It’s easily one of the most iconic deaths in science fiction film history. In David Cronenberg’s Scanners, an evil weapons manufacturer called ConSec is tracking down “scanners” — people with telepathic or telekinetic powers — and enlisting them for their own nefarious purposes. Rogue scanner Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) is having none of that, and is determined to ruin ConSec’s day on a daily basis. He infiltrates a ConSec conference and volunteers to let one of the companies top scanners read his mind to demonstrate the process to a bunch of VIPs. Well, ConSec clearly needs to institute background checks for their attendees, because once Revok gets on stage, this happens:
Yikes. It’s a striking visual, and still damned impressive as an effect, even after the 30+ years of movie gore evolution that have followed. These days, there are many different ways you could try to create a similar effect, and CGI would no doubt make it comparatively easy to select just the right head explosion you were looking for. But back in the early ’80s, Cronenberg and his team couldn’t rely on digital wizardry. They had to do it with practical effects, and a fascinating Scanners featurette from the Criterion Collection release of the film details just how tricky it was to get the head explosion they were looking for.
The obvious way to approach a comparatively small explosion like this would be with squibs, tiny explosives often used to simulate bullet impacts in films. But for the Scanners kill, they didn’t want visible sparks or fire, but rather the appearance of the unfortunate scanner’s head bursting from the inside out, popped like a balloon by the onslaught of Revok’s psychic assault. The featurette below is a fascinating look at movie problem-solving in an age when you couldn’t just rely on computers to save the day. And the final solution to how they achieved that technically gorgeous explosion of gore is brilliantly simple…but I’ll let you watch for yourself below.
You can purchase Criterion’s snazzy Scanners release here on Amazon. There’s also a Scanners TV series in the works, but it’s anybody’s guess if it’ll actually make it to the screen.