‘Scanners’ (1981) Review

Having a week, with computer problems and deadlines galore (not to mention my neighbor and his recently constructed dirt-bike track). As I’m running behind, I dug up an older review of one of my favorite David Cronenberg films. Hope you enjoy.

Illustration by Connor Willumsen

Scanners, man. Scanners.

Scanners is the only movie that gave me nightmares from just the TV spot. It’s not even that scary of a commercial, but somehow it got to me. I remember the nightmare in detail even now, probably because even bad dreams don’t usually fill me with the horrible sense of dread I got during that particular dream.

It’ll sound stupid, but here here’s the dream: I’m sitting in a chair in an all white room. In front of me is a front-loading dryer, which is also white. Behind and to the left of the washing machine is a doorway to a white hall that I can only make out because the light in the hall is slightly dimmer than the light in the room. In the dryer, slowly tumbling and making sounds like a steak sizzling on a pan, is a piece of meat. Not like a steak or something innocuous like that – it’s obviously an organ of some kind, like a liver or a pancreas – something I can’t immediately recognize, but just know came from inside a person. And for no reason at all I’m absolutely terrified by this piece of tumbling meat. Suddenly I see someone walk by outside the doorway – it’s the guy from the commercial, the guy who looks kinda like Frank Oz (the guy whose head explodes, actually, but I didn’t know that when I had the nightmare). I try and call out to him, but I can’t speak. The door to the dryer is going to open soon. The organ – whatever it is, all red and leathery – will stop tumbling. I don’t know what’s going to happen then, but whatever it is will be awful.

And then I woke up. See? Dumb dream. Still gives me a minor sense of dread just thinking about it, though.

You can see the TV spot that inspired it here:

When I finally did see the movie it was nowhere near as scary as my dream. It was, however, the coolest psychic powers movie I had ever seen. Watching it now you’ll find that it’s very slow and talky and most of the psychic stuff involves closeups of people who look like they’re having a gas attack, but at the time it was frackin’ amazing. That scene where Vale is basically hacking a computer with his mind and the bad guys shut the link off? In my head that shit was up there with Star Wars in awesomeness.

I spent a good part of the eighties obsessed with psychic powers in movies and fiction. The first comic book character I created was a telekinetic. The second or third short story I ever wrote was about a guy who developed psychic powers and used them to kill the kids that were bullying him at school. (I would probably get suspended or expelled for writing something like that in school nowadays.) I can lay that fascination directly at Scanners’ door – and it’s a movie I re-watched a lot back then.


One last tangent (yeah, right) about my experience with the movie. The first time I watched it I loved it, but I was initially very confused. For some reason I had gotten it into my head that the movie was an adaptation of “Scanners Live in Vain” by Cordwainer Smith (which I still think would make a great movie). Took several minutes to adjust my expectations.

The Medium
I picked up the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release, and it’s fantastic. The transfer itself is top notch – the best the movie has ever looked by far. It’s not going to be as clean or detailed looking as a more modern movie – there’s a significant amount of grain in certain scenes, for instance – but it looks very sharp. I’ve read some folks who have a problem with the color tone, which has a distinctly greenish cast, but it doesn’t bother me.

There are quite a few extras, including trailers, interviews and Cronenberg’s first feature-length film, Stereo (which I’m looking forward to watching). No commentary track, which is a little disappointing. The packaging is also very nice, with an illustration theme that runs throughout the set. I personally like the art style (by Connor Willumsen) a lot, but it’s an individual taste thing.

Scanners is available on streaming for subscribers via Cinemax (and something called ‘kanopy’) as well as being available for rent/purchase via Amazon and iTunes.

The Movie
Scanners is a movie about people with a special ability called ‘scanning.’ It’s a little like telepathy, but as described in the movie it’s “the ability to connect two nervous systems separated by space.” A scanner with enough power can read thoughts, speed up a heartbeat, control someone’s actions, and even kill. There’s also a telekinetic element and even some pyrokinesis – this stuff seems to fall out of the given definition of scanning, but it’s all psychic powers, right? Right.


The movie follows a character named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) as he goes from homeless person to psychic spy. He’s hauled out of being a transient after mentally assaulting an older lady in a shopping mall. He explains his attack by saying something like “she made me do it by thinking about me.” There’s all kinds of space in that statement to follow up – is it the abuser’s “she made me do it” cry? Is there something about being an untrained scanner that means your mind is easily sucked in by those around you? Does an intense ‘thought’ provoke an intense response in a scanner? It looks deliberate – the attack – to me, so that “she made me” defense reveals a certain flaw in Vale’s character if you look at it that way. None of those things are followed up on – it’s just a throwaway line – but it’s interesting to think about.

Cameron finds himself tied to a bed, dressed in white clothes, while a distinguished looking man in glasses (and black clothes) proceeds to psychically torture him with a crowd of people. Eventually the man, Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) gives Cameron a drug called Ephemerol that dampens his abilities, allowing him to hear himself think for the first time. I’m not sure what the torture session was supposed to accomplish. It goes on way too long for it to be simply a way to show how effective the drug is (this is one of the scenes that slows the pace down a significant amount). It  really does feel like Dr. Ruth (yeah, I know) is purposefully torturing Cameron, breaking him down to the point that the relief the drug offers engenders a sense of gratitude in his torturer.


Meanwhile, a company called ConSec (which actually employs Dr. Ruth) is having a demonstration – revealing to a select group of people that scanners exist and what they can do. The demonstration goes horribly awry however when the volunteer in the audience turns out to be a scanner himself, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside). This leads up to that infamous head-explosion scene.

As a horror movie fan and a gore fan (though more in my teens and twenties than now), that head explosion was always the one against which any other gore effect was measured. It’s just truly startling in its realism and graphic nature. It also occurs early enough in the movie to be a calling card – letting the audience know what they’re in for.


The movie goes on to pit Revok and Vale against each other. Cameron tries to infiltrate a group of scanners in order to get access to Revok and stop him from killing or subsuming all other known scanners. Along the way he finds a group of unaffiliated scanners, including Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), but Revok seems to always been just one step behind, attacking and killing everyone Cameron comes into contact with.
With Kim’s help Cameron finally infiltrates Revok’s company, only to find that things are a lot more complicated than they at first appeared – Revok may be working for ConSec – or perhaps it’s ConSec that’s working for him. Either way, Revok’s plan, a program called Ripe, is a massive conspiracy to create more scanners – and Dr. Ruth may be involved.

On the run from both Revok and ConSec, Vale attempts to download the information about Ripe by scanning the ConSec computer remotely. Security attempts to wipe the computer drive – and Vale – with explosive results.


This is still an awesome sequence, 80’s phone connection and tape drives and all. As things go bad and stuff starts to explode on both sides of the connection I’m always filled with a level of uncomfortable glee – “that’s what you get for messing with a scanner, asshole!” Small details like melted plastic running out of the phone mouthpiece as just fantastic. And if an exploding telephone booth is a bit goofy? Ah well – psychic powers, right? Whattaya gonna do?

Armed with the computer info, Vale and Kim uncover the truth about Ripe and Revok’s plan, leading to a final confrontation from which neither Vale nor Revok will emerge unscathed.

The veins! The flames! It’s a fantastic set piece. I never realized that Dick Smith had worked on this film – he’s the guy who did makeup for The Exorcist and The Godfather, amongst others (his last film was apparently the remake of The House on Haunted Hill). There was a team of effects guys on this film, but a lot of this final confrontation was created by him.


Watching the film this time around, the creepiest part of the movie to me is the long-range plans of Revok. This is a man who is planning generations down the line. He’s seeding the population with scanners and planning on culling and harvesting them into an army. He’s got lists that include doctors and patient names and addresses and is willing to put the time and effort and inhuman patience into this plan.

I also still really like the way the powers are portrayed. Scanning is not some easy, twitch-reaction thing. It takes time to make the connection, effort and concentration to accomplish any effect. It looks painful and difficult. Yeah, there are a few too many shots of shaking jowls and rolling eyeballs, but it’s still effective stuff. Before that guy’s head explodes you feel the pressure building in his skull.


The movie is let down in a couple of spots. The pacing is off, with some parts being glacially slow and others being over before they have a real chance to get good. Vale’s ‘indoctrination’ via crowd torture goes on way too long and his ‘Rocky Training’ moment with a yoga master is over almost before it begins. The lighting is often flat, often looking more like a 70’s film than an early 80’s one.

The biggest issue with the movie, though, is the lead. Stephen Lack’s surname seems appropriate, as there is definitely something lacking in his performance. I actually think this lack of affect is intentional – Cameron is someone who has literally never had a moment in which to develop his own personality, so of course he’s a bit of a cipher, a bit flat. It’s not always enjoyable to watch, however – no matter how much I identified with him as a teen.

The other actors are much more fun to watch, with Michael Ironside always worth the price of admission and Patrick McGoohan providing much needed gravitas to all  his scenes. Jennifer O’Neill often looks a bit lost, but she balances that out with some very effective ‘Blue Steel’ looks as she ‘scans’ people.


The soundtrack by Howard Shore is great, with a lot of dissonant electronic chords and isolated piano keys. The theme music is appropriately bombastic and distinctive and adds a certain gothic atmosphere to the scenes in which it plays.

The Bottom Line
Scanners is an old favorite that, for me, holds up even now. It’s got its rough spots – uneven pacing, a lackluster star – but it’s still a classic. Every time I watch it I find new things to enjoy and think about.

Note: This review appears in my book 31 Days, 31 Horror Movies Vol 1.

Author: Bob Cram

Would like to be mysterious but is instead, at best, slightly ambiguous.