It’s been 35 years since David Cronenberg’s Scanners (literally) blew your brains for the first time. Since then, the Michael Ironside/Stephen Lack-starrer has developed into an undeniable cult hit that’s become a midnight movie staple at independent theaters everywhere. A sci-fi action flick known for its groundbreaking special effects, Scanners tells the story of a group of renegade scanners, a.k.a. humans with extraordinary psychic powers, on a mission to band together to rule the world—but not if one special uncorrupted scanner can help it. If it sounds bizarre, that's because everything about it is; it wouldn’t be a signature Cronenberg film if it wasn’t strange. Learn more about this 1981 gem with these 10 mind-blowing facts.
1. THE FAMOUS HEAD EXPLODING SCENE WAS ACCOMPLISHED WITH PET FOOD AND A SHOTGUN.
In the Criterion Collection edition of the film, the special effects team revealed how they pulled off the memorable scene. “Latex scraps, some wax, and just bits and bobs and a lot of stringy stuff that we figured would fly through the air a little bit better,” they noted. According to makeup artist Stephan Dupuis, they even used “leftover burgers.”
2. DAVID CRONENBERG MOVED THE HEAD EXPLOSION SCENE FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM FOR LATE MOVIEGOERS.
Cronenberg cares about his audience, which is why he decided to move the head explosion scene from the beginning of the film—albeit reluctantly at first. “People tend to come late at films, they walk in after the first three minutes,” Cronenberg told Starburst. “For me, films are really made for an audience, like the way poets read their poetry for reactions and make changes based on that. I used to sneer at test previews but now I realize that it makes perfect sense. You get so close to something that you can’t objectively gauge on how an audience is going to react to something and you need that kind of resonance. I really agonized over that change for quite some time. It was suggested by somebody else, though I wasn’t forced into it at all.”
3. STEPHEN LACK STILL HAS HIS FAKE HEAD THAT EXPLODED.
Apparently, it’s a hit with fanboys. Stephen Lack, who starred as Cameron Vale, told Film Comment, “I went to a horror convention with my head, twice. The entire convention space was filled with booths of people that had expanded on Dick Smith’s original discoveries. It was fantastic! People like to pose with [the head]. If it were the seventies, people would be exposing their genitals to it. But those days are long gone—people don’t think that way anymore.”
4. CRONENBERG SHOT TWO ENDINGS TO SCANNERS.
According to Michael Ironside, who played Darryl Revok, he and Stephen Lack filmed a less exciting version of the ending. “With one ending, we had this psycho-battle between my brother and I and it didn’t work, we shot it right up until Christmas and sent the script to [special effects wizard] Dick Smith in New York and asked him what he could come up with in terms of cutting edge makeup,” Ironside explained. “You know, something that would give us a more memorable battle and a different ending. Dick then came up with the idea of the exploding heads and that was a very collaborative thing.”
5. ACCORDING TO LACK, THE SCANNERS SCRIPT WASN’T EVEN WRITTEN WHILE FILMING.
It’s no surprise that Cronenberg allegedly called Scanners his most frustrating film to make. In addition to delays in filming, the script wasn’t even completed when production commenced. “Not only was Scanners not rehearsed, but it wasn’t written,” Lack told Film Comment. “David was coming in with pink, blue, and yellow pages for the day for the version of the script that we were doing, and he was working on it right there. As a result I had to deal with the dialogue in such a way that I was not reacting to things, because the information hadn’t been given to my character in the linear progression of the story. If you chop it up and look at it, 50 percent of my dialogue is not an assertion of anything but rather a question: ‘You called me a Scanner, what does that mean?’ ‘You’re part of an organization, who are you?’ Everything is a freaking question!”
6. MICHAEL IRONSIDE WORE DUSTIN HOFFMAN’S EYES FROM LITTLE BIG MAN IN A CRUCIAL SCENE.
Scanners was all about making its special effects work at all costs, which is why Ironside’s story about his peculiar eyes at the end of the film fits in perfectly. “There’s a scene … where I’m set on fire and my head comes up and those scleras they put on your eyes, they had scratched all my corneas,” Ironside recalled. “So the contact lenses they had made for me to change my eye color didn't fit properly because my eyes had been scratched. Dick Smith happened to have with him Dustin Hoffman’s eyes from Little Big Man and they were actually oversized, and you wouldn't normally do this because they have to be fitted, but when you see me come out from under that coat at the end of Scanners, those blue eyes of mine are Dustin Hoffman’s from Little Big Man.”
7. STEPHEN LACK FEARED FOR HIS LIFE DURING THE FIRST DAY OF FILMING THE MOVIE.
In an interview with Film Comment, Lack recalled feeling under-the-gun during one of his first scenes on set. “There we were, the first day of Scanners and they had me get into this 18-wheel truck with four gearshift levers and have me drive into the shot. It was horrifying. I never drove such a thing and I was pretty disoriented,” he explained. “We were set up on a feeder road to the highway, and all the camera crew and staff were there, and some car on the highway slowed down to gawk—and a truck on the highway rammed them from behind. There was a death and sirens, and the whole crew jumped over the storm fence to help out. I was given a slight reprieve of an hour to figure out the gears.”
8. JENNIFER O’NEILL’S CHARACTER KIM OBRIST WAS NAMED AFTER A REAL PERSON.
It turns out the badass lead female/kickass scanner in the film actually took her name from a real-life badass female, Scanners producer Claude Héroux’s assistant, Kim Obrist. Her only other credit is Alvin Rakoff’s Dirty Tricks, which was released the same year as Scanners.
9. ROBERT A. SILVERMAN, A.K.A. SCANNER BENJAMIN PIERCE, IS A REGULAR CRONENBERG COLLABORATOR.
A testament to his friendship with Cronenberg, not only did Robert Silverman appear in the director’s films Rabid, The Brood, Naked Lunch, and eXistenZ, but Cronenberg also made a cameo in another film Silverman starred in, Jason X.
10. A 2008 REMAKE ESSENTIALLY DISAPPEARED FROM THOUGHT.
In 2007, the trades—including Variety—began reporting on a Scanners remake that was to be directed by Saw II director Darren Lynn Bousman under Dimension Films and The Weinstein Company. To this day, it still hasn’t been put into production. However, two years ago, news of a TV version of the cult hit began circulating.