OLD-SCHOOL TECHNOPHOBIA FROM WARNER ARCHIVES: Yes, we used to think computers were going to rape us…
By Don Stradley
Donald Cammell made such a name for himself as a painter during London’s “swingin’ 60s” era that he found himself drafted into the world of filmmaking. After co-directing Performance (1970) with Nicholas Roeg, Cammell spent several years away from the movie business, only to come back in 1977 with Demon Seed, a curiosity now available on the Warner Archives streaming service. Cammell, a Scottish-born painter known for ‘society portraits,’ and his friendship with The Rolling Stones, probably saw the story of a computer that impregnates a woman as a chance to experiment with some Kubrick style 2001 visuals; he succeeded to some degree, but where he flourished was in creating a totally monstrous atmosphere, where your home surveillance camera seems to be checking out your every movement, especially if you’re a scantily clad Julie Christie
Christie plays Susan Harris, the psychiatrist wife of Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver). Alex is the chief designer of Proteus IV, an artificial intelligence system that contains all the knowledge of the world and can even think for itself. It also happens to be in love with Susan, and wants her help in creating a kind of computer baby. When Susan and Alex hit a rough patch in their marriage and separate, Proteus IV sees that his chance has finally arrived. I guess even super computers won’t hit on a married woman unless things seem cool.
With the aid of a wheelchair equipped with an electric arm, and the all-seeing electronic eyes that survey the Harris home, Proteus IV goes about shutting the house down, and cutting Susan off from the outside world. Then Proteus IV takes some of Susan's cells and genetically alters them as synthetic spermatozoa in order to impregnate her; she will give birth in less than a month. He also prepares an incubator, and creates a kind of metal tetrahedron that not only becomes the physical manifestation of Proteus IV, but is one of the most sinister brutes in the history of movies. You know it’s dangerous even before it decapitates one of Susan’s friends.
The movie wasn’t particularly well-received in 1977. Vincent Canby of The NY Times glibly dismissed it as “gadget-happy American moviemaking at its most ponderously silly.” Maybe, but at its core, Demon Seed is a traditional ‘woman in peril’ scenario, and feels like a distant, slightly goofy cousin of films like Rosemary’s Baby and Wait Until Dark. Audiences may have had a hard time taking it seriously in 1977, and I don’t entirely blame them, but I liked it. There’s a weirdness to it that is hard to shake off.
The screenplay by Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson (based on a novel by Dean Koontz) lumbers with heavy feet towards a rather creepy climax – yes, the computer baby is born – but there are moments that are almost touching, such as when Proteus IV tries to impress Susan by sharing what he has seen of the universe, or when Proteus IV tells Susan that he is “interested” in her. Christie isn’t much of a match for Proteus IV – she tries to reason with it but their arguments aren’t especially compelling - and her quick capitulation drains the movie of some drama. Some pointed to the movie’s failure as resting on Christie’s shoulders, such as a Washington Post critic who wrote, “One tends to associate Christie with girls who'll try anything once, so she seems ill-equipped to arouse pity and terror by pretending to spawn a metallic-looking Uberkind at the urging of a presumptuous machine…”
Ouch. See what happens when you date Warren Beatty? But if the movie failed to connect on a big scale, it has less to do with Christie than the fact that its characters were too thinly drawn, a failing that also affected The Terminal Man (1974), another melodrama where technology runs amok.
Michael Crichton had originally been chosen to write and direct The Terminal Man based on his novel of the same name, but was allegedly fired when his screenplay veered too far away from the novel. Enter: British director Mike Hodges, who took Crichton’s taut little thriller and stretched it like a flabby rubber band into a 107 minute dirge. Lest you think I’m one of those children of the internet who can’t sit still for a slowly developing movie, even the New York Times' critic reviewing it in 1974 wrote that The Terminal Man “moves as slowly as a glacier.”
The film follows the tragic story of Harry Benson (George Segal), a violent epileptic who undergoes a kind of ‘psychosurgery’ that involves implanting wires in his brain meant to curb his violent tendencies. Instead, the process overloads his brain and send him spiraling into a constant inner turmoil; he’s either attacking people, or walking around in a groggy stupor, trying to recover from his last blackout. It’s an updated, sterile retelling of the Frankenstein saga, nearly ruined by flat, stereotypical characters: the police are dumb; scientists are cold-hearted; nurses are simpletons; and everyone fears that technology is another word for “mind control.”
Joan Hackett is cast a psychiatrist who tries to help Benson, but her role is considerably slimmed down from Crichton’s novel, where it was already one dimensional to begin with. Crichton was a good plotter, and he had a way of writing about science that was easily digestible for us civilians, but his characters were usually stick figures. Hodges, who adapted the novel, is no better at bringing the characters to life, and his cheeky touches don’t help. And if Crichton was in hot water over his changes to the novel, what about Hodges? His reworking of the novel’s climax is heavy-handed, and his ending, where an anonymous eye peers into the audience and a voice warns that we are next, is absolutely juvenile.
Segal’s twitchy, eye-rolling performance took some abuse from critics when the film was released, but I like what he did. He’s the most watchable thing in the movie. How would you act if your brain was full of wires, and you kept receiving jolts to modify your behavior? Probably a lot like Segal does here. I also loved the macabre and unexpected way Segal killed his girlfriend during one of his seizures. True, it borrowed a bit from the shower scene in Psycho, but it was elegant and frightening. There’s also an excellent scene where a very young and unknown Jill Clayburgh, cast as the woman who helps Benson break out of the hospital after his surgery, sits in a hotel watching the old sci-fi classic Them! while a freshly bandaged Benson lies on a bed having a fit. It’s a nice touch – old sci-fi meets new. If only Hodges had been less stingy with these flourishes and spared us the interminable medical scenes. He, too, probably thought he was giving us a Kubrickian film, A Clockwork Orange perhaps, or even 2001, but much of it feels like a dull episode of ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’.
Demon Seed and The Terminal Man are both available on the Warner Bros Archive streaming service.