A wannabe blockbuster in its day, John Farris’s expansive novel – and the far more linear movie version he scripted for Brian De Palma – still works as a sui generis mixture of espionage, action and the paranormal. Gillian is a 14-year-old from New York with an almost unique gift – one she seems to share with Robin, a boy of exactly the same age she has been in sporadic telepathic contact since before birth. What does the government want with them?
I submit this review for Bev’s Vintage Silver Age Mystery Challenge; Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme over at Todd Mason’s Sweet Freedom blog; and Katie’s Book to Movie Challenge at Doing Dewey (for reviews, click here)
“The thing that killed was in the mind”
Told with a very large cast of characters, the convoluted plot takes quite a long time to come into focus. We begin with Gillian, the daughter of a very prominently family who seems to be going through more that the usual teenage growing pains. Slowly but surely, after several incidents in which friends and family spontaneously start to bleed, many around her conclude that she may have latent psychic abilities, emitting magnetic fields that she cannot control – yet. Various people start to become interested in her powers – some are merely curious, some are looking for what they think might be the next stage of human evolution – and some are very sinister indeed. None is weirder or more evil than the one-armed Childermass, a film buff who is surely one of the oddest-looking villains in thriller fiction:
“One grey eye was larger than the other, and his mouth was the size of a buttonhole. His backswept blondish hair looked as stiff as the crest of a furious kingfisher. Altogether it was a strange, disordered face, round and desolate as the moon.”
Childermass is the head of one of the more unusual alphabet soup US covert agencies, MORG (Multiphasic Operations Research Group), who want to turn Gillian into a weapon – and it’s not their first attempt, having first tried with Robin, the son of their top agent, Peter Sandza. They tried bumping the father off and failed and now he is out to get his son back. After a failed attempt with another psychic, he eventually tracks down Gillian, in the belief that she will be either able to locate Robin or will bring Childermass out in the open. He almost manages to get her when she collapses and is taken to hospital, but Dr Roth, the head of the Paragon Institute for psychical research (a MORG front) gets there first.
“Childermass found himself in possession of a unique natural resource. The Russians don’t have one. The Chinese don’t have one.
Will Peter survive multiple assassination attempts (including one from a particularly unlikely attack from a pair of old Hollywood hoofers now working for MORG)? Will Robin be able to break free? Will Gillian get control of her new abilities? Farris’ prose style is well above average for this kind of pulpy entertainment and there are several set-pieces (such as when Peter commanders two cops in their car) that are exciting and full of suspense – and yet the book is also full of phone baloney pseudoscience on astrology, reincarnation and astral projection, with some risible psychobabble thrown in for good measure. At one point the book stops dead for a couple of pages so that Peter’s desire to get his son back can be discussed at ridiculous length (“We are all creature of myth, shadowed by the archaic images of life and death”). This might all be interesting and worthwhile if it weren’t for the fact that ultimately, this is just a gussied up cold war thriller with an unusual wrinkle, the telekinetic element little more than a Hitchcockian McGuffin – it’s the thing that everybody is fighting over, but which, in and of itself, remains essentially interchangeable with a secret formula, a hard-drive with contact details of secret agents, etc. That does change a bit when we switch to see what has been happening to Robin all these years, as MORG have perverted the poor boy’s talents, leading to a depressing showdown in a safe-house where most of the cast of characters are betrayed and/or bumped off.
“They needed him so they just took him. It’s a frightening power these people have.”
A quarter of a century after the book first came out, Farris returned to the material and produced several increasingly extravagant sequels: The Fury and the Terror (2001), The Fury and the Power (2003) and Avenging Fury (2008) now forming a quartet that by its conclusion mapped out a fight against Satan and had certainly moved very far away from the comparatively restrained and constrained first volume. The movie version that Farris scripted is even further removed …
First off, the film jettisoned much of the more fanciful and fantastical material from the book (it is suggested in one paragraph that Robin and Gillian are eternal beings, endlessly reborn in various permutations), and also made the leads older, moving them later into their teens (Amy Irving was 24, Andrew Stevens 22). Farris ended up writing seven drafts of the script for Brian De Palma, who had just had a big hit with Carrie with which it does bare some comparison in its main character. However, Gillian is confused and traumatised, not tortured like Carrie, though like her at the end she finally lets her power really rip in any act of overt violence. The film is much simpler – we see Childermass (now renamed ‘Childres’ and played by everybody’s favourite on-screen villain, John Cassavettes) engineer a murder attempt against Peter to get his hands on Robin and then very quickly see Gillian taken to the Paragon Institute to study her abilities, where the main doctor, played by the great Charles Durning, is much more sympathetic than the equivalent Dr Roth from the book.
“Hester, look at me. I’m proof – proof that my son is alive or else why would Childress be so anxious to put me away?”
De Palma does a great job with two of the main scenes lifted more or less intact from the book – the car chase (now set at night and in the fog) and Gillian’s slow motion escape from the Institute, which is brilliantly shot and edited. It also expunged a long subplot about Peter getting brainwashed by forces within the government that wish to undermine Childermass’ plans. There is also a lot more humour in the film version, such as the long sequence in which Peter makes his escape across town (relocated to Chicago) in only his underwear, with a 60-something Kirk Douglas getting to show off his amazing physique. Having said that, after the success of Carrie De Palma probably felt he had to top himself, so there are some impressive prosthetics used to provide physical manifestations when Robin is using his powers, not to mention the excruciating sequence in which he dispatched the doctor who has been looking after him rather intimately. Together with Farris, the director topped the film with an outrageous, explosive finish that once seen is never forgotten (presumably not by David Cronenberg, who nicked it for Scanners). Equally, the powers of Gillian and Robin have been greatly enhanced for the movie (and now include levitation and being able to make people spontaneously combust) to make it more visually arresting and push it further into horror and away from cold war chases and thrills. On its own terms I think it works very well (though like the book, is very depressing in that post-Watergate disillusionment way) but looks and sounds fabulous, thanks to the fine cinematography of the great Richard H Kline (he also shot Body Heat and The Andromeda Strain) and a stunning, very Herrmannesque score by John Williams.
The Fury (1978)
Director: Brian De Palma
Producer: Frank Yablans
Screenplay: John Farris
Cinematography: Richard H. Kline
Art Direction: Bill Malley
Music: John Williams
Cast: Kirk Douglas, Amy Irving, John Cassavettes, Carrie Snodgress, Charles Durning, Fiona Lewis, Andrew Stevens, Dennis Franz
I submit this review for Bev’s 2014 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge Bingo in the ‘outside your comfort zone’ category:
Sergio – As ever, a fine discussion, fore which thanks. It sounds as though for my money, the film’s better than the book. I say that because I’m really not one for the psychic/paranormal thing. And the film seems to focus more on the other aspects of the story. And you have to know with de Palma the film’s slick, well-constructed and so on.
I saw the film first so was quite surprised when I realised the book was pretty much a conspiuracy thriller with paranormal trimmings – I dod think the films worls better, though it is also pretty gory so won’t be to everybody’s taste (and yes, Carrie is the better film anyway)
I saw the film when I was a teenager and saw “Scanner” more or less at the same time. With the eyes of a young boy I was more attracted by scanners (probably because of the scientific/genetic side and because I recognised P McGohan 🙂 ). And of course one of the first scene of Scanners when M. Ironside explode the head of the unfortunate psychic remained for a very long time. Funnily I believe the guy who met this end later played the hero of a tv serie where he was kind of a psychic, didn’t he?
As for Fury, I must say I was a little bit disappointed by the film. I was very surprised to see K. Douglas in such a film, the same way I was surprised to see Burton in a french/american film (?) together with L. Ventura where Burton was playing a kind of psychic able to down a plane simply by looking at it. It must have been a trend at that time.
I remember the poor teacher being dispatched in a over the top way (very naughty since she was rather gorgeous), but I also remember being put out by the last scene where the boy fell from the top of the roof since he had showed few minutes earlier that he could stand on air by his mind (sounds like a X men film… 🙂 ). I felt it was cheating.
Wasn’t the same man playing a “strange looking guy” followoing A. Irving in the street, and the role of the Fantom of the opera?
Thanks Robert – well, as you ask I shall answer, in reverse order (:) – yes, the psychcic Raymonde is played by the late, great William Finley, who co-starred in most of De Palma’s films in the 60s and 70s (and also reappeared in Black Dahlia). To have a character who can levitate fall to their death from a rooftop does seem more than a tad ironic and I have always interpreted that to mean it was a suicide. The Richard Burton film you are referring to is The Midas Touch, and all of these films came in the wake of the success of The Exorcist and The Omen, big budget Hollywood movies with big stars despite being the sort of subject usually reserved for the lower half of a double bill. Like you, I was mostly impressed by mcGoohan’s presence in Scanners beign a huge Prisoner fan.
Espionage and paranormal ? Both not my cup of tea. Hence not for me.
Fair enough chum, but so sorry to hear you don’t like espionage stories – not even those by le Carre, Deighton, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler? I love their books 🙂
As Margot say, a fine discussion. Both the book and the movie sound a little too weird for my tastes. However, I like a lot of the actors in the movie, so that might be OK.
Thanks TracyK – I suspect neither of these would be to your taste but I wanted to do somethign a bit different (I was doing some horror/gothic reading over Halloween and this is the overspill from that)
Fine write-up of the novel and its film adaptation, Sergio. Picked up the book almost right after seeing “The Fury” first-run in ’78. Interesting contrast between them.
Thanks Mike – I was surprised how different, and yet similar, the two are – some bits are almost word for word, others completely altered. I do prefer the film.
I also found it fascinating to see what felt like the artificial ballooning of the narrative in the book with all kinds of side issues and characters being added to get it to that Irving Wallace / Arthur Hailey style tome – I should add that I usually have little patience with that kind of book 🙂
Robert: The film that you are thinking of is THE MEDUSA TOUCH, which is actually a British film (although ITC, who produced it, probably asked for a major French actor so that they could more easily sell it in Europe).
Cronenberg quite vigorously defended the charge that he had ripped off the climax for SCANNERS. Although the Cronenberg script has its own share of problems, it is a slightly more coherent story than THE FURY, which feels as if both the writer and later the director just shoved in everything except the kitchen sink. It’s one of those movies where you remember the set-pieces rather than the actual story. Amy Irving was rather good, and it’s a shame that her career never really took off in the way that one might have expected.
Thanks Skywatcher – I actually quite like The Medusa Touch but have been having trouble tracking down a copy of the book. Well, in De Palma the setpieces tend to be the bits that stand out, no question, and there are several amazing moments here – Irving seemed to hit the ‘pause’ button during her mariage to Spielberg, so maybe that slowed thinsg down a bit? I love her in Crossing Delancey though she does seem to mainly get cast in rather emotionally muted roles.
I like De Palma, only a few of his movies leave me cold and this is one of them. I can never get fully interested in these psychic powers yarns and tend to find them a bit of a chore.
I know what you mean Colin and I am not really a horror fan so have always chosen to think of this as a spy movie 🙂 took me ages to get to like this one, I admit – the new Arrow Blu-ray certainly helps!
Fair enough. It’s a long time since I’ve seen the film but I recall the paranormal aspects seemed to override the other elements and I found myself not actively disliking it but pretty detached all the same.
I had exactly the same reaction the first time I saw it – over the years I have become a real De Palma enthusiast and have ended up liking this much more than at first – but I would not rate it as highly as say SISTERS, CARRIE, PHANTOM OF PARADISE, DRESSED TO KILL or BLOW OUT (arguably his masterpiece)
I’ll watch most anything by De Palma – not a fan of Phantom of the Paradise at all though – so I may try this one again at some point just to see if I feel any different about it these days.
Just ordered the Arrow Blu in fact but will cop to loving that movie …
A rare case where you haven’t tempted me to film or book – but great review as always, Sergio.
Not for everyone this, I quite understand 🙂
Have always had a fondness for this one. I think it’s mostly because of a good cast and great atmosphere.
Thanks Patti – some of it is a bit gross and OTT at times but I think it also stands up as one of the best-looking thrillers of the era along with The Omen
Sergio, I have not read the novel (hopefully, not for long now) but I might have seen the film. I have seen a few of De Palma’s directorial films and it’s hard not to like them, films like SCARFACE, BLOW OUT, THE UNTOUCHABLES, and even CASUALTIES OF WAR, all very intense. De Palma compares well with his contemporary Martin Scorsese in the kind of films they both make. I see certain similarities but that’s just my view.
I think you are absolutely right, Prashant – and certainly SHUTTER ISLAND could have been made by either!
Enjoyed your review, as always, Sergio. I love your book and movie duos. But I can’t get over Andrew Stevens. He’s the sort of actor that makes me want to shout, “MY EYES! MY EYES! Turn it off!!!” I don’t know why I have such an antipathy for him, but it is unshakable and immutable. There’s just something about him that is SO creepy. That’s my way of saying that he’s the probable reason I never saw THE FURY. But then, I don’t remember seeing many Brian DePalma films. I lead a relatively quiet life. 🙂
I found by chance that A. Stevens was the son of Stella Stevens. I didn’t know who she was until I saw her face and I immediately remembered her in the nutty professor film. She was so cute 🙂 . I always was a fan of Jerry Lewis (who, I learnt, was not so popular in America. Something strange to believe because he was so liked in France).
Well, he was a huge start in the 50s and early 60s but tastes change and the addition of a lot of sentimentality, together with his worthy but often lachrymose muscular dystrophy telethons have tended to change his popular perception in the US – he was amazing opposite De Niro in King of Comedy too!
he was a pretty good Columbo villain too! I know what you means – he always seems best when playing very insincere people …
But then he was lucky to play opposite Shannon tweed… 🙂 Was he paid to do this? 🙂
Quite! I think he was often the producer of some of these (or maybe it was later), though a lot of this appears to have been a bit on the ‘dodgy’ side … At the time of Fury he was married to Charlie’s Angels star Kate Jackson
I am with Moira for this one Sergio. Great review but the book and the movie are not for me.
I’m not surprised! This review is definitely mean as a Halloween departure – normal service will be resumed tomorrow 🙂
Come stai Sergio? E’ un po’ che non ti fai sentire. Devo dire anch’io. E’ cominciata la scuola, poi sto scrivendo molto sui miei blog soprattutto su Death Can Read e sul blog italiano, e per di più sto collaborando con John Pugmire per una certa cosa. Ieri è tuttavia uscito sul Blog Mondadori un altro mio contributo su Berkeley, che sta piacendo parecchio. Martin Edward (che sta per pubblicare un saggio critico sulla letteratura inglese della Golden Age) mi ha appena detto che scriverà qualcosa e mi piacerebbe che tu lo leggessi e ti esprimessi.
Ciao Piero, be mi sa che sei stato molto occupato! Tra poco ci passo al sito. Ciao, Sergio
I saw this picture for the first time at Water Tower Place in Chicago.
That’s one of the places where Kirk Douglas and Carrie Snodgress have one of their “secret meetings”.
Not more than 100 feet or so from where we were watching the movie – imagine that feeling.
In the 40-some years since The Fury was made, many of the Chicago locations have either vanished or been “repurposed” (Water Tower Place’s movieplex is now gone, for one).
Actually, my favorite scene in the whole movie is when Douglas carjacks the two off-duty cops in their new car, and forces them to drive it into the water.
The carjack takes place on Van Buren Street in the Loop, at that time one of the most disreputable areas in town. In the 40 years since, the whole block has been cleaned up with a vengeance – the flophouses and porn shops are all gone, and new business buildings are there instead.
Oh, by the way –
– did you recognize the cop who was driving?
That was the young (or at least younger) Dennis Franz, in one of his first movies
Thank you Mike – I agree, the scene with Franz is a real favourite – along with Gillian’s escape it’s the highlight! Have you seen this video that compares the locations then and now?
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