Mike Sutton has reviewed the Region 1 release of Brian De Palma’s flawed but compelling The Fury. Good film, shame about the Fox DVD.
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, unbelievable characters and an 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 thought 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.
This is closely based on the original novel by John Farris and De Palma can’t do anything to hide the fact that the plot is weak and far too familiar to be very effective. The chase element gives it a certain momentum but the sheer predictability of the narrative makes this weaker than De Palma’s very best work. De Palma must take the blame here – surely, if nothing else – SPOILER ALERT – 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, 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, this is the work of an artist who has begun to trademark his own cinematic vision. That sounds horribly pretentious, but De Palma is one of a handful of mainstream 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 that it makes bigger action set-pieces from other directors’ films look decidedly anorexic – and the key is that most of the impact is emotional rather than visceral. Topping this sequence proves impossible in this film, so De Palma decides to go for disgust rather than suspense. Although the scene where one of Robin’s tormentors 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 earlier climax. Another problem is that the resolution of the Peter/Robin story is simply thrown away in a very unsatisfying way.
OK YOU CAN LOOK NOW !!
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 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. Paul Hirsch’s editing is as slick as you would expect, especially in the final scene which must have been a nightmare to cut. The other magician 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).
De Palma is also lucky with most of his cast. Andrew Stevens is excellent here; he’s usually been 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 one of the two or three decent performances of her career. 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 one 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. 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. It’s not quite 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 Carrie is entirely 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.
Fox’s DVD of this film is disappointing in every respect. It wouldn’t matter so much that there are no extras if the transfer had been good, but that isn’t the case. Fox can do a hell of a lot better than this when they decide to bother and it looks as if the release has been rushed out to cash in on the excellent MGM Special Editions of Carrie and Dressed To Kill.
The film is presented in Anamorphic 1.85:1. That’s the only really good news. I haven’t seen this film in the correct ratio before and it’s interesting to see how effectively De Palma uses the whole frame even in 1.85:1, just as he does in 2.35:1. Otherwise, the transfer is mediocre at best. There is an awful lot of grain and print damage on display, obviously because of the source print used for the transfer. Add some serious artifacting in the darker exterior scenes and some distracting softness throughout – although the film was shot in soft-focus to some extent, it should still be sharper than this – and you have a disappointment. The colours, an essential part of this experience, are slightly more pleasing and they become nicely rich towards the end during the lengthy bloodletting scenes.
The English soundtracks are in Dolby 4.0 Surround and Dolby Surround. To be honest, the difference between the two tracks here is so minimal that I don’t know why they bothered with a remix at all. Although the surrounds are used occasionally, most of the sound is split between the two front channels. Dialogue is monophonic throughout. The original film was recorded in Mono and the main beneficiary of the remix, as so often, is the music score which is dynamically rich and full.
The two extra features are the original trailer and a fairly thorough stills gallery. The real surprise is the truly horrible UK poster which I didn’t remember. We also get trailers for The Fly 86, The Fly 58, Lake Placid, Alien and The Omen. There are 20 chapter stops. The lack of significant supplements is very disappointing – surely there is more to say about this film than about Obsession ?
This is a flawed but fascinating film which tends to delight and infuriate in equal measure. I certainly recommend it to fans of SF/Horror but it’s not one of De Palma’s more consistent works. The DVD is disappointing however and it might be wise to see if it gets a technically superior R2 release.
It’s the end, but the moment has been prepared for…
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum