Looking Back At The Significance Of ‘Scanners’ (1981) – Retro Review

In the late 1970s, fledgling Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg introduced the world to his unique brand of horror. After completing three features—the first, which focused on parasitic psychosexual mania in Shivers (1975), then on to the uncommon, aggressive outbreak of Rabid (1977), and eventually, to mutant offspring in The Brood (1979)—Cronenberg switched gears for his next project, Scanners.   

On January 14, 1981, Scanners was released in the United States and was met with a mixed bag of critiques. But time has been kind to Cronenberg’s invention. What was once viewed as an incoherent piece of sci-fi horror trash has evolved into a highly celebrated cult classic—one even worthy of a Criterion Collection release. 

“There are 4 billion people on earth. 237 are Scanners. They have the most terrifying powers ever created… and they are winning.”

The cover artwork for the Criterion Collection release of Scanners

Quite a departure from his previous, sexually-charged narratives, Cronenberg instead leans heavily into a world of sci-fi espionage and intrigue. A powerful, renegade Scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has created an underground movement intent on world domination. After what is an aggressive and dangerous display of psychokinesis, Revok becomes a wanted man by an agency known as ConSec. A doctor at ConSec, Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), finds Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), another Scanner, and decides to utilize his psychic abilities as a valuable weapon against Revok. 

Michael Ironside as Revok.

Admittedly, Scanners is not the best from Cronenberg, yet it remains one of my favorites from the director.

In order to successfully secure the Canadian government funds needed to complete the picture, Scanners was hastily put into production—even before sets and script were finished—forcing David to write pages of dialogue in the wee hours of the morning before filming. 

Despite the rushed schedule, some uneven acting and a few pacing issues, Scanners is not a failure. Instead, this Canadian-produced film has earned some of the country’s first international box office success.

Perhaps more importantly, Scanners delivers some of the most iconic images from the history of horror and undoubtedly one of the most epic kills. Showcasing Cronenberg’s penchant for annihilating craniums, Special Effects Supervisor Gary Zeller (Dawn of the Dead 1978) was able to create a spectacular head explosion that has stood the test of time. Utilizing plaster, hamburgers, latex, wax, and a shotgun blast, Zeller was able to achieve one of the most significant head explosions ever caught on film. Zeller, working in tandem with legendary makeup artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist 1973), both guided by David’s vision, helped craft an exceptional piece of cinema. 

“10 Seconds: The Pain Begins.  15 Seconds: You Can’t Breathe.  20 Seconds: You Explode.” 

Four decades later, Cronenberg is considered a cinematic genius, and Scanners continues to engage audiences around the globe. January 14, 1981, is one hell of an auspicious occasion in the annals of horror releases. This is a film that successfully combined sci-fi and mystery, laced with potent punches of gore, mystified moviegoers and helped them become acquainted with who will eventually be known as the Baron Of Blood, David Cronenberg. 

About Danni Winn

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