revok reveals that he and Vale are actually brothers and Dr. Ruth was their father. Because their mother received the highest dose of ephemerol, Revok and Vale are the most powerful scanners. By mass-distributing ephemerol to unwitting doctors, who prescribe it to their pregnant patients, Revok plans to create a new generation of scanners to take over the world, which he will control. Revok asks Vale to join him, but Vale refuses. The two have a final telepathic battle against one another, Revok declaring that he'll 'suck your brain dry' if he won't side with him. Instead, while Vale's body is incinerated, his mind takes over Revok's body to save himself. Obrist enters the room to find Vale's charred body on the floor. She hears Vale's voice coming from the corner of the room. In the corner is Revok, with his head scar gone and his eyes replaced with Vale's eyes. He faces Obrist and announces in Vale's voice, "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.


Writer and director David Cronenberg has called Scanners one of his most difficult films to make, citing an incomplete script when the shooting schedule commenced, as well as a lack of constructed sets.[2] According to Cronenberg, he would spend mornings prior to filming writing scenes.[2]

The film was shot primarily on-location in Montreal, Quebec and Toronto, Ontario.[3] The lecture scene was filmed at Concordia University, and the Charles J. Des Baillets Water Treatment Plant doubled as the 'Bicarbon Amalgamate' compound.[4] The "Future Electronique" building in Vaudreuil-Dorion provided the exterior of 'ConSec' headquarters.[4] The sequence of Revok (Michael Ironside) hijacking a car and causing another to crash were shot on Rue de la Commune. The metro station was Yorkdale station, with additional scenes filmed in the Yorkville neighborhood.[5]

Make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Amadeus) provided prosthetics for the climactic scanner duel and the iconic exploding head effect.[6][7]

Head explosion effect

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, and proceeded to lie down behind the dummy and fire a shotgun at the back of the head.[8]


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.[9] It grossed a total of $14,225,876 at the box office.[10] A novelization by Leon Whiteson, David Cronenberg's Scanners, was also released in 1981.[11]


Critical reception

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 76% based on 33 reviews, with a weighted average rating of 6.8/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "Scanners is a dark sci-fi story with special effects that'll make your head explode."[12] 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.[13]

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".[14] 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".[15] John Simon of the National Review described Scanners as trash.[16]

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".[17]

Awards and honors

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.[18]


Mondo released the Howard Shore score for Scanners, alongside The Brood, on vinyl; it features cover art by Sam Wolfe Conelly.[19]


Scanners spawned sequels and a series of spin-offs; a remake was announced in 2007, but as of 2019 had not gone into production.[20] 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.[20] 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

In July 2011, it was announced that Dimension was planning to develop a television series.[21] 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.[22]


  1. "SCANNERS (X)". British Board of Film Classification. February 10, 1981. Retrieved October 19, 2014.
  2. Dowd, A. A. (July 16, 2014). "Exploding head aside, Scanners is one of Cronenberg's most conventional films". The A. V. Club. Retrieved May 8, 2019.
  3. Lerner, Loren R. Canadian film and video: a bibliography and guide to the literature. University of Toronto Press. ISBN 9780802029881.
  4. "Scanners filming locations — Movie Maps". Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  5. "Scanners Movie Filming Locations – The 80s Movies Rewind". Retrieved February 27, 2018.
  6. Vincent Canby "Scanners" The New York Times (14 January 1981); "Scanners" Variety (1 January 1981); "Scanners" Cinemafantastique
  7. Kinnear, Simon (August 15, 2011). 50 Best Movie Special Effects. archive Retrieved January 24, 2012
  8. Wickman, Forrest (July 15, 2014). "How They Blew Up That Head in Scanners". Slate. The Slate Group.
  9. "'Crazy,' '9 To 5,' 'Which Way' Glow; 'Scanners' Strong". Variety. January 21, 1981. p. 3.
  10. "Scanners". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  11. Browning, Mark (2007). David Cronenberg: Author Or Film-maker?. Intellect Books. pp. 91–. ISBN 978-1-84150-173-4.
  12. "Scanners (1981) – Rotten Tomatoes". Rotten Flixer. Retrieved July 13, 2018.
  13. 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.
  14. Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Scanners". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  15. Canby, Vincent (January 14, 1981). "Scanners". The New York Times. Retrieved January 8, 2009.
  16. Simon, John (1982). Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Film. Crown Publishers Inc. p. xiv.
  17. Pepe, Michael (2012). "Lefties and Hippies and Yuppies, Oh My! David Cronenberg's Scanners Revisited". CineAction (88).
  18. Allmovie Awards
  19. Mondo Selling ‘Scanners/The Brood’ OST On Vinyl Tomorrow
  20. Fleming, Michael (February 27, 2007). "'Scanners' moves to new dimension". Variety. Retrieved December 8, 2015.
  21. Andreeva, Nellie. "Dimension To Develop 'Scanners' TV Series". Deadline Hollywood.
  22. Andreeva, Nellie. "'Scanners': Media Res & Bron Studios To Adapt David Cronenberg Film As TV Series". Deadline. Retrieved September 27, 2017.

Further reading

  • "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.
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