Scanners: The Sci-Fi Horror Movie That Changed David Cronenberg’s Career

Some 40 years after its release, David Cronenberg’s sci-fi/horror hybrid remains a pivotal film for the legendary director.

Stephen Lack in Scanners
Photo: Avco Embassy Pictures

This article contains spoilers for the ending of Scanners.

Scanners was the fifth commercially released feature film (and seventh overall) directed by David Cronenberg, the independent Canadian auteur who initially made a name for himself as a director of visceral, provocative horror films such as Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood. Released 40 years ago on January 14, 1981, Scanners was a turning point for Cronenberg in many ways: it edged away from the sexually tinged “body horror” of his first few films and into the realms of sci-fi, action, and conspiracy thriller, while adding advanced visual effects and an overall polish to the director’s clinical esthetic.

Although none of his films up to that point had achieved any sort of mainstream success outside Canada, Scanners was a breakthrough for Cronenberg: his most expensive film to date (with a budget of $4 million), it was his first to also earn decent money in the lucrative North American market. Scanners briefly topped the Variety box office chart the week it opened, making it Cronenberg’s first Number One movie in the U.S. and the first Canadian film to hit the top spot.

Despite its modest success — which opened the door for future Cronenberg classics like Videodrome, The Dead Zone and his masterpiece, The FlyScanners was a difficult film for the director to make. 

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“It was physically exhausting,” Cronenberg told Fangoria magazine in a 1981 feature. “Very hard, very long hours…It was also very demanding because we had so little pre-production time, it was my biggest budget, my longest shoot — it turned out to be about nine weeks — but I only had about two weeks for all the pre-production, which is ridiculous. And I had only written one first-draft script, which took me three weeks to write. That meant a lot of things weren’t together.”

The origin of Scanners goes back to Cronenberg’s earliest days as a filmmaker and his 1969 directorial debut, Stereo. That film was set in a bizarre institute where sexual experimentation was used to develop the telepathic powers of a group of subjects. The idea of humans evolving into telepaths ending up as the seed of two more scripts that Cronenberg wrote, titled The Sensitives and Telepathy 2000, both of which eventually morphed into Scanners.

Cronenberg admitted to Fangoria that Scanners was “quite different” from his previous films and their obsessions with psychosexuality and bodily mutation. 

“Those dynamics are not what make it work, in fact they’re almost not there at all,” he said. “What does lay behind the film is a fantasy, I think a very powerful one, that I suppose starts as a child’s fantasy. You go to sleep weak, and wake up finding that, in fact, you are strong. Someone says to you, ‘Not only are you not weak, you are stronger than you ever imagined’ — that’s one of the premises of the film, though it doesn’t come out exactly that way.”

Scanners takes place in the near future and opens in a shopping mall food court, where a woman is struck by an unexplained seizure after she is caught staring at a homeless man. That man is named Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) and he is soon captured by agents of a private military company called ConSec. At ConSec headquarters, a scientist named Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan of The Prisoner fame) explains to Vale that he is one of 247 people known as “scanners,” humans with advanced telepathic and psychokinetic abilities.

Lack, who was an artist in Montreal’s bohemian scene when he met Cronenberg (and mostly gave up acting after Scanners to focus on a career as a painter), said in an interview on the 2014 Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of the film that he was intrigued by Cronenberg’s vision: “He handed me the script, and I sort of thought I understood it.” 

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He elaborated in an interview that same year with Film Comment: “The film itself was groundbreaking, but I never realized it at the time. I had faith in David. I sensed his intelligence and I know from myself that the good stuff takes a while to understand.”

Since he is a telepath, Vale is driven insane by the cacophony of others’ thoughts constantly inside his head; Ruth gives him a drug called Ephemerol that blocks those voices and allows Vale to refine his scanner abilities. Ruth sends Vale underground to find Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), the leader of a rogue group of scanners who is killing anyone — including other scanners — who stands in the way of his mysterious plans. 

Eventually aided by another scanner named Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), Vale tracks down Revok only to find that Revok has actually been looking for him all along. Vale learns that Revok plans to create a new race of scanners to rule over humans, while also discovering the truth about Ruth, the true nature of Ephemerol — and the connection between himself and his enemy Revok.

“When I did Scanners, I was only hired to do the black and white flashback sequence,” Michael Ironside (whose other major genre credits include Total Recall and Starship Troopers) told Den of Geek recently. “And (Cronenberg) said, ‘I’m thinking of rearranging the script a little and bringing you in more.’ So when I was on Scanners I literally got scenes sometimes the night before, sometimes two days before, because he was rewriting the script as we went. A very bold thing for a storyteller to do… only somebody like David, who is so deft at what he does, so good at what he does, could do that because you can really get yourself in a hole.”

The reason Cronenberg was literally writing Scanners as he went along — an unsettling change of pace for a director who usually prepared his material meticulously — was due to the nature in which the film was funded. A company called Filmplan International supplied the budget through Canadian tax incentives — but the catch was that the money had to be spent and the movie shot before the end of the year. While that ended up providing Cronenberg with an additional nine months of post-production, it meant that he had two weeks to get the film going — and did not have a finished script ready.

“But it had to be done, so I found myself writing on the set, writing at lunch instead of eating, writing evenings, writing weekends,” he told Fangoria. “Then we had to juggle the schedule to make scenes that weren’t ready, in terms of special effects and sets, happen later in the shooting, which you don’t have to do if you’re prepared. So in production terms it was very difficult.”

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Both Cronenberg and Lack recalled that the first day of shooting was marked by a horrible tragedy: as the production crew prepared to shoot alongside a highway, a man driving by in a truck was distracted by the filming and plowed into the back of a Toyota in front of him. “I turned around in time to see his truck climb on top of this little Toyota,” Cronenberg told interviewer Chris Rodley in the book Cronenberg on Cronenberg. “Our grips had to jump the fence and drag these two women out of the car and lay them on the verge. Dead. It was hideous. Everybody was just shocked and depressed.”

Special makeup effects artist Chris Walas — who later worked with Cronenberg on The Flyrecalled on the Criterion Blu-ray that the production of Scanners was chaotic when he joined. 

“I flew from Los Angeles to Montreal, where the production was already in gear and they were moving ahead quite rapidly,” he explained. “It was sort of a descent into madness for me, because Scanners was a very hectic production. There was a lot of spontaneity and changes David was having to accommodate for a lot of production pressures that were forced upon him. I was really taken aback when I saw how crazy the picture was going, but he wasn’t just a director who could handle the pressure, he was a director who still had his vision through all this insanity.”

One of the tests that Cronenberg faced was handling his “name” stars, Jennifer O’Neill and Patrick McGoohan. According to Cronenberg on Cronenberg, O’Neill was taken aback by the violence in the film after being sent a script by the producers from which the bloodshed had been omitted. Meanwhile, the famously complicated McGoohan presented the director with an entirely different challenge.

“He’s a brilliant actor,” Cronenberg told Chris Rodley. “The voice, the charisma, the presence, the face. Phenomenal…But he was so angry. His self-hatred came out as anger against everybody and everything. He said to me, ‘If I didn’t drink, I’d be afraid I’ll kill someone.’” 

But Cronenberg also admitted that he didn’t think McGoohan had confidence in the project or his director: “He didn’t know me. He didn’t know whether I could bring it off or not. We parted from the film not on very good terms ultimately.”

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The other great hurdle facing Cronenberg, his cast and crew on Scanners were the ambitious makeup effects. While much of the film is devoted to action, chases, and gunplay, Scanners is remembered for two classic sequences: a scene early in the film in which Revok causes the head of another scanner to explode during a demonstration of scanning, and a climactic telepathic battle between Vale and Revok that features swelling, bursting veins on both men’s arms and faces, eyes erupting from heads, and one of the two powerful scanners going up in flames.

Scanners – exploding head

The exploding head — the iconic image most associated with the film — was a plaster and gelatin duplicate of the head of actor Louis Del Grande that was filled with corn syrup (for blood), scraps of latex, wax, “a lot of stringy stuff,” and apparently even some leftover burgers. But according to a featurette on the Criterion Blu-ray, the initial plan to detonate the head with explosives wasn’t working. So special effects supervisor Gary Zeller, after telling everyone to get clear, lay down behind the head, pointed a shotgun filled with kosher salt at it and blew the thing up from the rear.

“It’s an incredible shot,” said the director in Cronenberg on Cronenberg. “Incredibly gruesome, but also quite beautiful.” The producers were so worried that the scene would land the film an X rating that they wanted to shoot a less gory version. “I said, ‘Sure, go ahead,’” remembered Cronenberg. “They shot three more heads blowing up in various ways, but I wasn’t there to watch them. I just went back to my Winnebago and took a nap. I wasn’t interested. I had the one I wanted.”

As Scanners comes to a close, Vale is captured by Revok and learns a bitter truth: the two of them are brothers, and Dr. Ruth — killed earlier in the film — is their father. Ruth gave their mother a prototype version of Ephemerol, meant as a tranquilizer for pregnant women, and discovered the unintended side effect that it turned humans into scanners — with his sons becoming the most powerful of them all.

After Vale refuses to help Revok with his plan to create a new race of scanners and subjugate humanity, the two engage in a vicious telepathic battle that literally tears them apart. As originally shot, the scene didn’t work, so Cronenberg reshot it — this time with the aid and expertise of legendary makeup artist Dick Smith, who had been serving as an off-set consultant for the film but came to Montreal to lend his genius to the final battle.

“Some of the effects that we wanted just didn’t work well enough, we really hadn’t worked them out in enough detail to make it work,” Cronenberg told Fangoria. Realizing that he “had no ending,” Cronenberg convinced the producers to use money set aside for a Dolby sound mix to reshoot the ending instead, this time with Smith there. “We were fortunate to have him come on the set at that time. Earlier I’d been quite disappointed that he couldn’t actually come up and work with us, so I was really thrilled, and it couldn’t have worked out better.”

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Although Revok initially has the upper hand in the battle, Vale eventually prevails — but at the cost of his own body. He manages, however, to fuse his mind with Revok’s, creating a hybrid of the two that suggests Vale has defeated his brother. For Cronenberg, this could be considered an optimistic ending after the bleak outcomes of his previous pictures, although it still addresses the overriding themes of so much of his early career — the malleability of human flesh and thought, and how both can be manipulated by external or internal forces to take humanity in new and often bizarre directions.

Aside from The Fly’s lone sequel, Scanners was the only Cronenberg film to spawn a franchise of its own, a string of films that includes Scanners II: The New Order (1991), Scanners III: The Takeover (1992), Scanner Cop (1994) and Scanner Cop II: The Showdown (1995). The director had no involvement with any of those pictures, just as he has not been involved with a proposed remake that was in development in 2007 and a more recent (and now dormant) idea for a TV series based on the film.

Scanners remains an important touchstone in Cronenberg’s career. It was a moment in which he took both the peculiar philosophical concerns and body horror of his early work and pointed them in a slightly more commercial direction, while leaving his vision essentially uncompromised. It also remains a skillful, gripping fusion of horror, sci-fi and political/medical espionage thriller that resonates to this day.

Scanners was a breakthrough film for me, because it was number one on the Variety chart when it came out,” Cronenberg says in Cronenberg on Cronenberg. “That was a big deal for a low-budget Canadian horror film, which is basically the way it was perceived…a lot of people in Hollywood started to notice me then.”

As for the evolution of his own filmmaking in Scanners, Cronenberg’s views are clear: 

“A complete filmmaker should be able to appeal to all facets of human existence, the sensual as well as the cerebral,” he muses in the book. “If you do get this mixture together properly…you have something that appeals to the intellect and to the viscera. If you mix them together you get a whole movie.” 

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Like his fused scanner siblings, David Cronenberg’s Scanners might well have been his first whole movie.