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From the B-Movie Vault: Scanners

May 18, 2022 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Scanners Image Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

From the B-Movie Vault Issue #4: Scanners

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the latest From the B-Movie Vault. I’m Bryan Kristopowitz.

Okay, so I know that my original intent with From the B-Movie Vault was to do at least two retro reviews each time, but I’m going to have to alter that intent a bit with my look at the awesome sci-fi horror franchise Scanners. As there are only five movies in the franchise (Scanners, Scanners II: The New Order, Scanners III: The Takeover, Scanner Cop, and Scanner Cop II I knew that I would have to pair one of those movies with something else to make the whole “double feature” scheme work. Unfortunately, going through my old and “missing” reviews I realized that there was nothing I could pair with any of the Scanners movies. Nothing.

So I decided to just do Scanners by itself and pair up the other movies in the franchise. And it makes a kind of sense to do it that way. Scanners II: The New Order and Scanners III: The Takedown were paired up on a nifty Blu-ray from Shout! Factory/Scream Factory, and the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome put out a double banger Blu-ray boxed set thing for the two Scanner Cop movies. Problem solved.

And now, without any further what have you, the next From the B-Movie Vault review: Scanners. Enjoy.

The Gratuitous B-Movie Column Issue #426: Scanners

Scanners September: Week 1

Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to the internets movie review column that knows telepathy is nonsense but is still pretty cool anyway, The Gratuitous B-Movie Column, and I am your host Bryan Kristopowitz. In this issue, issue number four hundred and twenty-six, Scanners September begins with the sci-fi action horror flick that started it all, Scanners, which hit movie theatres in January of 1981.


Image Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Scanners, written and directed by David Cronenberg, is a bonafide classic of genre cinema. Part science fiction movie, part gory horror flick, and part action thriller, Scanners is a movie that has everything nerds like me love. It’s a movie that, thirty-six years later, still packs a punch, is still freaky as hell, and still makes you think (like all good Cronenberg movies). In short, it’s an amazing movie watching experience.

Scanners stars Stephen Lack as Cameron Vale, a homeless man with the strange ability to hear the thoughts of the people around him and move objects by simply thinking about it. After inadvertently initiating a woman’s seizure in a mall food court, Vale is captured by two men in trench coats who, we find out, have been following him. Why have the men been following him? They work for a Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), who works for ConSec, a private security company that also dabbles in weapons manufacturing. Dr. Ruth is an expert in the study of scanners, a group of people who can do what Vale can do; read minds, manipulate objects and people and whatnot by thinking about it. Ruth wants to recruit Vale to work for him and ConSec in tracking down Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside), a renegade scanner who controls what’s known as the “scanner underground.” There are only around 230 known scanners in the world, and Revok has been trying to find scanners to bring to his side. See, Revok wants to manipulate the world to his will, and he can do that on a large scale and essentially be unstoppable if he can find his fellow scanners and get them onboard. It’s a scary scenario, especially after we see what Revok can do (in the movie’s most memorable scene, Revok takes out a fellow scanner, played by Louis Del Grande, by making the man’s head explode).

At first, Vale isn’t interested in working for either Dr. Ruth or ConSec. Despite providing an explanation for his mental abilities and a drug that can calm his abilities when they become too overwhelming (the drug is called ephemerol), Vale isn’t entirely sure he can trust Ruth or ConSec. Vale eventually comes around to accepting Ruth’s offer when he watches an old research film featuring a young Revok explaining why he drilled a hole in his head. Revok is incredibly dangerous. He needs to be stopped. Vale may be the only one capable of doing it.

The new head of ConSec security, Braedon Keller (Lawrence Dane), isn’t too keen on the ConSec scanner research program or Dr. Ruth’s methods. In fact, Keller wants to shut down the scanner program completely and find some other way to deal with the scanner underground. Yes, Keller knows just how dangerous Revok is, but is it wise to use a scanner to go after him? What if Revok manages to turn Vale over to his side? Dr. Ruth convinces a majority of the ConSec board of directors to go with his Vale plan, which annoys Keller to no end. Of course, Keller isn’t the man he appears to be and his mistrust of the scanner program isn’t exactly on the up and up, but we don’t find out any of that until later on.

So Dr. Ruth activates Vale and puts him into the field to find Revok and the scanner underground. Vale’s first mission is to find the elusive Benjamin Pierce (Robert Silverman), an artist who also happens to be a scanner. Vale goes to a Pierce gallery show and, via interacting with people completely unaware of what the hell is going on, finds out that Pierce lives alone in the woods. It’s at this point that Vale also runs into Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), a scanner Revok is trying to find and turn. Vale doesn’t sense Kim as he’s too busy trying to find Pierce, but she senses him.

So Vale finds Pierce in his woodsy hideout and tries to get information from him. What does Pierce know about Revok? Before he can get much viable information, a band of shotgun wielding assassins show up and shoot Pierce to death. Vale, in a kind of rage, kills the assassins via his scanner abilities. How the hell did the assassins know where Pierce was? How the hell did they know where Vale was? Goddamn Revok.

After briefly recuperating in his hotel room (ephemerol happens to be pretty damn awesome), Vale starts walking the streets to see if he can figure out what the hell is going on. It’s at this point that he once again runs into Obrist, figures out that she’s a fellow scanner, and he goes up to her hotel room to meet up with other fellow scanners. While Vale and Obrist and the others meet, we find out that Revok is watching them. Pissed that these scanners are not down with his underground movement, Revok sends two guys with shotguns up to Obrist’s apartment. The shotgun guys bust in and take out several scanners (the scanners were engaged in a group scan session so they didn’t sense the shotgun guys nearby). The scanners eventually realize what’s going on and attack the attackers, setting one of them on fire. Obrist’s apartment erupts in flames, and Vale and Obrist and the scanner survivors get out and hop into a van. A small car chase ensues, more scanners die, and a bitching record store is demolished when the scanner van smashes through the storefront. How many goddamn assassins does Revok have at his disposal?

So Vale and Obrist escape, some stuff happens, and they find out that a company known as Biocarbon Amalgamate is somehow involved in all of this. I won’t spoil what happens here because, well, it’s pretty shocking and it’s something that, if you haven’t seen the movie, you need to experience for yourself clean. Well, as clean as possible when dealing with a 35 plus year old genre classic.

Part of what makes Scanners so great is that it isn’t just one thing. It isn’t just a horror movie, or a sci-fi movie, or even an action movie. It’s actually all of those things plus a sort of spy movie, and it’s a mix that you just don’t expect to see. I know I didn’t expect to see action and suspense, car chases with explosions, and sort of gunplay in Scanners. Blood and gore and nasty stuff? Absolutely. But a car chase with a wicked drive by shooting element? Hell no. Multiple car crashes and an exploding gas station? No way. The big scene where Vale mind melds with a computer over a pay phone? I wasn’t surprised by that, but I was surprised that the scene didn’t end with the phone eating Vale or something like that. The phone melts, the phone booth explodes, and a computer room miles away explodes. I didn’t expect to see anything like that.

Scanners also has a political element that I didn’t expect to see. Revok explains why he wants to take over the world and he ends up sounding like a 1970’s revolutionary (Michael Ironside actually refers to Revok as a kind of Che Guevara in the special features on the Criterion Collection DVD release). And the presence of private security firms that experiment on people in order to create and sell potential weaponry is something that I didn’t expect to see in a movie from 1981. In a modern movie? Absolutely. But at the start of the 1980’s? Is it meant to be a comment on the rise of free market capitalists running roughshod over society? It might be, especially when you realize that the police don’t seem to be all that interested in handling/dealing with these scanners. Scanners are killing one another on the streets, blowing shit up, and no one outside of the “scanner business” seems to care about it. Is this an extreme example of what could happen if big business is allowed to do whatever the hell it wants? It could be. Again, no one outside of the scanner world seems to be all that interested in what ConSec does. No one seems to be questioning the company’s methods.

Scanners has a kind of cold, analytical pacing that may turn off some viewers because, even when the action heats up, the movie itself doesn’t heat up. It’s almost like director Cronenberg was making a parody of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13, a very deliberate thriller that still gets under your skin and is exciting but never really changes its pacing. Check out the shotgun scenes, where we see Revok’s assassins take out various scanners. Those scenes are loud and frenetic, but at the same time the movie doesn’t really speed up. How often do we see that kind of thing in movies today? Don’t be surprised if you find yourself unnerved at various points watching Scanners.

Now, the gore effects are still just as awesome and spectacular now as they were back when the movie came out. The exploding head, the final “scanner off” sequence, they both deliver in ways that are still shocking and gross as hell. The most disturbing gore effect to me is the bit where Vale actually digs into his head and removes a chunk of skin with his fingers. The flesh removal is done slowly and is something that you may not catch on to immediately because there’s so much other stuff going on at that time. But when you see that hole in Vale’s head (and you will see that hole) it will give you the goddamn willies. I’m getting uneasy right now just thinking about it. Awesome stuff.

What’s the deal with all of the shotguns? Are the shotguns we see in the movie the only weapons Cronenberg could afford to get for the production? Are the shotguns just a personal preference of Cronenberg’s? Was the folding stock meant to be futuristic?

Image Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

The score by Howard Shore is brilliant. It almost sounds like something that John Carpenter would have created back in the early 1980’s. Listen to that opening and closing theme. Does it give you goosebumps? If it doesn’t, you’re not playing it loud enough.

The cast is fantastic. Stephen Lack, as Cameron Vale, comes off as robotic at first, kind of annoying, but his performance grows on you the more you realize that Vale is an outsider trying to deal with a personal issue that he doesn’t completely understand. Even when he’s told by Dr. Ruth what’s going on he still seems out of it. There are moments where Vale seems like David Emge’s Stephen from George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead after taking a sleeping pill. Lack doesn’t provide much in the way of range with his performance. He’s still fascinating, though, and you can’t take your eyes off him.

Image Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

Jennifer O’Neill, who is actually the top billed actor in the credits, does a great job as Kim Obrist. She’s out of it, too, like Vale, but she gives off a different energy throughout the movie. She doesn’t have much in the way of romantic chemistry with Vale, but then they don’t come off as characters who are supposed to end up as lovers. I can’t quite say that they have a strictly platonic relationship, but I don’t know what else to call it. They do learn to love each other, but it’s more of a brother-sister love as opposed to a boyfriend-girlfriend deal. Is that what Cronenberg wanted? Was that always his intention? The Criterion Collection DVD talks about how the script wasn’t finished before the production started and that Cronenberg was sort of making the movie up as he went along. Perhaps the potential romance angle had to go when the story changed. A lack of romance fits in with the whole cold, analytical feel of the movie.

Michael Ironside is a force of nature as Darryl Revok. Every second he’s onscreen Ironside’s Revok is pure, unadulterated menace. His voice, his sneer, his eyes, it all freaks you out. And I’m talking about Ironside just staring into the camera not doing anything. When Revok does start doing stuff, especially “scanner stuff,” watch the hell out. The black and white scene where we see a “younger” Revok is also unnerving because, holy crap, a younger, thinner Revok is even more terrifying. The guy drilled a goddamn hole in his forehead. Who the hell does that? And that final “scanner off” sequence? Ironside deserved an Oscar nomination for that sequence. Watch how he sells those special effects. The effects help amplify Ironside’s performance, but you just know that Ironside could have freaked out the world without those effects. He could have made you feel the pain and power a scanner can project. Amazing stuff.

Patrick McGoohan is excellent as Dr. Paul Ruth. Dr. Ruth is a bizarre fellow because you’re not quite sure you can trust him, even after he explains what the hell is going on and who he is and what scanners are. Is he really a good guy who wants to take out Revok’s scanner menace, or is there some other agenda afoot that he we can’t see? You end up liking him when you find out what he’s really up to (that’s what happened with me).

And then there’s Lawrence Dane as ConSec security man Keller. Keller is a piece of shit the second you see him and that feeling doesn’t change throughout the movie. Even when his assessment of the scanner problem is one you agree with you still don’t like him and wish he would lose his head via psychic missile. Dane just oozes sleaze, and, shit, when you find out what he’s really up to, you actually despise him even more. A great performance.

Does Louis Del Grande do the horror convention circuit as the exploding head guy? If he doesn’t, there’s something wrong with the horror convention world. There is.

So why didn’t Cronenberg make a Scanners sequel? The movie was successful, it was a major hit on home video and on TV, and the premise of the movie seems to suggest a series of movies. So why didn’t Cronenberg do one? Did the disjointed production of the movie scare him off from doing another one? Did he think there wasn’t enough of a story to continue on? Was there some kind of behind-the-scenes business nonsense going on that prevented a sequel from happening quickly and Cronenberg needed to move on to other things? And what does Cronenberg think of the two sequels that were eventually made in the early 1990’s? Has anyone heard Cronenberg say anything about these movies?

Scanners is a classic through and through, and absolute must see for B-movie nerds the world over. It has everything. Track down that Criterion Collection DVD or Blu-ray disc. It’s well worth the expense.

See Scanners. See it, see it, goddamn see it!

Image Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

So what do we have here?

Dead bodies: 15

Explosions: Multiple, big and small (check out that exploding computer room)

Nudity?: None.

Doobage:A great opening theme, multiple nose bleeds, food stealing, mind reading, a very public seizure, tranquilizer dart hooey, a dangerous escalator stunt, mild bed bondage, more mind reading, multiple drug injections, multiple scanning demonstrations, a serious exploding head, a fake injection, exploding car, a forced suicide, pipe smoking, “telepathic curiosities,” a big meeting, an old film, glass throwing, throwing away a newspaper, yoga bullshit, peace out in the woods, multiple shotgun attacks, a pretty nifty package left at the front desk, exploding apartment building with massive fire, a wicked drive-by shooting, total record store destruction, another fire, people in hazmat suits, an eerie factory, multiple instances of people smoking indoors, a computer mind meld, face slapping, an off screen head shot, multiple forced hallucinations, off screen car stealing, power line hooey, exploding car, multiple exploding computer terminals, a melting pay phone, a messed up pregnancy, kidnapping., a major revelation, a full on scanner face off, a major practical special effects extravaganza, facial bumps that bleed, skin removal, fire hands, exploding eyes, white eyes, a massive fire, and an ending that satisfies.

Kim Richards?: None.

Gratuitous: People smoking indoors, stuffing a woman’s mouth so she doesn’t choke on her own tongue in public in the midst of having some kind of seizure, Patrick McGoohan, hand holding, Michael Ironside, Michael Ironside blowing up a guy’s head with his mind, “telepathic curiosities,” yoga bullshit, an art gallery filled with weird fucking art, a giant head sculpture, scanning together, a yellow school van bus, multiple shotgun attacks, a poster of The Village People, computer stuff, a big alarm button that says “alarm” on it, a scientist with a big mole on his face, exploding computers, a phone booth, an old Life magazine, sculpture fondling, a scanner faceoff, and an ending that satisfies.

Best lines: “Hurry up!,” “I would like to scan all of you in this room,” “Do I have to close my eyes?,” “Everybody out! Call ConSec leader!,” “Give him a shot of ephemerol!,” “He is a scanner,” “Ray, I’m going to kill you if you don’t do it!,” “You’re making a very provocative allegation, Dr. Ruth,” “I feel so exposed. I can hear myself,” “She is forcing me to think about her,” “This is Mr. Keller. Will my car be ready for this evening?,” “Is he still like that? He’s worse. How can that be?,” “End your scan! End it!,” “You were right, Dr. Ruth. It was easy,” “That man has incredible power, doesn’t he?,” “I’ve heard you know a man named Darryl Revok,” “My art. My art keeps me sane. My art,” “You, my friend, are a liar,” “My God! They killed Ben Pierce!,” “Everywhere you go someone dies! Who are you?,” “Ephemerol has been sent out?,” “To be honest with you, Kim, the only one you should be afraid of is me,” “Goodbye. Kim,” “Security! Scanners! Find them and kill them!,” “The ripe program must be stopped!,” “Secure the computer room!,” “What the hell is going on? It’s the scanners, sir. They’re out,” “No one’s ever switched off a scanner before,” “What happened? I was scanned,” “An unborn child scanned me,” “The future? You murdered the future!,” “All right, we’re gonna do it the scanner way! I’m going to suck your brain dry!,” and “I’m here, Kim! We’ve won! We’ve won!”

Rating: 10.0/10.0


Image Credit: The Criterion Collection


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Image Credit: AVCO Embassy Pictures

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Check out previous issues of From the B-Movie Vault!

From the B-Movie Vault: Phantasm and Phantasm II

From the B-Movie Vault: Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead and Phantasm IV: Oblivion

Phantasm: Ravager and John Dies at the End


Well, I think that’ll be about it for now. Don’t forget to sign up with disqus if you want to comment on this article and any other 411 article. You know you want to, so just go do it.

B-movies rule. Always remember that.


Jennifer O’Neill– Kim Obrist
Stephen Lack– Cameron Vale
Patrick McGoohan– Dr. Paul Ruth
Michael Ironside– Darryl Revok
Lawrence Dane– Braedon Keller
Robert A. Silverman– Benjamin Pierce
Louis Del Grande– First Scanner

Directed by David Cronenberg
Screenplay by David Cronenberg

Distributed by AVCO Embassy Pictures, Embassy Home Entertainment, Image Entertainment, MGM Home Entertainment, and the Criterion Collection

Rated R for graphic violence and language
Runtime– 103 minutes

Buy it here or here