Scanners: David Cronenberg’s Classic Will Still Blow Your Mind

Canadian director David Cronenberg has a diverse filmography. Though his movies cross genres, Cronenberg has largely staked out his fame in horror and science fiction. Today, he is synonymous with ‘body horror’. Academic Philip Brophy coined the term, body horror, in an article entitled Horrality – The Textuality of Contemporary Horror Films. Briefly, it refers to movies that focus on graphic transformations, violations, or destruction of the body. Based on his work, critics hail Cronenberg as an originator of the subgenre.

On January 16, 1981, Cronenberg released Scanners, his most conventional at the time. Often remembered for one scene, Scanners has aged remarkably well in spite of its low budget. Similar to the best science fiction stories, Scanners relevance has only increased over the years.

Scanner Represents Cronenberg’s Most Conventional Story

Upon its release in 1981, Scanners was arguably Cronenberg’s most conventional movie. Prior to 1980, Cronenberg’s movies including Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, were transgressive. Many of his early movies defied categorization. Though Scanners has the same low-budget atmosphere, it represented a departure for the director.

Yet Cronenberg’s movie has several interesting threads that can be interpreted in a number of ways.

First, Scanners unapologetically mixes genres. Cronenberg includes science fiction with old-fashioned mystery thrown in for good measure. Specifically, Scanners unfolds in a hypothetical timeline where powerful telekinetic people , or ‘scanners’, exist. Private security firm, ConSec, searches for and trains ‘scanners’ for their own purposes. But renegade ‘scanner’ Revok is assembling his own private army of scanners. With its elements of espionage, on the surface, Scanners seems straightforward. Yet Cronenberg’s movie has several interesting threads that can be interpreted in a number of ways.

Scanners Challenges With Interesting Themes

Where Scanners diverges from the conventional is with its introduction of the drug, ephemerol. Yes, there’s some convenient story-telling in the movie. But the introduction of a drug originally intended as a tranquilizer for pregnant women that inadvertently creates ‘scanners’ immediately draws parallels to the thalidomide tragedy. However, Cronenberg adds a wrinkle by blurring the lines between ‘good’ and bad’.

In a post-9/11 world, with concerns over biometrics, security, and privatization, Scanners takes on new meaning.

On one hand, Michael Ironside’s ‘Revok’ is clearly the major antagonist. His plan to use ephemerol to create an army of ‘scanners’ could be an Austin Powers’ story. Maybe the idea of a private security firm using psychics as ‘bio-weapons’ didn’t raise eyebrows in 1981. In a post-9/11 world, with rising concerns over biometrics, security, and privatization, Scanners takes on new meaning. Even the film’s line, ‘We’ve won’ feels less like a triumphant conclusion than skepticism. Recall that the movie’s protagonist, Cameron Vale, works for a large private security firm that’s just eliminated any competition.

Nothing To Lose Your Head Over

As previously mentioned, Cronenberg and body horror go hand in hand. Not surprisingly then, horror fans remember Scanners for one scene. I grew up in the 1980’s and the ‘head-exploding’ scene is an absolute highlight. Even after over 30 years, it’s a special effect that holds up. There are few comparable horror moments. Arguably, Tom Savini’s ‘head-exploding’ effect in Maniac comes to mind. But there’s not much else that compares.

Scanners Deserves Re-Interpretation Among Horror Fans

Ultimately, Scanners typically gets lost among the shuffle of Cronenberg’s work. To a large extent, its legacy has largely been tied to one scene. Yet many of the themes Cronenberg explored have only become relevant over time. There’s a certain level of ambiguity in the movie around its heroes, villains, and motivations. In spite of its occasional simplistic story-telling, Scanners boasts some interesting ambiguitity and challenging morality worthy of some critical re-interpretation.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.