This week in Horror Movie History, on January 14th, 1981, Sci-Fi Horror classic Scanners was released. Both written and directed by David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone 1983, The Fly 1986), this Canadian mind over matter film stars Jennifer O’Neill (Rio Lobo 1970, Summer of ’42 1971), Steven Lack (Perfect Strangers 1984, Dead Ringers 1988), Patrick McGoohan (Escape From Alcatraz 1979, A Time To Kill 1996), Lawrence Dane (Happy Birthday To Me 1981, Bride of Chucky 1998), Michael Ironside (Top Gun 1986, Total Recall 1990) and Robert Silverman (Waterworld 1995, eXistenZ 1999). Scanners was produced by Claude Héroux, who worked with Cronenberg in The Brood (1979) and Videodrome (1983), with music by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings franchise, Saturday Night Live 1975-1986). The special effects were a combination effort from Gary Zeller (Dawn of the Dead 1978, The Last Dragon 1985) and Chris Walas, creator of the Gremlins animatronics. Dick Smith (Exorcist 1973, Ghost Story 1981) provided prosthetics for the climactic scanner duel and the iconic exploding head effect. The bursting head scene was accomplished by filling a latex head with dog food and rabbit livers, and shooting it from behind with a 12-gauge shotgun. Filmed in Quebec and Ontario, Scanners was the first of Cronenberg’s films at the time from almost purely physical horror to the terror of the mind.
The movie starts off with a homeless man named Cameron Vale (Lack) reacting to the whispered insults of a woman by psychically sending her into a seizure. This results in him being captured by a Dr. Paul Ruth (McGoohan) from a company called ConSec. It seems as though Ruth has discovered a chemical called Ephemerol, a drug that quells Vale’s psychic abilities, something Ruth calls “scanning,” and lets him live a rather normal life, free from the constant flow of thoughts of those around him. Cut to a closed conference where a bespeckled man explains scanners to a small crowd. Scanners are people who can control things outside of their own bodies using only the power of thought. The man (Louis Del Grande) asks for a volunteer (Ironside) from the audience to be scanned by him. Instead of being scanned, though, the volunteer scans the man so intensely that his head explodes in a glut of brains and blood. Dr. Gatineau (Victor Desy) is told to inject the renegade scanner with Ephemerol to make him less dangerous, but instead injects himself. This sets off a chain reaction that allows the volunteer to escape in a hail of fire and bullets.
Later, the heads of ConSec gather and learn that the volunteer was the scanner rebel Darryl Revok, a terrorist who has been collecting other scanners by either convincing them to join his cause or killing them to keep them from working with ConSec. Dr. Ruth decides to use their one remaining scanner, Vale, to infiltrate Revok’s army and kill him from within. Vale begins by hunting down the scanner artist Benjamin Pearce (Silverman), who has so far been able to avoid joining up with Revok. Three of Revok’s assassins show up at Pearce’s cabin but Vale manages to escape. He hunts down another lead, a woman named Kim Obrist (O’Neill), who is hiding out in a house with other scanners. They are also attacked, and after a car chase involving a school bus, Obrist and Vale are the only ones left standing. As he is dying, Vale reads the mind of one of their attackers, getting the name of a company called Biocarbon Amalgamate, one of Ruth’s old businesses, that he later finds out is manufacturing Ephemerol for Revok with a program called RIPE. When Vale contacts Ruth to update him, a man named Dr. Keller (Dale) overhears. Keller is a spy for Revok and informs the renegade of Ruth’s knowledge of the company’s true intentions. Ruth convinces Vale to access RIPE through the phone lines and get some information, but Keller shows his true form and attacks Obrist and kills Ruth. Vale manages to infiltrate RIPE and get the name of one of the receivers of the Ephemerol, a small town doctor. The two renegades visit the doctor, and while she is in the waiting room, Kim gets scanned by a pregnant woman’s unborn baby. They realize that this doctor and many others are giving pregnant women Ephemerol, making their babies into scanners. The two are then kidnapped by Revok, who exposits that, in fact, both he and Vale are Ruth’s sons, and that Ruth had been using Ephemerol for years to create his own scanner babies, starting with his own pregnant wife. Now, Revok has decided to make his own scanner army to take out his father’s generation of psychics. They battle, a furious mental assault, and both men’s bodies begin to break down. Veins bulge and burst, eyeballs melt, hearts explode and bodies are engulfed in flames. In the next room, Kim awakes and wanders into the room where the battle took place. She finds the burnt out husk of a body and begins to mourn, when she hears a man’s voice call her from a hidden corner. As he turns to her, she sees the face of Revok, but he calls her by name in the voice of Vale as he tells her, “It’s me, Cameron. We won, Kim.”
In February 2007, Darren Lynn Bousman (director of Saw 2-4) was announced as director of a Scanners remake, but said he would not do it without Cronenberg’s blessing, which he did not get. There were two sequels, Scanners II: The New Order (1991) and Scanners III: The Takeover (1992), and two spin-offs, Scanner Cop (1994) and Scanners: The Showdown (aka Scanner Cop II) (1995). The movie holds a 79% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes and has won several awards, including a Saturn Award for Best International Film by The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror and the Best International Fantasy Film Award from Fantasporta in 1983. Cronenberg’s first foray into Science Fiction Horror is an amazing and powerful tale of the powers hidden inside the mind.