Scanners (1981) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

Look at the big brain on Brad!

Scanners is a brain-busting thriller about a new level of human evolution. It features top-notch special effects and a crazy storyline that doesn’t quite manage to elevate this film past a B-movie.

First Impressions

The trailer starts in an academic setting of sorts, with a man saying he needs a volunteer to be “scanned.” Another man volunteers and comes to the stage, but when the first man tries to scan him (apparently a psychic sort of scan) the second man resists. And the first man’s head literally explodes! That’s what we’ve got in store for this, the first Sci-Fi Saturdays of October, where science-fiction and horror meet!

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays


Scanners title card.

The Fiction of The Film

A homeless looking man, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), enters a mall food court, taking pieces of food from patrons as he wanders by. Two older women notice him and think he’s a disgrace, when one of them suddenly starts convulsing and falls to the floor. Two men in trenchcoats notice this and start chasing Vale, shooting him with a tranquilizer dart and carting him away. He awakens strapped to bed in an abandoned building where Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) escorts dozens of people in to sit around Vale, who squirms and screams because of their “loud talking.” Surprisingly none of the people’s lips are moving. He is hearing their thoughts. Ruth injects Vale with a drug called Ephemerol to calm the noise.

At the headquarters of ConSec, in a demonstration to the public, a man who introduces himself as a Scanner (Louis Del Grande) asks for a volunteer to be scanned. Another man, who is later identified as Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), comes forward. The scanner is going to read Revok’s thoughts, but Revok too is a scanner and turns the mind powers back on the first man, causing his head to literally explode. Revok is grabbed by ConSec security and supposedly given a dose of Ephemerol, but he has used his powers on the doctor to inject himself. He escapes from the security team, killing them all.

Ruth explains just who and what Vale is. He was born with a telepathic power that allows him to control others by linking their nervous systems together. He explains that Ephemerol controls the powers, and wants Vale to help find Revok, another scanner that is recruiting scanners for nefarious purposes. Dr. Ruth and ConSec are the good guys. Vale goes looking for Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), an artist and a scanner, to find out where Revok may be hiding. Revok sends some assassins who kill Pierce, but not before Vale kills them and gets a location and a name from Pierce–Kim Obrist.


Revok shows off his incredible power, just moments before he causes the other scanners head to (literally) explode.

Kim (Jennifer O’Neill) leads a commune of scanners who practice melding their psyches together in a group setting. Assassins also come for this group and only Vale and Kim survive. Vale is able to get some information out of the last killer. He returns to Dr. Ruth informing him that Revok is working with a company called Biocarbon Amalgamate which is making Ephemerol in large quantities. Ruth knows this because the company used to be his, but can’t believe Revok is involved. Meanwhile, the head of security for ConSec, Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), is secretly meeting with Revok to pass information on Vale’s activities. When Vale and Kim come in to be debriefed, Keller tries to kill Kim, but she uses her powers on him as she and Vale escape. Keller kills Dr. Ruth instead.

To find the missing link, Vale must get to the Ripe computer program in the ConSec network. Before he died, Dr. Ruth told Vale that he could access the information in the computer by scanning it. After all, they both have a nervous system; the computers is just on circuitry. Vale calls into the modem by phone and begins accessing the data. Keller realizes what is happening and terminates the connection hoping to kill Vale. Instead, it causes a feedback blowing up the computer and killing Keller. Vale realizes that all the data points to a number of women and their doctors.

Investigating further, Vale and Kim discover that Ephemerol was given to mothers in the 1950s as a sedative, but it gave their unborn babies scanner powers. Revok captures the two of them coming out a doctor’s office and reveals that both he and Vale are brothers, and the very first, and most powerful, scanners. Their father, Dr. Ruth, experimented on his pregnant wife. Now Revok plans to distribute Ephemerol around the country to create a whole army of scanners. Vale says that will not happen, and refuses to join his brother. Revok launches a full-on scanner attack on Vale who reels with the power, sometimes fighting back. But then Revok doubles-down and Vales bursts into flames, as Revok screams and his eyeballs roll back into his head. A short while later Kim finds the room and a charred Vale on the floor. Sensing him, and saying his name, she’s surprised to hear Vale’s voice from behind her. When she looks she see’s Revok, with Vale’s eye’s and voice, hiding behind a sofa. “We’ve won,” he says.

Telepathy is not mind reading. It is the direct linking of two nervous systems separated by space.” – Dr. Ruth


Vale and Kim survive an attack from a group of hit-men hired by Revok.

History in the Making

Scanners is an early film from David Cronenberg that helped get him exposure to a larger audience. It was his fourth film, working with a slightly bigger budget than The Brood (1979), and his first foray into science-fiction. His later films would play more into sci-fi elements with The Fly (1986) or eXistenZ (1999) fully developing the sci-fi ideals. Scanners also contained early elements of his penchant for body-horror. This is a term for films where the human body is morphed, contorted, or abused in often graphic ways. Anyone that has seen any of Cronenberg’s films after this should be familiar with the concept. Videodrome (1983), The Fly, or Dead Ringers (1988) are all varying degrees on the body-horror spectrum. The film also made use of Cronenberg’s love for gore. His usage was never excessive (like one might see in Braindead) but carefully staged for maximum visceral effect. And as such he went with effects by one of the masters of the genre Dick Smith.

Dick Smith was a special effects artist who was probably best known for his work in the 70s which include The Godfather and its sequel, Taxi Driver, and The Exorcist. His work on Scanners was much lauded as some of the best horror effects to date, with the memorable head explosion scene making many best-of lists. In fact much of the budget for the film was spent on the special effects, which is evident in several other key elements lacking in the film such as script and cast.

The film starred, according to the order of credits, Jennifer O’Neill who was known for her film work and modeling career, and Patrick McGoohan, famous for his roles in the 60s TV series’ Danger Man and The Prisoner. Stephen Lack was (and still is) a virtually unknown actor cast in the lead role. But the real star, for most people, is probably Michael Ironside in his break out role. He would go on to play some memorable guys in films like Total Recall, Top Gun, and Starship Troopers. He may be the reason (along with the special effects) that the film has achieved such cult status with audiences.


The cause of everyone’s problems: Ephemerol.


Along with the special effects which helped define a new level of effort for films of the 80s, Scanners is also a continuation of the trend to meld original sci-fi and horror films. The history of sci-fi films is replete with horror offshoots, a number of which I’ve explored on Sci-Fi Saturdays. But many of the more famous stories were adaptations of books or other media. Films like The Andromeda Strain, The Omega Man, and The Island of Dr. Moreau had good horror elements, but they were not original works. The late 70s and early 80s created a new breed of horror-infused sci-fi, including Alien, Altered States, and of course Scanners.

Though Scanners doesn’t push the envelope as much as some of these other films. Its horror elements are definitely stronger than its sci-fi elements. It’s not set in outer space, or concerned with the psychological ramifications of evolution as Alien and Altered States are. It sits in the realm of science gone awry. A familiar theme in a majority of sci-fi films since the 50s, but not one that breaks any new ground.


Braedon Keller: Head of ConSec security, corporate mole, and killer of Dr. Ruth!

The Science in The Fiction

The actual science element of the film (the use of the drug Ephemerol) seems to be a commentary on the Thalidomide crisis of the 50s and 60s. That drug, used for the treatment of cancer, was revealed to have caused birth defects in a number of children when it was prescribed to their pregnant mothers. Ephemerol has a similar backstory having been created as a tranquilizer which provides psychic powers to infants in utero when given to their mothers. It’s also a play on the word ephemeral, which means for a short time. This appears to be the exact opposite effects that it provides for Vale and Revok, as their powers last longer and get stronger the longer they live.

The film makes an interesting connection to psychic powers being the linking of two nervous systems. It’s an interesting way to think about the attributes of telekinesis and telepathy in media as a way to more scientifically explain a ghostly power. But the film goes further and ascribes similarity to a computer’s circuit board to that of the human nervous e system. This was 1981, so computers were still a relatively new and unknown device, but this seems ludicrous. It makes for an interesting scene in the film, but follows no logical course of reasoning.


Ephemerol – what you need to settle your baby down (and potentially give them psychic powers!)

Societal Commentary

Scanners makes another interesting leap linking psychosis and other symptoms of mental disorders as the results of the person being a scanner. Vale is homeless when we first see him. His state, as a typical “crazy person,” is linked to his psychic powers. The voices he hears in his head, whether he recognizes it or not, are not a figment of his disorder, but of his latent ESP. Scanners attempts to explain the world of mental disorders as evolved humans having difficulty fitting in with the normals.

It also makes a distinction between good and bad scanners. The overall reason for ConSec’s scanner program is never fully divulged. It’s mentioned that it’s Dr. Ruth’s attempt to mount a defense against Revok’s group, but that would not be why ConSec would be paying the money they are. It probably was being groomed for military application or corporate sabotage. Ruth of course was probably feeling guilt from unleashing Revok into the world, and spent his time looking to recruit Vale before his brother could get to him. The good scanners spend their time expanding their consciousness by linking their minds in large orgies where they experience the one-ness of the Group Self. Similarly Revok’s plans are never fully explained, other than creating a scanner army in which to take over the world. Standard megalomania. Unfortunately the good scanners do not seem to be able to defend themselves when attacked. It puts the idea that ConSec was grooming them for fighting even further down the list.


Revok unleashes the full power of his scanner abilities on his brother Vale.

The Final Frontier

It’s a good idea to revisit films that you enjoyed when you were younger. It will have one of two outcomes. Either you will have renewed satisfaction at the film and situations or you will see it in a new light and re-evaluate it. Scanners is the latter unfortunately. It’s a technically well made film, with shocking effects and some truly memorable scenes. But it falls flat for several reasons. The audience never connects with the characters. There is no dramatic tension or effort of achievement for Vale. Things just come to him. Even the “big” reveal that he is Ruth’s son and Revok’s brother doesn’t provide enough drama to elevate the film.

Besides Stephen Lack’s lack of charisma on screen, the film cheats itself by disarming any tension that may elevate the stakes for the characters. One example is in the third act when Vale and Kim return to ConSec to be debriefed. The audience knows that Keller is the mole and plans to kill Kim in the interrogation room. The two scanners are given shots of Ephemerol before entering the building, leaving Kim defenseless. Instead of starting with her scene, Vale meets with Ruth who informs him that the shot was a placebo and Kim should be fine. When the film cuts back to that scene the audience already knows she can use her powers. Boring!

Even for that type of plotting, Scanners is a film worth watching at least once. Michael Ironside is electrifying in his brief screen time, and the effects are top notch for the time. It also provided a sandbox for David Cronenberg to work on some ideas that he would develop further in future films. Please continue enjoying the 31 Days of Horror this week and come back in one week for the next horror infused sci-fi film, Lifeforce.

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