After enjoying the first big box office success of his career with the release of his 1976 film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel “Carrie”, the author's perverse, psychokinesis themed twist on the coming-of-age drama, Brian De Palma set to work on new project, “The Fury”, clearly intending this often underrated follow-up as the means by which he would consolidate his newly won position as a ‘big name’ director of note. Ostensibly, the film’s subject matter revolves around some similar themes and ideas tackled in “Carrie” – young people with powerful psychic and psychokinetic ‘gifts’, struggling to control their powers – and is yet another adaptation of one of those contemporary mainstream blockbuster horror novels that were practically ubiquitous during this period in the 1970s, although in this case it's a work by the less-often-read John Farris (who also wrote the screenplay adaptation for De Palma) rather than the genre colossus that was and still is King. Even so, Farris’s novel encompassed all the shibboleths of 1970s popular horror fiction – the melodramatic plots and the glossy black covers with lurid designs included – while the preposterous narrative is practically a pulp compendium of the decade’s political and cultural touchstones, from the disconcerting amount of intellectual respect and media coverage afforded to the claims of parapsychological tomfoolery in general – which was recently all the rage since the meteoric rise to fame of Uri Geller; to the post-Watergate patchwork of political cover-ups and paranoid conspiracy plots in which shadowy black-op Governmental forces are seen operating a level of population manipulation and surveillance that would make Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ start to think that maybe things had gotten a bit out of hand lately.
But “The Fury’s” high-octane cocktail of espionage, filmed action set-pieces, conspiracy drama and horror-tinged SF also allows De Palma much more scope (thanks to the much bigger budget on hand here) to practise that particularly distinctive form of Hitchcock-influenced cinematic technique of his that, before “Carrie”, he’d previously been able to demonstrate only on a small-scale, in comparatively low budget thrillers such as “Obsession” and “Sisters”. However, although the picture performed moderately well at the box office, it was nothing like the huge hit which had been hoped for and expected by its studio backers at 20th Century Fox. Critical notices were unduly dismissive; and although some clocked the often jaw-dropping artistry involved in De Palma’s handling of specific set-pieces (of which there are a great many for De Palma fetishists to swoon over, scattered throughout the film’s two hour run-time), this aspect was usually addressed at the time in terms that considered de Palma’s approach a sort of auteurist ‘overkill’ – as though a surfeit of stylistic form had been applied to what deserved only to be treated as throwaway airport novel-level junk literature.
Farris’s screenplay for “The Fury” does indeed contain some almost surreally bad dialogue at times; and character developments and motivations are sometimes so sketchily realised that it’s not always clear why certain things end up happening in quite the spectacular -- but illogical -- way that they do; this is a particular failing during one of the movie’s key sequences, which comes at a climactic juncture in the main storyline near the end. But there are other respects in which De Palma’s consummate film craft is able to expand upon latent ideas in the text, and look beyond the narrative’s pulpier (though entertaining) surface details, with its evil Government types kidnapping gifted telepathic children to mould into Psi-Weapons for the US military, etc., by teasing out some tellingly poignant themes otherwise only implied by its mixture of pseudo-scientific powers and conspiracy chase thriller dynamics: a teenage girl who can intimately commune on a psychic plain with other minds, but who instinctively recoils from her mother’s embrace for fear of physically harming her (the film’s portrayal of the psychokinetic manipulation of human body tissues to induce symptoms such as nose bleeds and seizures anticipates Cronenberg’s “Scanners” by several years) and a father who must lie to the person who loves him so that he can exploit her emotions in order to find his kidnapped son … such themes mean that for all its visual dazzle “The Fury” becomes an intimate film about the multiple betrayals, lies and manipulations people sometimes feel they have to perpetrate, even against those close to them, and which ultimately (and ironically) isolate them from each other all the more.
Despite imagery which conveys multiple forms of psychic projection, and which is set alongside and compared to the more conventional surveillance monitoring dotted throughout the film, real communication is always hard won in “The Fury”. Pretty much every character in the film is involved in some sort of deception on some level, and it is the curse of the Psi-gifted young people such as Amy Irving’s confused high school student Gillian Bellaver, or the kidnapped teenager Robin Sanza (Andrew Stevens), to be forced to experience glimpses into the future or the past which merely end up revealing to them, through aspects of this shadow world from behind the veil of temporal order that shields the rest of us, just how alone they truly are.
These introspective themes emerge gradually from De Palma’s handling of the more showy action set pieces in the film, like the terrorist beach attack at the start in which aging Government agent Peter Sandza (a sprightly-looking 60 year-old Kirk Douglas) loses his psychically gifted son to the cold machinations of his best friend Ben Childress (John Cassavetes at his most ruthless) -- a fellow agent covertly in charge of a top secret military programme that’s aiming to create a race of psychic weapons. Sandza survives to witness Ben colluding with the supposed Arab Nationalists who carried out the machine-gun assault during the trio’s holiday in Israel, and manages to fool them into believing he died in a speedboat blaze while affecting his escape in the midst of battle. He surfaces just long enough to wound Childress and permanently disable his former friend, before escaping for real. However, Peter’s son Robin has in the meantime been spirited away by Ben’s men -- to be brainwashed, subjected to invasive testing, and placated with the sexual favours of gorgeous research scientist Dr Susan Charles (Fiona Lewis – “The Fearless Vampire Killers”, “Dr Phibes Rises Again”) at an exclusive Forest Hills rural retreat in the USA, run by Childress on the outskirts of Chicago.
This kinetically charged opener sets the scene for a story which flips between two thriller sub-genres that gradually come together for an unexpectedly explosive finale. On the one hand, we have film veteran Kirk Douglas, who is pretty much starring in a traditional, man-on-the-run chase thriller modelled, for much of the first hour, on a conventional Hitchcock template: in this strand of the plot Childress’s men are out to neutralise Peter Sandza before he can find his son and expose their secret psychic programme; Peter is searching for more psi-gifted people who he hopes may be able to help him find out where his son is being held through the use of their psychic mind link-up abilities. All the while he’s fending off the constant threat of discovery due to the almost limitless powers of surveillance commanded by Childress’s agency.
There are many quirky, often comic set-pieces which ensue while Peter is on the run -- employing various methods to try and lose Childress’s men, such as climbing in from the fire escape through the apartment window of an elderly couple who live with their infirm Grandmother (Eleanor Merriam) after escaping Government agents in his hotel room, then persuading this ‘Mother Knuckles’ to help him disguise himself while she gladly keeps her familial cohabitees bound and gagged for him; or the expertly choreographed extended car chase through the Chicago night fog, when Peter commandeers the patrol car of unsuspecting cops Dennis Franz and Jack Callahan ... such scenes mix suspense, action and comedy in the conventional Hitchcock style, frequently utilised by the master in films such as “North by North West” or the Cold War thriller “Torn Curtain”.
But such episodes are also balanced by another tonally very different set of sequences that hark back to the style and thematic concerns made prominent in “Carrie” -- where, in this case, Amy Irving’s Gillian Bellaver finds herself being ostracised and bullied for possession of unsought psychic abilities that result in her accidently reading the intimate thoughts of fellow students or causing impromptu nose bleeds amongst them as a result of her uncontrolled ‘alpha rhythms’. After taking part in a school experiment run by the sympathetic Dr Ellen Lindstrom (Carol Eve Rossen), who is from a parapsychology study group known as The Paragon Institute, Gillian enthusiastically books her-self in for an extended stay at the Institute’s exclusive centre, hoping she will discover what is really happening to her there. The grand town house which is the Paragon Institute’s home base is full of friendly, sympathetic faces and overseen by portly, affable Dr Jim McKeever (Charles Durning). Here Gillian takes part in low-key experiments designed to test for ESP and PK using the traditional Rhine Card method, while making friends with other gifted participants on the programme, such as Carrie Snodgress’s Hester.
It all seems pleasant and harmless enough at first, but as Gillian’s powers begin to give her psychic flashes of traumatic events which have taken place at the Institute in the past, and which involve the detention and pacification of Peter’s son Robin, she is lead to feel a mounting paranoia, distrusting the intentions of some of the top people working at the centre as she forges more and more of a link with the missing boy. When the strength of Gillian’s gift comes to the attention of both Peter Sandza -- who wants her to help him search for Robin -- and Ben Childress, who, of course, wants her for his weapons programme -- she is plunged into a turmoil already partially predicted by her fleeting visions, becoming a pawn in the grudge match between two men driven by desperation and ruthlessness respectively.
“The Fury” was one of De Palma’s best-looking films at the time, and is one of his most technically accomplished still, often without drawing attention to the scale of the craft that was employed in its making. Elements of it, such as the indoor fairground sequence, in which Robin’s increasing derangement results in a terrifying accident caused by his petulant misuse of his gift (brought about as a result of the adolescent competitiveness and pent up sexual jealousies that are being deliberately cultivated in him by Childress’s experiments, in order to strengthen the boy’s effectiveness as a psychic weapon), deliver full on, balls-to-the-wall showstopper disaster set-pieces as impressive as anything that might be seen in a mainstream action flick today; John Williams’ lush score is a swooning sonic masterpiece of the art of the mainstream film underscoring; while cinematographer Richard H. Kline’s photography is a rich, colourful cocktail that captures that classic ‘70s movie look while incorporating De Palma’s taste for split dioptre camera lenses, deep focus compositions and split screen action. The horror element is also well-served in some innovative effects designed by “Exorcist” make-up maestro Dick Smith, and perfected under the supervision of the veteran William Tuttle to produce bloody vein-popping makeup work that foreshadows similar effects conceived by Smith for Cronenberg’s “Scanners”. A young Rick Baker also worked on the film’s more spectacular horror sequences, which involve dummies of the Fiona Lewis and John Cassavetes characters -- the latter of which is saved for the very final spectacular shot of the film.
When combined with De Palma’s distinctive, bravura instinct for striking camera placements and peripatetic movement in the form of extended dolly shots, etc., with virtuoso displays of hand-held camera work -- unusual for the time -- also being cleverly employed, such virtues, harnessed here by the exemplary editing of Paul Hirsch, result in some extraordinarily effective moments, most memorably in a key scene in which Gillian is helped to escape from the Institute by Hester, who has become Peter Sandza’s inside pair of eyes on the Paragon crowd’s activities: here we see a conventional thriller sequence turned into an artful, slow-motion ballet of suspense and delayed action, able to deliver its pay-off both in terms of spectacle and emotional content. Everything we need to know about what each of the characters involved is thinking and feeling – Gillian desperately running for freedom, Hester attempting to make the escape look ‘natural’ in pursuit, Peter waiting down the road to spirit Gillian away, and Childress’s agents monitoring activity at the Institute from outside the entrance – is made apparent to us in a split-second of action which is slowed down and stretched out to several minutes of painfully protracted suspense, elegantly scored with an achingly effective John Williams cue that encapsulates the main relationships for us without there being any need for exposition or explanation.
“The Fury” may well be host to a fairly absurd psychic espionage/kidnap plot that could be deemed an action-horror extravagance; but in the hands of De Palma in his prime its occasional lapses into silliness don’t seem to hinder its effectiveness. All the film's roles have obviously been cast in such a way as not to require too much expansion or fleshing out from the screenplay, and everyone involved plays to type, delivering what is needed of them without any difficulty at all. The frequent shifts in tone, far from upsetting the balance and flow of the film -- as has often been claimed -- now seem to function effectively to bring unpredictability and unusualness to otherwise well-honed and familiar formulas. There is no way one of Hitchcock’s man-on-the-run thrillers could ever have ended the way this one does, for instance!
Immaculately restored by James White from the original camera negative, Arrow Video have presented a superb HD rendering of one of Brian De Palma’s ‘70s masterpieces, giving us a deluxe Blu-ray edition which presents the film in a way that looks lusher and more vibrant than we’ve ever seen it before. The extras are fantastic too: first of all John Williams’ terrific score is presented as an isolated music track, and there are a trio of featurette interviews produced by Fiction Factory documentary-maker Robert Fisher that, taken together, provide a great deal of interesting background on the making of the film. “Blood on the Lens” sees cinematographer Richard H. Kline recalling his working relationship with De Palma on this their only film together; “Spinning Tales” features Fiona Lewis recalling how she came to play the thankless role of Robin’s supervisor and love interest Dr Charles; while filmmaker Sam Irvin looks back on his eight days serving as an intern and an extra on the set of “The Fury” and provides a detailed account of De Palma’s methods and of the atmosphere during the shooting of several of the more memorable sequences. Irvin was also employed by Cinefantastique magazine to keep a journal on the making of the film, so his recollections are particularly vivid. Also included is a theatrical trailer, a stills gallery and Sam Irvin’s enjoyable, quirky, 17 minute short “Double Negative”, which was edited for free using Brian De Palma’s own editing facilities.
Arrow’s exemplary package features a reversible sleeve and a collector’s booklet with writing by Chris Dumas, author of Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible. There’s a re-print of a contemporary interview with De Palma and a new interview with John Farris, who talks about the writing of the film and his unrealised planned collaboration with the director on a proposed adaptation of Alfred Bester’s “The Demolished Man”. “The Fury” emerges as an engaging, vibrant and inventive piece of SF action with some striking horror-related content, delivered by a visionary filmmaker working at the top of his game. It stands up well alongside the best of Brian De Palma’s filmography, and now looks ravishing thanks to the work of Arrow Video and its collaborators. Highly recommended.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing but the Night!