Friday, October 18, 2013

Cult-Movie Review: The Fury (1978)

In terms of the science fiction 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 assassin. 

The Fury brilliantly 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 present times.

The Fury “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, Childress. 

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 angles.

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.

“…what 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.

They’re always watching…”

Created 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. 

In 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.

The 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.” 

At 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. 

Peter 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 idealism.

Early in The 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.

Today, 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 him. 

In other words, Robin represents the latest achievement in Cold War one-upmanship.

In 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.

This 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 absolutely quickens. 

Why 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.

Late 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. 

Long story short: the only appropriate response to how things were going in America of the mid-1970s was…the fury.

Indeed, throughout the film, De Palma links psychic expression or outbursts directly to feelings of rage.  Another of The Fury’s great set-pieces occurs at an indoor amusement park.  Robin first feels jealousy regarding Susan Charles when he sees her with two other men. 

And 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.

Although 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. 

At 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.

The 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.

De 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.

Some critics thought The Fury’s ending was over-the-top.  Others felt that it had been a long time coming…


  1. I finally got around to seeing this movie a couple years ago and really enjoyed it. De Palma's style always works for me, and this movie had it in spades.

    Glad to see you mention Williams' wonderful score. He really channels Bernard Herrmann here, and it makes sense knowing how much De Palma loves Hitchock (and Herrmann created some of the most successful scores for Hitchcock films). The funny thing is most people when they talk about John Williams output in the 1970s forget to mention this one. It really is a wonderful score, with lots of thrills and great themes. His work is especially highlighted in that escape scene, but I also love his music as Childress explodes, it really punctuates the moment.

    So next time someone says is rattling off the great John Williams scores of the 1970s, and they mention "Close Encounters", "Star Wars" and "Superman", always mention "The Fury". It needs more love. :)

  2. Interesting take on the film John. But you don't really address how horrendously ambivalent that ending is. Sweet innocent Gillian, who starts out being horrified when she accidentally gives a classmate a nose bleed, in the end is turned into a psychic killer who literally sprays the walls with blood. It's the sickest of sick jokes. And the audience is drawn along with her every step of the way, and is even complicit in desperately wanting her revenge at the end. In fact De Palma really toys with the audience sadistically in that final scene--Gillian asleep in her cozy bed in a sunlight-filled room, the nightmare over, waking to find Childress, full of poisonous words of comfort. And they actually seem to be working! She breaks down in tears, hugs him, begins kissing him (!), and then....blammo! It's funny and horrific and incredibly satisfying at the same time.

    So it is worth emphasizing Gillian's starting point as a sweet innocent--De Palma doesn't shortchange that. He really makes you feel the full horror of her transformation. (Of course Cronenberg stole the "exploding body" idea and stuck it right at the beginning of "Scanners"--but that movie had none of the emotional content or De Palma's depraved artistry.)


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