The Fury

Brian De Palma's films have always contained a tension between form and content and nowhere is this more true than The Fury. He takes a nonsensical story and an often unspeakable script and turns it into a phantasmagoria which is utterly compelling even when you're aware that you're watching a derivative pulp horror flick.

The plot is a sort of super-science SF movie crossed with Gothic horror touches and a seventies conspiracy movie - and it is as messy as that description suggests. Kirk Douglas, in late career action-man mould, plays Peter Sanza, an ex-government agent whose son Robin (Stevens) has extraordinary powers. Robin can move objects at will, cause himself and others to levitate and, in particularly extreme cases, force all the blood to pour out of his victims' bodies. Naturally, the government is keen to research further into Robin's powers and they assign Peter's old friend and colleague Childress (Cassavetes) to kidnap the boy and eliminate his father. Peter escapes but sees his son being taken and is determined to get him back by any means necessary. In one of those coincidences which so enrage De Palma's detractors, Sanza discovers that there is a girl, Gillian (Irving), with the same powers as his son so he attempts to find her and enlist her help in his search. But his enemies have had the same idea, and matters are complicated when Gillian is placed in the Paragon Institute, a private clinic for the care of "unusual" children, as her developing awareness of her gift begins to cause problems. Nor does it help that Robin, stimulated by drugs and the sexual attentions of a private doctor, begins to lose his mind under the strain and becomes dangerously unstable.

The script by John Farris is closely based on his original novel and De Palma can't do anything to hide the fact that the plot is derivative and predictable. The chase element gives it a certain momentum but the sheer familiarity of the narrative makes this weaker than De Palma's very best work. De Palma must take the blame here - surely, if nothing else he must have seen the idiocy of having a character who can levitate dying in a fall. In his greatest films, such as Dressed To Kill and Blow Out, plot and character feed into the style to create a dramatic unity, but here the form is so much more sophisticated than the content that there is an obvious breach.

And yet... what style ! De Palma dazzles us from the opening machine gun attack on Sanza and his son right through to the extraordinary ending (borrowed from Antonioni's Zabriskie Point but with a typical blackly comic twist). Shot after shot is inventive and witty so that you're entertained even when the plot is falling apart in front of you. From the whirling dervish camerawork - particularly good in the early test of Gillian's powers at school when a flash-forward is intercut to shocking effect - to the showy tracking shots and the daring process work, this is the work of an artist who has begun to trademark his own cinematic vision - De Palma is one of a handful of modern American directors whose films are immediately recognisable from a couple of shots. At his best, he is one of the greats. Take as an example the scene where Gillian and Hester (Snodgrass), Sanza's girlfriend, attempt an escape from the Institute. De Palma doesn't simply use slow motion to heighten the suspense, he uses slightly different speeds so each character seems to be existing in their own time-frame. We have the two women running, both with their own agendas, the hit men waiting, Peter Sanza wanting to capture Gillian, the government agents waiting in the car... This means that when the disaster comes it's both shocking and darkly ironic; note how Hester looks at her most joyously happy just as she is catapulted over the bonnet of a car. So much is packed into this scene and the key is that most of the impact is emotional rather than visceral, all the more so for it being largely backed by the score alone rather than sound effects.

Topping this sequence for sheer suspense proves impossible in this film, so De Palma decides to go for the gross-out. Although the scene where one of Robin's captors – a not unsympathetic female character - is killed by being whirled around in mid-air while he blood flies out of her is effectively nasty, it's too obviously a concession to blood and gore. The final scene, with one of the greatest screen exits for any villain, is a marvellous capper to the story but it's not emotionally affecting in the manner of the shock ending to Carrie. Another problem is that the resolution of the Peter/Robin story is simply thrown away in a very unsatisfying way with both of them reduced to the sidelines.

Although the style of the film is very much a product of De Palma's strange brilliance, he is collaborating here with some technical wizards. Richard H.Kline's cinematography is very different to the lush soft-focus of Mario Tosi's work on Carrie or Ralf Bode's on Dressed To Kill. Although it's still soft-focus, there's a dark elegance to the lighting which comes into its own in the horrific scenes which are, to quote Pauline Kael on the film, like "nightshade in bloom"; beautifully rich and voluptuously sensual. He also makes the most of some quirky touches, notably the car chase in the fog with the interplay of headlights and fog. Paul Hirsch's editing is as slick as you would expect, especially in the final scene which must have been a nightmare to cut. Then there is John Williams, who provides one of his best scores, all suppressed danger followed by orchestral fireworks (it does sound rather like another of his great seventies scores, the Gothic variations on a theme for John Badham's Dracula). Finally, one should mention the make-up of William Tuttle and Rick Baker and the breathtaking pyrotechnic effects of A. D. Flowers.

De Palma is also lucky with most of his cast. Andrew Stevens is excellent here; he's usually a bland actor but the chance to be a total bastard seems to have inspired him more than normal. Amy Irving has an appealing freshness and Carrie Snodgrass gives a lovely, sympathetic performance. Kirk Douglas isn't quite so convincing. He tries very hard but he is too much of a straight-arrow for the leading role and he brings in too many echoes of his earlier roles. He also has the irritating tendency to shout his lines which wouldn't be so bad if the dialogue was a bit more convincing. The really good moments in his performance are his disguise as an old man and his off-beat converation with Mother Knuckles in the apartment when he breaks in to steal some clothes. Although there is good work from Charles Durning and Fiona Lewis, the best performance comes from John Cassavetes as the villain. He reportedly despised the film - understandably since it's about as far from his metier as a film maker as you can get - but he comes through with a gloriously hissable villainous turn which is certainly on a par with his slimy Guy Woodhouse in Rosemary's Baby but it is close. De Palma fans will enjoy spotting regular cast members Dennis Franz and William Finlay.

This is one of De Palma's few outright horror films and, as such, is an interesting point in his career. He is not showing the skill with narrative that he demonstrated in his earlier films, notably the superb Sisters and the careful characterisation of Obsession and Carrie is largely absent. But he has greatly developed his visual skills and the poised elegance of the shots and shaping of the scenes are staggeringly good. When he lets the evil flood out onto the screen, the sheer kinetic excitement is overwhelming. It's easy to see how this is a step on the way to the all round brilliance of Dressed To Kill and as such, it's required viewing for fans.

The Disc

I’m treading into dangerous waters here but I will do my best to avoid the deep end. The Fury was released earlier this year by the American company Twilight Time in a version which used an off-the-shelf master and offered exceptional detail and good colour, but an awful lot of obtrusive noise and some minor damage. It had the benefit of an isolated score track and a trailer but no other extras and considering the $29.99 price tag I considered it something of a missed opportunity. Arrow have grasped the nettle and brought us a version of the film which is considerably superior on a Blu-Ray which adds considerable value through entertaining extra features and an interesting booklet.

The transfer of the film is, quite simply, a triumph. It’s a full restoration from the original camera negative supervised by James White, while the Blu-Ray is authored by David Mackenzie – technical wizards both, with a passion for cinema and a reliable gut feeling for how a film should look. The result is quite beautiful and an improvement in all areas on the previous Blu-Ray release. Colours are rich and full, especially the all-important blood reds, and the detail is breathtaking. If you simply look at the opening scene then you can see the water droplets on the Sanzas’ skin, the texture of the fabric of the blue tablecloth and even, god help us, the fine hairs on Kirk Douglas’ legs. Things that I never really registered before suddenly leap out – the awful wallpaper in Amy Irving’s bedroom for example. There’s still a lot of grain in places but that’s characteristic of every version of the film that I’ve ever seen and the occasional darkness of the image is, again, integral to the original photography. Indeed, the car-chase in the dark is a revelation here, although the high level of detail does tend to make the process work stand out. Fans of the film will be pleased to know that those great set-pieces look even better in this transfer, particularly the splendidly baroque climax where the constituent parts of the exploding body are much more clearly defined than before.

The soundtrack is just as good. We get a choice of a DTS-HD MA 4.0 track or a lossless 2.0 stereo track. I liked the LPCM track best as it’s a pretty accurate representation of the original and sounds like a dream with a pleasing range and some powerful moments. The 4.0 track does, to be fair, open things up a bit more, particularly during the big set-pieces . The dialogue is eminently clear and natural in both versions. A particular joy is the isolated score LPCM track which I have listened to on a number of occasions – it’s one of John Williams’ most inventive scores and it comes up sounding as good as new.

There are plenty of extras on the disc, most of them provided by Robert Fischer’s Fiction Factory. The most substantial is The Fury: A Location Journal, a fifty minute piece with Sam Irvin who worked as an intern on the film and wrote an account of the making for Cinefantastique magazine. He admits to having only recently seen the film again and is remarkably pleased with how well it holds up. His memory of the shooting is excellent and he has a lot of interesting anecdotes about meeting with De Palma and John Cassavetes – noting that the latter may have disliked making the film but that he gave his all to it once he signed the contract and made some significant contributions to the development of the character. I also liked his description of how Kirk Douglas would be in his trailer between scenes, doing push-ups. He also discusses the changes from the script to the finished film.

There are two other new interviews on the disc. The first is with Fiona Lewis, entitled Spinning Tales. During this 14 minute chat she discusses her work on the film and her feelings about working with de Palma and some of her other directors including Roman Polanski. The second, Blood on the Lens, is a piece featuring DP Richard H. Kline whose work also includes Body Heat, The Boston Strangler and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. He has a lot to say about the way the film was shot and discusses the scenes which combine location and stage shooting. He considers the film to be his best work and I think he’s probably right. Although pretty old now – his career goes back to Columbia B-movies in the early 1940s – he is very eloquent and has a good memory. It’s a delight to listen to his instructive and entertaining reminiscences.

Particularly interesting is the inclusion of Sam Irvin’s short film Double Negative which he made with some actors familiar from De Palma’s work including the great William Finlay and co-operation from the great man himself. It was shown in the USA alongside After Hours and gained considerable critical plaudits. It’s intended as, in Irvin’s words, a “valentine to Brian De Palma who gave me my start in the business” and is very entertaining with many nods to De Palma’s work and some clever bits of technique.

Finally, along with the trailer and a good gallery of behind the scenes shots, we get some archive interviews from the original promotional tour which feature Brian De Palma, Carrie Snodgrass, Amy Irving, and producer Frank Yablans. These are rare and fascinating enough to survive some rather poor sound recording – not the responsibility of the Blu-Ray producers I hasten to add.

Completing the package is an excellent booklet which contains a detailed essay from Chris Dumas – whose recent book on De Palma is a must-read for fans – and an interview with writer John Farris. There’s also an archive interview with the director and an introduction to Sam Irvin’s short film.

This is one of the best releases of 2013 and a Blu-Ray that should be in everyone's collection. Very highly recommended indeed.

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