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‘…an unnerving and challenging work of nihilistic prescience…’

It’s my hot take of the week, but David Cronenberg’s Scanners is one of the most influential films of the fertile field that was the 1980’s, starting things off with a bang, or at least an exploding head, that marked a new direction for both horror and sci-fi. Scanners is more sci-fi than horror, but it’s also way, way ahead of its time. I saw this on Channel Four when I was 14, and it made a big impression on me; watching it forty years later, it’s still an unnerving and challenging work of nihilistic prescience.

What’s a scanner? Working backwards from the end, we find out that a big-pharma drug sold to pacify pregnant women turned out to have side-effects for their children before it was hurriedly taken off the market. The kids grow up without much choice to be scanners, highly emotional people who can control other people with their minds. After a 10 minute opening establishing Stephen Lack as scanner Cameron Vale, we switch to a lecture at the sinister ConSec purveyor of security systems, where an unfortunate interviewer has his napper pop live on stage in front of a horrified hall of delegates. This is the work of Revok (Michael Ironside), a powerful scanner who seeks to destroy all others with similar powers to his own. Vale is recruited to stop Revok, and aims to track down the remaining scanners to get to his adversary….

After reading extensively about this film in Starburst magazine, complete with graphic images of the mano a mano confrontation at the film’s climax, I was enthused to see this film, and wasn’t disappointed; there’s more than a few reasons why its been absorbed into pop-culture history, even being parodied in detail on mainstream sit-com The Big Bang Theory. The cold Canadian exteriors (Monteal, Quebec, Toronto) provide some relief from the intense, and horrid body-horror scenes, and the supporting cast (Jennifer O’Neill and Patrick McGoohan) are pretty clinical.

Of course, Cronenberg went on to bigger and better things, but Scanners is the cross-over film where 70’s body-horror moved in from the edge of the mainstream, and has a tonal similarity to hits like The Fly. But the conspiracy theories advanced here are remarkably modern, as is a scene in which Vale attempts to hack into the ConSec computer via a public-phone; I’ll confess I didn’t understand much of this on first viewing, but it checks out for the internet age. Cronenberg wisely dodged the inevitable sequels and reboots have come to no fruition, but Scanners works as a one-off conspiracy thriller, questioning the use of science and delivering a solid, paranoid drama that’s bookended by genuine shocks.


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  1. Make a big impact when it came out, not just the sfx but the side-effects business. Interesting to note how it always took an Insight report from The Sunday Times to stop big buiness in its tracks in those days while now a few moans on twitter is enough to do the trick.

  2. They want $4 for a rental on Prime. FOUR DOLLARS. For an ancient movie that’s almost as old as I am. I’d scanner them for that outrage.

    and I thought there were sequels….

  3. Great showcase for Michael Ironside, so often underutilized. Especially important to have him since Stephen Lack needed a lot of help.

    Still a great movie, though I’d give the nod to The Brood as Cronenberg’s best from this period.

    big phrama

  4. I’ve seen that Cronenberg’s movie long time ago but I’m reminding it as a shock. The blasting head is the first step a of a horrific collection of crimes in the future. And what follows is a really dark dive into a war between sick minds. All the Cronenberg cinematic substance is already in “Scanners”.

    • If I was suckered in by the exploding head, then this is a film that really delivers on a horrific premise; cold, unsentimental, suspicious of government and science, very downbeat and deeply disturbing. That’s what a good horror film should be…

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