Movie review: ‘Scanners’

scannersIt was simply one of the grossest of the gross-out special effects of all time: a man’s head explodes in complete slow-motion detail in “Scanners” in 1981. Movie fans talked about it constantly: “Man, you gotta see it. The dude’s head explodes!” If you even just somewhat liked sci-fi or horror, then “Scanners” was on your radar that year. You could have all your knife-wielding psychos or crazy guys with chainsaws, but the exploding head scene made “Scanners” much more than what it actually was – a decent sci-fi film that missed a chance at true greatness (and not just becoming a cult classic that it is). “Scanners” stands the test of time well, though, and you won’t make a mistake watching it either for the first time or another time.

(1981; 103 minutes; rated R; directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jennifer O’Neill, Patrick McGoohan and Stephen Lack)


I like David Cronenberg’s work, but I’m not sure I get why he’s considered one of the best. He lands on “greatest” lists all over the place. He’s revered in sci-fi and movie circles as the architect of “venereal horror,” but I see most of his stuff (say “The Fly” or “The Dead Zone”) as guilty of the sin of being pedestrian. “Scanners” isn’t pedestrian, but it isn’t the film it could have been – and is much more than the most-remembered scene of a man’s head exploding in all its slow-motion glory.


Scanners” is Cronenberg’s film. He wrote it and he directed it. It is worthy of accolades and even a couple of the actors do an acceptable job. However, in the end it doesn’t add up to what it could have achieved in a perfect effort – a wonderfully crafted and fulfilling sci-fi romp. “Scanners” is sublime in the right spots and while there’s only two really big, spectacularly gory scenes, it isn’t any more gruesome than you’ll find all across the TV grids today.

While I won’t put him on any “greatest” list today, Cronenberg can spin a tale. “Scanners” is inventive with its exploration of telepathy and how the snake in the garden of the most powerful scanners is emotion. I’ll also say that the actors are correct to be restrained … but that restraint is too often a drag on the film.

A “scanner” is a telepathic individual who was created as a side effect of a 1950s-era pharmaceutical relaxant for pregnant women. They can scan other people’s thoughts and without a damper on the voices, they become social misfits chased by the voices in their head.

By being able to harness their scanning powers, they can influence and read others’ thoughts and even direct their actions. The rebel scanner leader is responsible for exploding a corporate minion’s head at the start of “Scanners” and then escapes with ease through his “scanning” prowess

Scanners” starts out with Steven (now he spells it “Stephen”) Lack playing “Cameron Vale” at a mall. He’s an obviously homeless bum who inadvertently causes a woman’s seizure after he unconsciously scans her mind while she criticizes him to her friend. However, he’s being tracked by two men (both in trenchcoats, for gosh’s sake) and they chase and capture him. He wakes up in the care of a corporate executive who is the creator and architect of the scanners and now directs a corporation’s harnessing of scanning power.

Soon Lack is indoctrinated by the man (Patrick McGoohan as “Dr. Paul Ruth”) and becomes the latest agent of the corporation. He is sent out to track down the leader of a rebel movement of scanners (“Darryl Revok” – wonderfully played by Michael Ironside).

Lack makes it a quest for Ironside and has to avoid assassination teams, being in the corporation’s clutches, causing a deadly computer explosion with his scanning ability and finding out that Ironside is creating a new generation of scanners. All of this is done really well, smoothly and with consistency and intelligence (believe me, the exploding computer is very much in context).

The climax of the film is the duo’s epic scanner battle just before the credits roll.


The rebel scanner turns out to be Lack’s brother and the corporate scanner director is their father. The rebel leader tries to convert Lack to his side, but the two fight (first with some physical violence and then scanning each other). Although you’d think the exploding head would be the grossest thing in the film, this battle and its result of the two men gushing blood is much gorier and creepier.


Cronenberg would go on to do much better with his “A History of Violence,” but “Scanners” remains much more memorable. The issue of telepathy is dealt with in an interesting fashion, but is not fully developed as it should have been.

Here’s a rundown of a few actors and their work here:

  • Jennifer O’Neill plays “Kim Obrist” and becomes a scanner sidekick to Lack. O’Neill’s talent isn’t much challenged here and she comes off with a lackadaisical performance that offers little with her primary character. She is more recognized for the coming-of-age semi-classic “Summer of ’42” and was also in “Rio Lobo” with John Wayne and television including “Nash Bridges.”
  • Lack gets the most screen time, but, somewhat like O’Neill’s work, he doesn’t bring much passion to the role. He has good facial expression, but his voice sounds more like the actor took a load of Valium before shooting and although his character shouldn’t be forgettable, his effort is. Lack had a brief career as an actor (11 credits) and was in Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers.”
  • The best performance here is by two-time Emmy winner McGoohan. He manages to bring passion to a character whose physical mannerisms can almost be called catatonic and easily injects that passion into the emotion of any given moment. McGoohan, most recognized for his TV role on “The Prisoner,” won his Emmys for episodes of TV’s “Columbo” and was the warden in Clint Eastwood’s “Escape from Alcatraz” and did a solid bad guy in “Silver Streak” with Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor (click here for my review). McGoohan died at 80 in 2009.
  • Ironside is terrific (and terrifically prolific with 230 acting credits) as the renegade scanner. Ironside has a solid physical presence although he’s only 5-foot-9½ but does his best work with facial expressions as he turns his scanning powers loose. Ironside’s voice, too, is an effective tool for the actor and he knows how to use it. He was in the original “Total Recall” and is most recognized as “Jester” from “Top Gun” and was even the bad guy in “Free Willy.”
  • Robert Silverman, who’s today added his middle initial “A.” to his credited name, plays a murderous scanner “Benjamin Pierce,” whose wickedly odd art is all the rage in some pretentious circles. Silverman does a solid job to convey the man’s madness in the brief time he’s on screen. Silverman has been in “Waterworld” and horror films including “Jason X” and “Prom Night” with Jamie Lee Curtis (click here for my review).

So, in the end, “Scanners” is a film with promise and intelligence (don’t let the gore fool or dissuade you) that doesn’t hit the mark of which it was capable. Cronenberg does a good job with uneven results.

Scanners” was the 52nd ranked film at U.S. theaters in 1981 by bringing in $14.2 million, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on a budget of $3.5 million, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film of the year was “Raiders of the Lost Ark” with $212.2 million. Here are some films from the same year that I have reviewed:

Assorted cast and film notes (via

  • Lack has an advanced degree in art and won awards from groups such as the National Endowment of the Arts and his work is exhibited in many museums (including the Brooklyn Museum in New York).
  • Directly from “The effect for the exploding head scene was accomplished by filling a latex head of the actor with dog food and rabbit livers, and shooting it from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun.”

© Chuck Curry and A Gator in Naples, 2015.
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