40 years ago, Scanners—David Cronenberg’s 1981 mainstream body horror breakthrough (though not as well-loved as his remake of The Fly)—didn’t exactly blow peoples’ minds. Pardon the pun, but its mixed reviews and decent-not-great box office did just enough to get Cronenberg a studio gig with Videodrome and a cult growing as quickly as one friend could whisper “You gotta see this head blow up” to another.
Scanners is a solid sci-fi film, let’s be clear. It’s not nearly as exploitationy as Cronenberg’s murderous horndogs in Shivers or as intimately upsetting as The Brood, but the movie about scanners Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) and Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) on opposite sides of a telekinetic war involving the pharmaceutical and private military industries certainly had a lot to say on top of its thrilling and visceral special effects. It was released after Carrie and The Fury put these kinds of empowered young people on the big screen in a major way, and at the same time as the X-Men were hitting a major stride in the comics: The “Days of Future Past” storyline began the same month as Scanners’ release, in January of 1981.
But only after Cronenberg’s later hits did the reassessment begin—and only after the internet necessitated and rewarded pithy gifs from all over (including movies that were released long before its most fluent posters were born) did Scanners make perhaps its most lasting contribution to pop culture: The quintessential head blowing-up gif.
Before gifs, the only people who’d watched a fake version of Louis Del Grande’s head blow to pieces over and over were certified gorehounds—the kinds of people who identify as Dick Smith superfans and were religiously reading Fangoria (which featured Del Grande’s sizzling neck hole on its cover in January of 1981_). Basically, diehard horror and special effects geeks. Now, if you ask a random person who was active online in the last decade if they’ve seen an unassuming, mustachioed, accountant-looking dude’s head blow into meaty shrapnel, a healthy percentage would say “yes” and probably even send you a link.
You know it, you love it, you’ve seen it posted when something blows someone’s mind. Here’s how they had one scanner blow up another’s head:
Cinematographer Mark Irvin, special effects supervisor Gary Zeller, and makeup artists Stephan Dupuis and Chris Walas explain that they filled a gelatin head’s plaster skull with “latex scraps, some wax, and just bits and bobs of a lot of stringy stuff that we figured would fly through the air.” And that’s not even mentioning the tons of corn syrup blood, gelatin brain and meaty stuff like “leftover burgers” jammed in there. Then Zeller told everyone to get out and shot it with a shotgun. Badass.
Cronenberg explained in that aforementioned issue of Fangoria that, if the MPAA had balked at the gore and threatened to give the film an X rating, they did an alternate take where Del Grande’s character dies of a heart attack. Thank god that bullet was dodged and the film was allowed to keep its most famous sequence, in which a shotgun blast was certainly not dodged.
But that excellent moment, so good that four decades later it’s still the gold standard for both head explosions and quickly communicating the feeling of “mindblowing,” isn’t all Scanners gave us. The mystery film about embattled telekinetic mutants gave us a new side of late-career Patrick McGoohan and boosted Ironside into stardom. Ironside’s sharp and nasty villainous turn only benefited from Lack’s wooden weirdo monotone that, presumably, was attempting to show the social effects of someone who’s had a powerful mental difference from everyone all his life. It gave us a vein-popping, skin-peeling, eye-bursting, tumorous finale. It marked Cronenberg’s segue back into a kind of sci-fi that was equally (if not more) concerned with the human body as with technological hardware. It gave us the filmmaker’s ever-present mistrust of authority, repackaged into a brutal psyops tale. And yes it gave us a pretty circuitous plot that was a little hard to pay attention to after watching something as awesome as its opening FX gag.
If you’re one of the 893,012 people who’ve watched its opening brain-bursting gif thanks to Giphy or the couple million who’ve watched one of its clips on YouTube, you owe it to yourself to watch the full film and see why it’s maintained its special effects dominance for so long.
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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