Scanners (1981)

Starring Jennifer O’Neill, Stephen Lack, Patrick McGoohan, Lawrence Dane, Michael Ironside, Robert A. Silverman, Lee Broker, Mavor Moore, Adam Ludwig

Directed by David Cronenberg

Expectations: Very high. I’ve seen the head explosion like fifty times, but have never seen the movie.


Oh man, this is gonna be a tough one. One one hand, I loved Scanners. It has a strange vibe with incredible visuals and some really intense moments (not to mention the gore). On the other hand, it belongs to that era of film that I almost always find slow, plodding and hard to watch. So yeah, I kinda loved Scanners while also kinda hating it. In the end, the two emotions blended into a definite liking of the film overall, but I can’t dismiss the fact that the film was kind of hard to sit through. Part of that is me, I had a super long day and I was exhausted when I started it. I knew going in it was a sticky situation, and if the film didn’t completely hold my attention I’d be quickly counting sheep. I fought—and I fought hard—but Scanners just didn’t do it for me like I expected it to. Fucking high expectations, ruining a perfectly good telepathy movie for me.

Scanners is about scanners, genetically special people who can read minds and, in certain cases, control them. Without going too in-depth, there’s one “good” scanner, Cameron, sent to hunt down Revok, played by a young Michael Ironside who’s looking very Jack Nicholson-esque. Revok is an evil scanner who blew up a dude’s head in his introduction scene a few minutes into the movie. While you might think that signals a film filled with insane, gory special effects, that’s not the case. That head explosion is the lion’s share of the gore, but there are a few other choice moments. So anyway, the drive of the movie is Cameron trying to hunt down and kill Revok, but that makes it sound action-packed (or somewhat similar to Blade Runner) and it’s not really.

The defense rests their case in the matter of CG v. Practical FX.

More than anything else, Scanners is slow. It’s a product of its time, and it’s just a time period I have a hard time liking. There’s always exceptions and lots of great movies came out around this time, but there’s a huge batch of films that have this thick 70s veneer on them and it’s just hard to get through. This doesn’t mean it’s a bad film, just one that I’m not entirely built for. I do think that if you can really lock into it, and perhaps seeing it in a theater would help, it would be a stunning, exciting work. As I saw it tonight, though, it’s a far cry from exciting. There’s only so much I can watch of actors contorting their faces to make it look like they’re doing heavy shit with their minds, and Scanners is full of that shit. It betrays a lot of the quality elements of the film and really holds it back from being great in my opinion. Imagine Carrie, but instead of merely darting her eyes to the gym doors, she opened her mouth in a gnarled expression for thirty seconds before anything happened and you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

It does have its moments though. When Cameron is asked to prove his abilities by speeding up a yoga master’s heart rhythm, the editing perfectly matches the incessant and ever-increasing beeping of the cardiac monitor, creating a scene that is intense, brutal and very exciting. The intro scene in the shopping mall is also incredibly well done, with computerized ambient music perfectly scoring the slight future mood of the story and the brilliant colors and lights all around. The gore FX, done by genre legend Dick Smith, are incredible and are a testament to why physical FX will ALWAYS trump CG for shit like this. They lifecasted a dude’s head, filled it with fuckin’ beef liver and then blasted the shit out of it with a shotgun. It looks incredible. I watched it three times, one of which was going frame-by-frame, and that’s just during the movie. I watched it a few more times before I had to return the disc to the library. Then I made an animated GIF of it and now I’ve seen it too many times to count. It’s insane, and quite possibly one of the best looking head explosions of all time. I’ve always been partial to the one in the opening of Dawn of the Dead, but this shit is on another level. The one in Dawn of the Dead may be more playful and fun, but the Scanners head explosion is easily the more realistic and shocking.

The real star of the show, besides the FX, is director David Cronenberg. He’s one of the few big directors that I’m nearly clueless on, but with Scanners I can see why he’s so popular with the director-loving crowds. Scanners might not be a home run, and it definitely has its share of flaws, but goddamn does it look incredible. It’s a flawlessly shot film with some truly incredible cinematography. Cronenberg clearly knows what he’s doing behind the camera, so I look forward to checking out more films and hopefully finding one that explodes my entire head, instead of Scanners which really only exploded my eyes.

Scanners was apparently written while shooting the film, so perhaps some of its issues can be explained away in this manner. It’s a strange mixture of science fiction, horror, action, and mystery drama, so if that sounds like a good time check it out. It wasn’t entirely my bag, but this thing has been a cult favorite for the last thirty years, and there is some merit to that. I kinda liked it, I kinda hated it, overall I think Scanners is a very interesting and worthy film.

4 comments to Scanners (1981)

  • I saw a commercial for True Blood the other day with some CG exploding people. Oh man, did it look like shit. I had to try real hard not to burst out laughing and disturbing everyone else in the room.

    Physical FX all the way!

  • I know you love exploding head movies. I just witnessed one of the greatest. The Human Race is a film you should definitely check out, my friend, because it features HEAPS of exploding heads. Damn, I just watched it and couldn’t stop thinking that it would be right up your alley!!!

    And when you see it, you’re welcome, dude.

    • Hahahaha, I do love exploding heads on film! I’ll have to hunt down The Human Race! It doesn’t seem to be available yet on Netflix over here. I looked it up on IMDB and I see that the FX were done by the same guy that’s been working on the last few Full Moon films, so I’ll be curious to see what kind of work he’s doing for another studio. Full Moon is never very gore-heavy in their films, but with “HEAPS of exploding heads” it sounds like this one is much more so. Thanks!

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