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In the late '70s Pauline Kael inexplicably championed every show directed by Brian De Palma, a phenomenal student talent with a spotty record in big budget work. De Palma did well with Obsession and especially Carrie, which made a bundle and helped kick-start a new generation of teen horror flicks. The payoff picture in that vein was John Carpenter's Halloween: it was cheap and pulled in a pile of dough for its wildcat producer Irwin Yablans. Irwin's brother Frank was an established studio executive. He produced De Palma's The Fury, a thriller that repeats the psychic-powers theme of Carrie in a spy movie format.
The Fury has its adherents yet can only be described as a poorly structured disappointment. Author John Farris adapted his own novel, but half of its episodes are chase scenes and other spy nonsense that delay the development of the main theme. Handsomely produced, the movie is just catching up with its own subject when it rushes to an unsatisfying ending. But it does deliver its promised horror content via a couple of extravagantly gory scenes.
At an Israeli beach resort, proud father Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) is caught in a terrorist attack in front of his son Robin (Andrew Stevens), a talented psychic about to go into special training with the secret government specialist Ben Childress (John Cassavetes). In reality, the bogus attack was organized to get Peter out of the way; Childress wants no interference with his plan to turn Robin and other newly discovered psychics into espionage weapons. But Peter survives the ambush. He evades Ben's agents and assassins in an search for Robin that takes years. Meanwhile, another super-talented psychic teenager has been found, private school student Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving). To develop her skill, she's installed in the special school-clinic of Dr. Jim McKeever (Charles Durning). Robin "graduated" from the school earlier, and the new girl establishes a long-range psychic connection with him. Gillian's teacher-clinician Hester (Carrie Snodgress) becomes Peter's insider agent, and decides to help Gillian run away. But Ben Childress is not far behind. Gillian helps Peter locate Robin, only to find that the boy has become Ben's secret weapon. His handler and lover is Dr. Susan Charles (Fiona Lewis). Having molded Robin's new personality, Ben directs the young man to destroy his own father.
When Gillian and Robin lose control of their tempers, they can move objects and cause people to have violent nosebleeds. It takes about a half-hour of so-so spy film action to pass before we get to a scene where young Gillian discovers she has extraordinary mental powers. Robin remains off screen for practically the entire picture, to finally emerge as an unbalanced killing machine. About the only sci-fi idea established is that a lot of phenomena previously chalked up to superstition can be confirmed to have a scientific basis. The rest of the time The Fury is a vanity vehicle for Kirk Douglas. He leaps between tenements in his underwear to evade John Cassavetes' determined assassins (yawn) and hijacks a pair of cops to do the same with some car vs. car action. Douglas kills or causes to be killed several of these generic government agents, tilting the movie into lowest-common-denominator spy hokum. We also have little reason to even like Douglas's character. To rescue his son, Peter Sandza cruelly seduces the emotionally vulnerable Hester.
Most of the film's action is unpleasant. Even though the terror raid on an Israeli beach is a fake, the equation boils down to Arabs = villains. Later on, Robin takes his psychotic-psychic revenge on a group of innocent Arabs enjoying an amusement park ride, mentally sabotaging the ride mechanism until it flies to pieces. De Palma's main vice in big features was always wholesale borrowing from Alfred Hitchcock; this set piece is a feeble replay of the Carousel disaster at the finish to Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. Other violent scenes are present simply to kill off characters that have served their purpose. Poor Carrie Snodgress, the best actor in the movie, is disposed of in a cheap shoot-out on the street. Gorgeous Fiona Lewis is barely established as Robin's sexual "caretaker" for the insidious Ben Childress before she falls victim to a showy but unimpressive psychic slaughter: Robin levitates her above his head and spins her so fast that her blood washes the walls.
The idea of a new generation of super-psychics is tossed off with facile scenes of students performing feats of mental telepathy and mindreading, tricks like those parodied in Ghostbusters a full six years later. In one visually arresting scene Gillian's brainwaves power an electric train. The scene is essentially idiotic: the real miracle ought to be the device invented by McKeever's researchers to turn brainwaves into electricity. The rest of the special effects scenes show Gillian striking back when she's afraid, and Robin lashing out to express his hatred. In the rush to kill off most of the cast in gory confrontations, nothing is resolved. Charles Durning's character just disappears. The father-son reunion is a botch. We never even find out what Ben Childress thinks he's going to do with Robin, who is now so screwed up that he's a dangerous liability useless as a super-psychic secret agent. It would be left to writer-director David Cronenberg to construct intelligent thrillers about people with psychic powers.
De Palma's direction keeps things hopping as he cuts between Papa Peter's violent search and Gillian's experience at the special clinic. Most of the acting is fine considering the low demands of the material; as a graduate of Carrie, Amy Irving is suitably traumatized while receiving visions she cannot understand. Kirk Douglas unfortunately contributes a showy, "I'm still Spartacus" performance. John Cassavetes must have needed some quick cash for one of his own features, yet he dominates every scene. We never know what the professionally sinister Childress is really up to, but he commands the equivalent of his own C.I.A. hit squad to make it happen. Through most of the film Ben wears one black-gloved hand in a sling, looking like a modern Rotwang. The only disappointment is Andrew Stevens, the son of actress Stella Stevens, who generates next to no audience interest or sympathy. Stevens would go on to produce and star in dozens of direct-to-video movies dubbed with the new name "Erotic Thrillers".
De Palma fans will be amused to see William Finley in a tiny role, and brief appearances by Dennis Franz, Gordon Jump and Daryl Hannah.
The pre-CG physical special effects are well done. A.D. Flowers hides cables and wires as he hangs characters up in the air, to be spun like tops or made to explode like Mexican piñatas. As in the more impactful Carrie De Palma uses old-school cutaways and various camera angle dodges to make these scenes work.
The Fury marked De Palma's last flirtation with fantastic subject matter. He turned to upscale Erotic Thrillers of his own for a few years, and then really hit it big in 1983 with his remake of Scarface.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of The Fury looks great in HD; Richard Kline's cinematography is slick and colorful and the film elements are in excellent shape. The movie's dedicated fan base will be very happy with the quality of TT's presentation.
The film has an active, carefully synchronized music score by John Williams. It may be this release's biggest drawing card -- Twilight Time actively pursues titles with notable music to showcase in their Isolated Score Tracks. An original trailer is provided as well.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes examine The Fury's critical reception. I was shocked to learn that Pauline Kael compared the picture to Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. I have to say that except for Sisters and Obsession I have never perceived anything special or "bravura" in any of De Palma's celebrated set pieces. Most of his post-70s work plays for me as unimaginative commercial exploitation. But I'm still impressed by De Palma's brain-warping student-era work, like the manically complex, playful Murder à la Mod.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Fury Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.