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: