David Cronenberg Retrospective: Scanners

Scanners! You were far sillier than I remembered!


Cronenberg’s next film after The Brood lacks its gravitas. Scanners actually differs from almost all Cronenberg films in that there is far less emphasis on psychological and physiological irregularity, and almost none of the skewed sexuality that permeates his other films. Scanners is, dare I say it, a pretty straight horror/sci-fi flick.

With simply outstanding manual effects, of course!

Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) is your standard issue vagrant, who also happens to be a telepath. Vale’s unique abilities (drink!) have precluded his enjoying a conventional lifestyle, as he’s unable to block out the thoughts of anyone he encounters. Strangers are always disdaining Cameron as a derelict hobo, even though I think he’s a pretty nice-looking, well-kept guy. But no matter, we’ll go with this derelict story.

Vale is recruited, rather mandatorily, by ConSec, a company specializing in weaponry, and he’s taken under the wing of Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who tells him that he’s a Scanner. What’s scanning? Ruth explains, “It’s the direct linking of two nervous systems separated only by space.” Basically, it’s using your brain to do super cool stuff like THIS to other people:

Dr. Ruth (yes.) tells Vale that there’s a rogue Scanner on the loose, the superbly named Darryl Revok, played by all-around bad-ass Michael Ironside. Ruth sends Vale after Revok, and Vale bumbles around and gets pretty much everyone else killed on his mission. He meets some other Scanners on his merrily inept way—namely artist Benjamin Pierce, played by Robert Silverman from The Brood, who is inutterably awesome as that crazy guy again. Pierce deals with the trauma of being a Scanner by creating some truly heinous art.

The inside of that head is a rather cozy-seeming crimson sitting area.


Cameron also encounters the breathtaking Kim Obrist, played by Jennifer O’Neill who gets top billing in this film, even though her screen time and the significance of her character do not seem to warrant it. Clearly, Cronenberg gave her top billing based on the Pretty Factor, which I can fully support.

Michael Ironside as Revok is magnificent, taking up all the air and space in the film with his diabolical machinations, the intense delivery of his lines and his distinguished receding hairline.

Patrick McGoohan is also remarkable as Dr. Ruth. He’s something of a Dr. Raglan character from The Brood, although I would never claim that McGoohan, majestic beard notwithstanding, is anywhere in the same league as Oliver Reed, as Jerry so aptly demonstrated in his review.

The acting is all pretty captivating, with one minor, itty bitty exception. Stephen Lack. Yes, I mean the lead actor. You know, the one with all the screen time? He suuuuucks. Lack is a truly contemptible thespian. He’s wooden and banal and I can only imagine that Cronenberg cast him entirely on the strength of his seriously intense eyeballs. Yeah, with peepers like that, I can imagine that he might be scanning my brain. Until he opens his mouth, at which point my disbelief can only be suspended so far.

Lack’s Prowess of Suck isn’t the only thing that makes Scanners rather difficult to take seriously. For a Cronenberg joint, there sure are a LOT of guns. It’s one wacky shoot-out after another, like Beverly Hills Cop up in here! If Scanners can literally melt someone’s face with the strength of their brain power, do they really need so many guns?

All of the above aside, Scanners is definitely weird and fun. The Scanners actually purr when they’re scanning–their brains purr. It’s awesomely creepy. There are Scanner fetuses, ‘splodey eyeballs, and an actual SCAN-OFF between Vale and Revok. Yes, you heard me right…a SCAN-OFF! Get to it, boys!

Naturally, I wish there were more sexual oddity and psychological bedlam in Scanners, typical Cronenberg-style, but any film that has a character named Darryl Revok uttering the following line is still above and beyond most flicks you’re going to see:

“We’re gonna do it the Scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry!”

See, how can I complain about that?

11 Responses to “David Cronenberg Retrospective: Scanners”

  1. Yeah! I’m gonna suck your brain dry! This is the first Cronenberg movie I ever saw, when I was maybe 11 years old, and it freaked me the fuck out. Thanks step-brother! I remember the exploding pigeons very vividly. Or wait, was that Scanners 2? Or perhaps Scanners 3?

  2. leftyjonno Says:

    as my friend James so wonderfully put it, that movie is important for one reason and one reason only: heads exploding in rich, meaty pieces.

  3. I think I need to meet your friend James. He is wonderfully concise!

  4. “We’re gonna do it the Scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry!”

    Damnit, I laugh out loud every time I remember that line! Scanners is like if Cronenberg was a really silly, giddy drunk, and then he got drunk and made a movie. That’s Scanners. Still Cronenberg, but woah!

    I just watched Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief, which is basically the movie Hitchcock would make if he was a giddy, silly drunk and he got drunk on champagne in the South of France and them made a movie.

    Tying all this together is the fact that I, myself, am currently drinking champagne.

  5. Scanners is almost the coolest movie ever. It almost gets it right but man is the main character bad. He’s definitely got the look but I’m thinking that Cronenberg took the Lynch route here and hired someone because he like the way they looked. I find it hard to believe that no one else tried out for this part and was better. Robert Silverman, for example, was probably my favorite part in the movie. The way he casually strolls around his barn loft and hangs out inside giant head art with couches. Maybe I just like him because his mannerisms remind me of a tranquilized version of Ruprecht in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.

  6. DUDE YOU ARE SO RIGHT! He’s totally Ruprecht!

  7. although i will never, ever see this movie, i can appreciate it for the sole reason of that scene from “wayne’s world,” as in, “ever see that scene in Scanners when that dude’s head blew up?” GARTH I LOVE YOU.

  8. We love Scanners so much we wish there was some way of celebrating it’s 30th birthday. Is there a special screening somewhere or a special edition DVD?

  9. […] for us BBC scanners – myself, Vanessa and Bonnie (later of Electricity In Our Homes infamy) – became fast […]

  10. Reblogged this on Oh Cheers and commented:
    “We’re gonna do it the Scanner way. I’m gonna suck your brain dry!”

  11. […] Scanners (1981) – The first thing that struck me about a long overdue off this VHS rental classic was just how shockingly violent is it. Now I’m not referring to that notorious scene, I’m talking about the litany of gruelling incidents that follow in the wake of the chilly, telekinetic cat and mouse chase narrative with the government goons intent on converting our mannequin hero Cameron Vale to their  homicidal cause. Scores of fellow mutes are mercilessly mown down in scene after scene, it also has a very distanced, enamelled pose to its pyrotechnic proceedings, before the final showdown with the snarling Michael Ironside as the brilliantly named Daryl Revok in that hysterical finale. I have fond memories of seeing this format favourite at a throughly inappropriate age, such were the halcyon days of the VHS rental culture which is getting a well received documentary treatment here…. […]

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