For other uses, see Scanner (disambiguation).

Theatrical release poster
Directed by David Cronenberg
Produced by Claude Héroux
Written by David Cronenberg
Music by Howard Shore
Cinematography Mark Irwin
Edited by Ronald Sanders
Distributed by
Release dates
  • January 14, 1981 (1981-01-14) (United States)
  • January 16, 1981 (1981-01-16) (Canada)
Running time
103 minutes[1]
Country Canada
Language English
Box office $14.2 million

Scanners is a 1981 Canadian science-fiction horror film written and directed by David Cronenberg and starring Jennifer O'Neill, Steven Lack, Michael Ironside, and Patrick McGoohan. In the film, "scanners" are people with unusual telepathic and telekinetic powers. ConSec, a purveyor of weaponry and security systems, searches out scanners to use them for its own purposes. The film's plot concerns the attempt by Darryl Revok, a renegade scanner, to wage a war against ConSec. Another scanner, Cameron Vale, is dispatched by ConSec to stop Revok.


Private security firm ConSec plans to showcase a powerful new potential weapon: "scanners", people with exceptional powers of telepathy such as mind reading, mind-control, and telekinesis. However, when ConSec's scanner attempts to demonstrate his scanning power by reading the mind of a volunteer from the invited audience, the volunteer turns out to be a more powerful scanner, who scans back and causes the ConSec scanner's head to explode. ConSec officials attempt to take the "volunteer" into custody; however, he uses his powers to kill the men guarding him, and escapes.

Stung by this embarrassing experience, ConSec security head Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane) advocates shutting down ConSec's scanner research program, but program head Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) disagrees, noting that the assassination and escape have shown the weapon's potential they had sought to demonstrate. Ruth attributes the operation to an evil scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), who Ruth says has his own underground network of scanners in competition with ConSec's program. He argues that ConSec should recruit scanners to their cause to infiltrate and bring down Revok's group.

To this point, scanner Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) has lived an unhappy life as a homeless social outcast, driven mad by the unceasing stream of other people's thoughts bombarding his mind. After bringing Vale into ConSec, Dr. Ruth injects him with a drug called ephemerol, which temporarily inhibits his scanning ability and restores his sanity. When Vale's mind is clear, Ruth asks for his help, explaining that Vale is a scanner and that Revok is killing all scanners who refuse to join him, and that Revok will kill Vale if Vale does not learn how to protect himself. Under Ruth's guidance, Vale learns to control his scanning abilities.

Unknown to Dr. Ruth, ConSec security head Keller is working for Revok as a spy. Revok learns of Ruth's infiltration plan, and dispatches assassins to follow Vale as he begins his search for Revok by visiting a so-far-unaffiliated scanner named Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), who may know Revok's whereabouts. Revok's hired assassins follow Vale to Pierce's home and brutally shoot Pierce to death. Enraged, Vale uses his telepathic power to kill the assassins. As Pierce dies, Vale reads from his mind a name—Kim Obrist (Jennifer O'Neil). Vale tracks down Obrist, who has formed a telepathic alliance with a group of other scanners in opposition to Revok's group. Vale attends a meeting, but assassins working for Revok follow him and strike again, and only Vale and Obrist manage to escape alive. Scanning an assassin, Vale learns of a drug company, which he then infiltrates. He finds that large quantities of ephemerol are being distributed under a computer program called "Ripe", run by Revok himself through ConSec. Vale and Obrist return to ConSec, where Ruth suggests Vale scan the computer system to learn more about the Ripe program. Meanwhile, Keller tries to kill Obrist, but she escapes. Keller kills Dr. Ruth while Vale and Obrist flee the ConSec building.

Vale accesses the computer network through a telephone and pulls ephemerol shipment information. When Keller discovers this, he orders the computer system shut down while Vale is scanning it; Keller hopes to harm or kill Vale by doing so. The plan backfires and the computer explodes, killing Keller and leaving Vale and Obrist unharmed. They visit a doctor who is on the list of ephemerol recipients, where Obrist suddenly discovers that she is herself being scanned by the telepathic fetus of a pregnant woman in the doctor's waiting room. Vale realizes that besides suppressing the scanning ability of already-born scanners, ephemerol also causes fetuses to become scanners when it is administered to pregnant women. The purpose of the Ripe program becomes clear: to disseminate ephemerol to pregnant women, making their babies scanners, whom Revok will recruit into his army when they grow up. Obrist and Vale are then ambushed by Revok's men and abducted.

Revok reveals to Vale, who is now his captive, that ephemerol was originally developed by Dr. Ruth as a tranquilizer for pregnant women, and had the unintended side effect of causing the unborn children to become scanners. Ruth learned of this from providing the drug to his own wife during her pregnancies. Revok reveals that he and Vale are brothers and that Dr. Ruth was their father. Because their mother received the highest dose of ephemerol while pregnant, Revok and Vale are more powerful than any other scanners. By mass distributing ephemerol to unwitting doctors, who prescribe it to their pregnant patients, Revok plans to create a new generation of scanners, giving him the manpower to execute a plan of global domination over non-scanners, with Revok heading this new empire. Revok asks Vale to join him, but Vale refuses and the two have a final climactic telepathic battle against one another. Vale's body is incinerated but his mind enters Revok's body and takes over.

Soon thereafter, Obrist enters the room to find a charred body—Vale's body—on the floor. She hears Vale's voice coming from the corner of the room. In the corner is Revok—but his head scar is gone and he now has Vale's eyes. He faces Obrist and announces, "We've won", in Vale's voice.



Scene of the explosion of a ConSec scanner's head

The story is structured as a futuristic thriller, involving industrial espionage and intrigue, car chases, conspiracies, and shoot-outs (including a gruesome scanner duel between Vale and Revok at the end). It was the nearest thing to a conventional science fiction thriller Cronenberg had made up to that point, lacking the sexual content of Shivers, Rabid, or The Brood; it was also his most profitable film until The Fly six years later.

Because of the oddities of Canada's film financing structures at the time, it was necessary to begin shooting with only two weeks' pre-production work, before the screenplay had been completed, with Cronenberg writing the script between 4 and 7 a.m. each day throughout shooting. Since the production design team had no time to build sets, in some instances the crew had to drive around looking for things to shoot. As a result, Cronenberg has said, Scanners was a nightmare to make.

Make-up artist Dick Smith (The Exorcist, Amadeus) provided prosthetics for the climactic scanner duel and the iconic exploding head effect.[2][3]


Scanners was released in the United States on January 14, 1981, by Embassy Pictures, and grossed $14,225,876 at the box office.[4]


Scanners maintains an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes,[5] with positive reviews from Chicago Reader, the Austin Chronicle, and TV Guide. Film professor Charles Derry, in his overview of the horror genre Dark Dreams cited Scanners as "an especially important masterwork" and calling it the Psycho of its day.[6]

Some reviews were less positive. Film critic Roger Ebert gave Scanners two out of four stars and wrote, "Scanners is so lockstep that we are basically reduced to watching the special effects, which are good but curiously abstract, because we don't much care about the people they're happening around".[7] In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "Had Mr. Cronenberg settled simply for horror, as John Carpenter did in his classic Halloween (though not in his not-so-classic The Fog), Scanners might have been a Grand Guignol treat. Instead he insists on turning the film into a mystery, and mystery demands eventual explanations that, when they come in Scanners, underline the movie's essential foolishness".[8]

Awards and honors

Although Scanners was not nominated for any major awards, it did receive some recognition. The Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films gave the film its Saturn Award in 1981 for "Best International Film", and, in addition, the "Best Make-Up" award went to Dick Smith in a tie with Altered States. The film had also been nominated for "Best Special Effects".

Scanners also won "Best International Fantasy Film" from Fantasporto in 1983, and was nominated for eight Genie Awards in 1982, but did not win any.[9][10]


Mondo released the Howard Shore score for Scanners, alongside The Brood, on vinyl; it features cover art by Sam Wolfe Conelly.[11]


Scanners spawned sequels and a series of spin-offs; a remake was announced in 2007, but as of 2014 has not gone into production.[12] None of these projects has involved Cronenberg as director.




In February 2007, Darren Lynn Bousman (director of Saw II, Saw III, and Saw IV) was announced as director of a remake of the film, to be released by The Weinstein Company and Dimension Films. David S. Goyer was assigned to script the film. The film was planned for an October 17, 2008, release, but the date came and went without further announcements, and all the parties involved have since moved on to other projects.[12] In an interview with Bousman in 2013, he recalled that he would not make the film without Cronenberg's blessing, which was not granted.

Television series

In July 2011, it was announced that Dimension was planning to adapt the franchise as a television series.[13]


  1. "SCANNERS (X)". British Board of Film Classification. February 10, 1981. Retrieved October 19, 2014.
  2. Vincent Canby "Scanners" The New York Times (14 January 1981); "Scanners" Variety (1 January 1981); "Scanners" Cinemafantastique
  3. Kinnear, Simon (August 15, 2011). 50 Best Movie Special Effects. archive Retrieved January 24, 2012
  4. "Scanners". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 2009-01-08.
  6. Derry, Charles (1987). "More Dark Dreams: Some Notes on the Recent Horror Film". In Waller, Gregory. American Horrors: Essays on the Modern American Horror Film. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. p. 173. ISBN 0-252-01448-0.
  7. Ebert, Roger (January 1, 1981). "Scanners". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2009-01-08.
  8. Canby, Vincent (January 14, 1981). "Scanners". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-01-08.
  9. IMDB Awards
  10. Allmovie Awards
  11. Mondo Selling ‘Scanners/The Brood’ OST On Vinyl Tomorrow
  12. 1 2 Fleming, Michael (2007-02-27). "'Scanners' moves to new dimension". Variety. Retrieved 2015-12-08.
  13. Andreeva, Nellie. "Dimension To Develop 'Scanners' TV Series".

Further reading

External links

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