One of the horror genre's "most widely read critics" (Rue Morgue # 68), "an accomplished film journalist" (Comic Buyer's Guide #1535), and the award-winning author of Horror Films of the 1980s (2007), The Rock and Roll Film Encyclopedia (2007) and Horror Films of the 1970s (2002), John Kenneth Muir, presents his blog on film, television and nostalgia, named one of the Top 100 Film Studies Blog on the Net.
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
A 1970's Halloween: The Fury (1978)
In terms of the cinema, 1978 was The Year of the Conspiracy.”
NASA faked a Mars landing in ITC’s
paranoid Capricorn One, Genevieve Bujold discovered a major metropolitan
hospital’s plot to harvest the organs of comatose patients in Michael
Crichton’s unsettling Coma, and alien pods infiltrated every level of government and commerce
in San Francisco in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Brian De Palma’s The
Fury fits in perfectly with this “The Year of The Conspiracy” label because
the film, based on a novel by John Farris, depicts a covert government agency’s
kidnapping of an American citizen, the attempted murder of that citizen’s
father, and the agency’s efforts to transform the captive into a psychic
captures the unsettled and angry mood of the country with its very title. The American people were indeed “fury”-ious with leaders in Washington
D.C. at the time because of the Watergate Scandal, the dismissive pardoning of
Nixon, the illegal bombing campaigns in Cambodia, the Energy Crisis,
stagflation, and other economic issues.
Trust in government stood at its lowest ebb in this era…at least until
“transmits” this righteous anger in, literally, explosive terms.
Specifically, De Palma’s film
about youngsters who possess psychic abilities tells the story of a passive
“receiver,” Gillian -- played by Amy Irving -- who is transformed finally, into
a potent “sender” because of her
ever-growing anger at the government, represented by Cassavete’s villainous character,
The film culminates with the
completion of Gillian’s transformation, and the ensuing total physical destruction
of Childress, witnessed in loving-but-bloody detail from more than half—a-dozen
Like virtually all of Brian De
Palma’s films, The Fury is devilishly playful, and in this case, buoyed
considerably by the director’s masterful orchestration of three stunning
set-pieces. One is a slow-motion escape
from repressive authority, another is an expression of fury meted at an
amusement park, and the last –and best -- is the bloody denouement, the final
dispatch of Childress.
The result of all these moments is a tense and extremely gory film that
captures perfectly the Zeitgeist of its age, and continues to impress today on
the basis of its almost completely unexpected emotional impact.
In short, The Fury evokes rage and
upset in the viewer as again and again the good guys lose, and the bad guys
win. At least, that is, until the unspooling of the film’s cathartic last
sequence, which is as sharp and spiky an exclamation point as has ever been
used to punctuate a genre film.
a culture can’t assimilate, it destroys…”
A powerful young psychic, Robin
Sandza (Stevens) is made to believe that his father, a government agent, Peter
(Douglas) has been killed in a terrorist attack. Now in the care of Peter’s ruthless partner,
Childress (Cassavetes), Robin is trained to be a psychic assassin, his powers
held in check by Dr. Susan Charles (Lewis), also his lover.
For eleven months, Peter searches
for his son with the help of a nurse, Hester (Snodgress), who works at the
Paragon Institute, a school for psychically-gifted students. There, a new arrival, a troubled young woman
named Gillian (Irving) grapples with her powers, and comes to realize that she
is “receiving” messages from a “sender,” Robin.
Peter and Hester break Gillian
out of Paragon -- which is secretly allied with Childress -- and after Hester
is killed, go in search of Robin.
The duo finally finds Robin at a
secret, wooded estate, but he is now almost totally devoid of humanity. His psychic powers have grown to such an
extent that he has become inhuman, and a murderer…
After Peter and Robin are killed,
Childress captures Gillian, but the agent finds that her psychic powers are
also very well-developed.
in the immediate aftermath of the Watergate Scandal and the resignation of
President Nixon (which followed not long after the resignation of
Vice-President Agnew…), The Fury evidences a serious
distrust of the United States government.
fact, the film portrays Childress and his secretive agency as a malevolent
shadow lurking, vulture-like over the American family, bent on separating
family members, harassing citizens, and creating monsters for a secret agenda
and other dark purposes.
apparent protagonist of the film, Peter (Kirk Douglas) expresses fear and
dislike of the government at several junctures in the film. “They
needed him,” he explains about Peter, “and
they took him. They just took him.”
another juncture, Peter notes that “They”
(meaning Childress’s agents) “are always
watching.” What he expresses hear is
a fear directly borne of Watergate: of government spying, and intrusion in the
private lives of families.
also fears for his lover, Hester’s, because she “takes too much for granted.”
She trusts “too many people.” In the mid-to-late 1970s, the government
had lost the trust of many Americans, and that’s the idea being expressed in The Fury. This was not a time for optimism or
Fury, Peter hides out in an apartment belonging to a blue-collar
family. He meets a character named
“Mother Nuckalls,” and it turns out she wants to help him evade capture. She tells him flat out that if he encounters
“Feds,” Peter should “kill them.” Again, the idea expressed is absolute
contempt towards and hate for the government.
the right wing tends be the most vehemently anti-government demographic, but in
the 1970s that title went to the left side of the political spectrum, and
indeed, the government agency depicted here is seen as a dangerous
international aggressor, a son of Nixon.
Childress wants to possess Robin -- a psychic assassin – because,
explicitly “the Chinese don’t have one,”
and “The Soviets don’t have one” like
other words, Robin represents the latest achievement in Cold War one-upmanship.
keeping with the idea of a malevolent but also bungling or incompetent
government, De Palma stages his action scenes with a fine sense of the chaotic, or the random. In the film’s most stirring action scene -- Gillian’s escape from the Paragon Institute
-- an innocent woman, Hester, is killed, when the government gives chase in a
car, and Peter, also a government agent, remember, opens fire. Caught between opposing (partisan?) enemies,
Hester is violently and accidentally killed, in slow-motion no less, and the
idea transmitted is one of events spiraling absolutely out-of-control.
particular scene works so brilliantly because De Palma rivets our attention
with the slow-motion photography, and also with the total lack of sound-effects
we might expect, such as gunshots or screams. Instead, we simply get John Williams’
gorgeous, Hitchcock-ian score as the scene’s soundtrack, and the pulse
approach the material this way? On one
hand, it’s an application of formalist film technique. But on the other, if you’ve ever been in a
car accident, you might remember how time seems
to slow-down, and you are aware of every event, every instant, every
reflex, ever move. The escape scene
here, rendered in compelling slow-motion photography, very adroitly recreates
that feeling of a catastrophic event happening around you, and event after
event overwhelming the senses.
in the film, Peter also fails to rescue Robin, and Robin -- again, the
“transmitter” or “sender” -- dies, but not before passing on his finely-developed
rage to Gillian, who has witnessed all the bungling, all the violence, and has
had a stomach full of it. In the film’s
last scene, Gillian’s eyes go blue (like Robin’s), and she lets loose,
overcoming her passivity as a receiver.
She blows Childress apart.
story short: the only appropriate response to how things were going in America
of the mid-1970s was…the fury.
throughout the film, De Palma links psychic expression or outbursts directly to
feelings of rage. Another of The
Fury’sgreat set-pieces occurs
at an indoor amusement park. Robin first
feels jealousy regarding Susan Charles when he sees her with two other
then, he sees innocent Middle-Eastern men boarding a tilt-a-whirl. But, Robin remembers their (stereotypically)
Arab garb from the terrorist attack that he believes killed his father, and so
he lets his rage -- his fury -- take over.
He causes the tilt-a-whirl roller-coaster car to break loose from its
moorings, and sends the Arab passengers hurtling into another party of unsuspecting
Middle-Easterners. Again, the impetus for such an outburst is explicitly anger.
The idea that fury builds psychic power to a boiling point can be explored in relation to Carrie (1976), De Palma's previous film involving telekinesis. There, the director utilized a split-screen image to suggest the cause-and-instantaneous-effect nature of Carrie's anger. There was no built up...telekinesis was simultaneous. In The Fury, by contrast, the psychic power builds and builds. We see this explicitly during a scene in which Gillian uses the power of her mind to move a toy train faster and faster around a track. Her abilities reach a fever pitch as the train spins around the track, and then we get a vision from the future. In The Fury, it takes time for psychic powers to reach full capacity. And range and anger augment those powers.
Kirk Douglas is the star of The Fury, in many ways, the film
really dramatizes the story of Gillian, played by Irving. She starts out as a virtual innocent. She’s just a kid living her life without much
thought for much beyond herself. But
very soon Gillian finds that her “gifts” are coveted by Childress and his murky
agency, and that atrocities have been committed by the government against those
just like her.
first, all Gillian can do is empathize with Robin, witnessing the visions of his torture and
subjugation. But by film’s end, Gillian reverses
her role and becomes an active player in her own destiny. In brief then, the film depicts the process
of how an activist is born, first by
witnessing the pain of others, and then, finally, by taking a stand against
corruption or malfeasance.
last scene in The Fury, in which Gillian takes a personal stand, is one for the ages. Gillian summons all her “fury” and literally
rips apart Childress with her psychic powers.
He explodes into several pieces, and we see his utter de-construction in
view-after-view, in the most loving, exhaustive detail imaginable. When severed Childress’s head – eyes still
open -- hits the white carpet on the floor (and the viewer’s jaw simultaneously
hits the ground in disbelief…), the movie merely goes to black without comment.
Palma has built up to this amazing catharsis from the film’s first moments. A family is separated, a beautiful nurse is
killed, a father loses his son, and then commits suicide. And through it all, the forces of Childress and
a dark government win. But finally, the
tables are turned, and all the rage of the day is released in a magnificent
explosion of blood and guts, a flower coaxed to bloom.
critics thought The Fury’s ending was over-the-top. Others felt that it had been a long time