Cronenberg hits his stride: Scanners

Woo-hoo. Here we go…

Scanners is Cronenberg’s first unarguably great film- and contains probably the defining Cronenberg image/ scene of the 80’s. I know there are other contenders (notably James Woods probing at the vagina-like opening on his stomach with a gun in Videodrome), but I don’t honestly think there is another scene that is the equal to the iconic demonstration sequence of Scanners, and just because no review of Scanners can possibly be complete without a picture of an exploding head:

Pop. Need more than Nurofen for that one mate…

Anyway, digressions aside, the plot of Scanners is thus: A shadowy pharmaceutical company are looking to control swathes of the population through drugs. A generation of people has thrown up “telepathic curiousities”, the titular Scanners, who (aside from telekinesis) suffer from myriad side effects and live on the margins of society. One Scanner, Vale (Stephen Lack), is recruited to infiltrate an organisation of Scanners under the command of the insane Revok (Michael Ironside- for the fucking win) and stop whatever evil plan he’s putting into motion. Events accelerate until a big Scan-off between Vale and Revok and an ambiguous ending.

The temptation with Scanners is to waffle on about a whole manner of different themes that reduce the reader into a somnolent state. So, because I can resist anything except temptation, that’s exactly what I’m going to do. One of the reasons that this is a truly great film is the depiction of the telepathy as a debilitating mental illness. Vale comes to attention after a disturbing incident in a shopping mall, and the film is shot from the perspective of an outsider. This is clearly a comment on society’s marginalisation of the mentally ill, and the default position is to medicate them.

Aside from that, the thread of identity runs through the film. Vale assumes a new identity to go undercover, and in the climax of the film only one of the two scanners is left standing, but it’s extremely ambiguous which scanner actually won, and I can make a reasonable case for both Revok and Vale being victorious. And, obviously, there is the undercurrent of shadowy medical organisation up to no good.

The acting in Scanners is patchy. Stephen Lack plays Vale with an odd sort of dislocation. If I’m completely blunt, he’s pretty crap in the role. Vale is an outsider, sure, and is medicated and struggling to come to terms with his gift, but really, I wondered if the actor was also actually medicated. Nevertheless, who gives a toss about Vale when there’s the awesomely psychotic Michael Ironside playing Revok. The asylum footage is astonishingly frightening, and his utter lunatic conviction makes Revok a real villain with style. It’s a monstrous performance and the first of his great turns.  The rest of the support is OK.

Scanners also has a great script. Aside from the cleverly portrayed Mental Illness theme (the artist in particular is great on this score) Revok gets a huge amount of lunatic megalomanic speeches- I particularly like the monologue before the climactic battle:

There’s a whole generation of scanners soldiers just a few months away from being born. We’ll find them. Train them to be like us. Not like Obrist and their band of cripples. We’ll bring the world of normals to their knees. We’ll build an empire so brilliant, so glorious. We’ll be the envy of the whole planet. 

Obviously, it helps that Ironside is delivering that speech, but still it’s a great piece of writing.

Furthermore, the effects of Scanners are fucking incredible for the time. There’s not a jot of CGI used, and the practical effects (which include lashings of gore), particularly the exploding head effect, not only stand up today, but look better than most CGI would. I really, really wish practical effects would come  back into fashion, as when done properly (as in here) then they really are superb and a damned sight more effective than rubbish computer generated nonsense. Just because you can use a computer for something doesn’t mean you should use a computer as your default option.

The other feature of renown in Scanners is the score, composed by Howard Shore. It’s a sparse, synth driven affair that creates a notable atmosphere of menace. The other sound work, particularly the Scanner noise itself, is unsettling and I’m sure drives dogs nuts when they hear it. Really top class work.

Needless to say, it’s pretty obvious that I do really recommend Scanners. It is a genuinely great film. Scanners is an intelligent, adult, thoughtful sci-fi that deserves more than just a reputation as a cult classic. It’s exciting and tense and has an absolutely cracking performance from Ironside. There are so many different reasons to see this film, and at the very least it is worth watching just for the Scanner demonstration at the beginning. A truly superb effort that would be getting 4 Changs were it not for Lack’s pretty mediocre turn as Vale.

Scanners- top class stuff with a flaw, but unquestionably a great film: 3.5 Changs

The ranking order so far:

  1. Scanners- 3.5 Changs
  2. The Brood- 3 Changs
  3. Shivers- 2 Changs
  4. Rabid- 1 Chang
  5. Fast Company- Orangutan of Doom

Next up- The New Flesh: Videodrome fucks my brain.

Until then,


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About Jarv

Workshy cynic, given to posting reams of nonsense on the internet and watching films that have inexplicably got a piss poor reputation.

28 responses to “Cronenberg hits his stride: Scanners”

  1. Jarv says :


    Love this film.

  2. Jarv says :

    Oh and before anyone mentions it, I know that Ephemerol= Thalidomide.

  3. xiphos0311 says :

    Jarv’s head will explode after reading that like he was under attack by a scanner.

  4. xiphos0311 says :

    Good review etc.

  5. spud mcspud says :

    I read somewhere that they did that exploding head effect by filling a hollowed out watermelon with offal and bloodbags, dressing it over with a latex face and a wig, then cleared the set and blew the shit out of it from below with a double-barrelled shotgun.

    THAT, my friends, is how you do SFX. Fuck 21st century Lucasfilm…

  6. Stuntcock Mike says :

    Watched it a few months ago and still loving it.

    Patrick McGoohan’s voice removes female pants.

  7. Continentalop says :

    Revok/Ironside acted and talked like a true super-villain should. That entire little speech about bringing the world to it’s knees is better than anything Magneto says in all the X-Men movies.

    Hell, Scanners proves that maybe they should have gotten Cronenberg to direct an X-Men movie. Mutation=Body Horror works for me.

  8. Droid says :

    I haven’t seen this one. Might have to check it out.

  9. kloipy says :

    great review Jarv. And scanners is just an all around great one.
    I was actually thinking how cool it is to have WOTM last night. I mean we all met up like 3 years ago on AICN and now we have our own place. It’s just nice

  10. koutchboom says :

    I saw this film last year. I liked it but I wasn’t as exciting as I hoped it would be. I’d watch it again,but I didn’t love it.

  11. tombando says :

    Michael Ironsides from SpaceHunter-Adventures in the Forbidden Zone(3-D). Yes indeedie. He rocks.

  12. ThereWolf says :

    Scanners is a fantastic film. I still remember the buzz of watching it for the first time, seeing that head explode near the beginning – pause, rewind, play, pause, rewind, play, etc…

    Ironside… hold on… IRONSIDE! That’s better. He’s a snarling, vein bulging mentalist in this. A proper bad man.

    Lack, I think he was cast for his emotive eyes more than anything. Weak, but I think it was deliberate to have a complete opposite to Revok.

    Dick Smith – very accomplished make-up FX work. Superb.

    Must watch Scanners again soon.

    Impeccable review once again…

  13. spud mcspud says :

    HOLY FUCK!!!

    I’m an amiable guy, most of the time, and aside from recently repeatedly telling Don Murphy to go fuck himself on the”Edgy Fraggles” and “Sam Raimi OZ prequel” TBs, I’ve not said anything particularly abusive or offensive – yet, my friends, for the first time EVER, spud mcspud seems to have been banhammered from AICN!!! Apparently, I’m too badass for the final frontier of internet talkbacking!!

    Anyone got any idea who I contact at AICN to see if I HAVE been banhammered, or whether I should wait to see if this is some kind of weird glitch??

    Sorry, I’m off topic, but you gents seem to know about these things…

    • xiphos0311 says :

      Spud I have been banned at fat town over a dozen times and except for 2 names it was totally warranted but I have never been able to get any names reinstated. Just re-register spud mcspud and put a 2 on the end.

    • Jarv says :

      Yup. I’ve been done twice. Once for calling Big Brother LCD shit for morons, and once unjustifiably.

      Fuck gingertown. We don’t ban people

      • spud mcspud says :

        And THAT is why WOTM is the new lawless frontier. Fuck THAT noise.

        Other than the usual bullshit that gets bandied round at AICN, unless they’ve suddenly got a fierce desire to defend Don Murphy (I’ve been repeatedly calling him out for letting Sean Connery eviscerate LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN) I have no fucking clue what I did to merit getting banned.

        Ah, fuck ’em. I might go back under therealspudmcspud or whatever just to keep up on the WHO TBs. Can’t believe those fuckers are finally getting over-sensitive after all these years…

      • Jarv says :

        I’m astounded you weren’t done for some of the Queer Wars on the Who TB.

        There’s nothing of interest to argue about in new Who now. It’s bland TV Wallpaper.

  14. spud mcspud says :

    And in fairness, BIG BROTHER is an enema for the eyes. You were totally justified in that, Jarv.

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