31 (More) Days of Fright: The Fury

Early version of the “meet-the-contestant” segment on Jeopardy.

This January, in support of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre / Multicultural Women Against Rape, friends and family have raised over $1,500 (which, when matched by my employer, totals $3,000). As a result, I now have to watch and write about thirty-one horror movies: one each night. Any donors who contributed over $30 were given the option to choose one of the horror movies I must subject myself to. After each viewing, I will write some things about said movies on this website. Be forewarned that all such write-ups will contain spoilers, and many of them will refer to unpleasant and potentially triggering situations. Today’s film is the post-Carrie / pre-Scanners telekinetic fright fest, The Fury, directed by Brian DePalma (Carrie, Scarface, Phantom of the Paradise). I watched The Fury via the magic of YouTube.

What happens:

Trigger warnings: violence against women, inappropriate sexual relationships.

We open our story in the very specific “Mid East” in 1977. Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas) and his teenaged son, Robin (Andrew Stevens), engage in a swimming contest and wrestle on the beach. Peter’s friend and co-worker at an unnamed government agency, Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) greets them on the shore, but is summoned away by an important phone call. Dad and son sit at a table at the beachside resort’s patio and discuss what it will be like to move back to Chicago. They’ve been away from the U.S.A. so long, Peter imparts some cultural wisdom that his son may have forgotten: “Football is more popular [than soccer] in the States.” They are moving to Chicago to bring Robin to a special school that Childress works with that can help Robin with his uncanny abilities. (Essentially, a Midwest version of Xavier’s School for Gifted Children.)

Childress returns to the table and chats with Peter while Robin goes to the washroom. As soon as Childress leaves the table, a sniper opens fire on the restaurant, killing Peter’s server and several other bystanders. Childress protects Robin under a doorframe, where they’re safe from the sniper’s machine gun fire. The military shows up in rafts and retaliate against the apparent terrorists. Peter, being a trained government agent, picks up a discarded machine gun from a fallen soldier and gets into the thick of it. But he boards a raft and the terrorists open fire on it. Robin screams as the raft explodes in a fire ball. Childress, with the help of another government agent, gets Robin Sandza into a car that safely speeds away.

“Son, have I talked to you yet about the importance of good travel insurance?”

Moments later, Childress meets with the “terrorists” and debriefs them – it was all a set up to kill Peter and get control of Robin! Peter, however, is not dead. He swims to the surface, realizes the double-cross, and fires his machine gun at Childress, wounding his arm before running away.

Cut to Chicago (much more specific), one year later. Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) walks along Lake Michigan with her high school pal LaRue (Melody Thomas Scott) and throngs of sun lovers. LaRue quizzes Gillian on United Nations history just as Gillian begins to hear the name “Raymond Dunwoodie” in her head. That’s because the tall, sweaty man following them is, in fact, Raymond Dunwoodie (William Finley). He’s on the lookout for psychics. Dunwoodie is spotted by the teenage girls and runs away to a pay phone, where he calls Peter Sandza (in hiding) to say he’s found someone who could help contact or find his missing son. However, if he brings this girl to Peter, it’s going to cost him: $1,000. Neither man realizes that their phone conversation is being listened to by a secret government agency overseen by Childress.

Government agents immediately swarm the hotel where Peter is staying and harass the staff into giving him up. Peter must flee his room with only a revolver and his boxers. He leaps, cat-like, from the hotel to the L-Train tracks, then into a neighbouring apartment. He enters the apartment of the Knucklells family though the window and holds them hostage, demanding clothes.

Across town in a private high school, Gillian’s class is learning about extra-sensory perception from a representative of the Paragon Institute, Dr. Ellen Lindstrom (Carol Eve Rossen). Lindstrom demonstrates on Paragon Institute nurse, Hester (Carrie Snodgress), how a brain’s alpha waves can move an electric train via bio-feedback. Lindstrom asks for a volunteer from the class and Gillian raises her hand. When they hook the brainwave machine up to Gillian, the train zips around the track at lightning speed. Gillian begins to see a haunting vision of a bloody face, frozen in horror. She screams and the train derails.

Think Mean Girls meets X-Men. (And check out Daryl Hannah on the left!)

Back at the apartment of the Knuckells, Peter has befriended the old matriarch, Mother Knuckells (Eleanor Merriam), who helps him tie up her daughter and son-in-law. Peter dyes his hair with shoe polish, puts a cushion into his pants to give himself a gut, and makes use of glasses and a cane to complete the disguise. Back at the school cafeteria, some of the girls – led by head tormentor, Cheryl (Hilarie Thompson), taunt Gillian about her new abilities as if she were Carrie White. Cheryl needles Gillian to read her mind over and over. Gillian eventually spits back, “you don’t want everyone to know you’re pregnant.” Outraged, Cheryl grabs Gillian by the wrist, but that causes the two to become psychically linked. Cheryl begins to bleed profusely from her nose until Gillian releases her grip.

The incognito Peter bids adieu to Mother Knuckells and heads out onto the busy Chicago street. But the G-men have the street covered; everywhere Peter looks he sees men speaking into walkie-talkies. The disguised Peter spots two Chicago cops in a civilian vehicle. He hops into the front seat and holds his gun to the passenger’s side, hijacking the car. With police officers Bob Eggleston (Dennis Franz) and Marty O’Brien (Michael O’Dwyer) as his forced allies, Peter embarks on a very slow and deadly boring car chase.

Mother Knuckells & Me: coming soon to an off-Broadway theatre.

During this interminable antithesis to The French Connection, Peter tells the two police about his son; the driver of the car, Marty, refers several times to how brand-new his car is and how loath he is to see it in any way damaged; they lose the government agents in some fog at a construction site; and the agents end up being their own undoing, shooting each other or driving off a ledge and exploding into a Speed Racer-esque fireball. Peter then forces the cops out of the car, disarms them, and drives Marty’s beautiful new car into the Lake.

Gillian’s wealthy mother, Katharine (Joyce Easton), returns from a work trip and hears about the strange things that have recently happened to Gillian. Katharine thinks Gillian should see a psychiatrist, but Gillian wants to speak to Dr. Lindstrom at the Paragon Institute. Hester, a Paragon nurse, receives a late-night obscene phone call from a pervert. But it turns out it’s just Peter, speaking in code. Hester, Peter’s inside woman at Paragon, picks Peter up in her Shaggin’ Wagon and tells him what she’s learned about Robin from their files: Robin is officially dead. Peter, however, thinks it’s a cover-up. If Robin were dead, why would everyone be trying to kill him? Peter and Hester have some hot van sex (off-screen) to establish their relationship is something more than professional.

Gillian Bellaver visits the Paragon Institute with her mother, where they’re given a tour by Dr. Lindstrom and the head of the program, Dr. Jim McKeever (Charles Durning). He shows them the tests they conduct – largely involving Zener cards – and the very hospitable surroundings: the “Institute” is essentially a mansion. Katharine has to leave town for a few days, so she agrees to have her daughter stay overnight as a test run. The first few days are swell, with Katharine acing various ESP tests, playing primitive video games, and having pizza parties with her fellow students.

However, when Gillian and Dr. McKeever climb the stairs, she slips and McKeever grabs onto her arm to steady her. Immediately Gillian sees a vision of the Institute staff chasing Robin Sandza around. McKeever’s hand begins to bleed as the vision progresses. It concludes with Dr. McKeever shoving Robin out a second-storey window. Gillian rouses from her trance and sees the doctor’s damaged hand. “Don’t touch me anymore!” she shouts and runs off to her room.

Gillian learns the reason why he’s called ‘Hodor.’

The higher-ups at Paragon become concerned about Gillian – not just about the extent of her powers, but what she may have seen when she touched McKeever. They dose her with sodium pentathol and ask what she saw in her visions. She says she saw a boy, Robin, who she feels she’s seen before. In the wee hours, Dr. McKeever begins to drink heavily in his office as he and Lindstrom decide Gillian’s fate. Lindstrom feels Gillian is so powerful a telepath, it would be a mistake to let her go. But McKeever worries she’s dangerous. He doesn’t want to be responsible for what might happen. When Dr. Lindstrom asks McKeever what ever happened to Robin, McKeever says he was running up the stairs and fell out the window. But he claims he wasn’t on site when the “accident” happened. Lindstrom invites her boss back to her place, but he declines, opting to stay in the office and drink further.

The next morning, Ben Childress, in black leather gloves and his damaged arm in a sling, pays McKeever a visit. He tells McKeever he knows all about Gillian Bellaver, though McKeever seems to be withholding information from him. Childress is curious to know: is Gillian a new Robin? Robin, Childress notes, is being treated very well -– like a God. After all, he’s very valuable to the government. The Soviets and China don’t have a Robin of their own. Furthermore, Robin doesn’t even want to see his father. When Childress presses McKeever for more information about this Gillian, McKeever lies and says that Gillian has failed all her tests. She doesn’t show any real signs of ESP. Childress seems not to believe him, but departs. Hester, in the adjoining room, eavesdrops on the entire conversation.

Learning about telecommunications at the Paragon Institute.

Over breakfast, Dr. Lindstrom pays Gillian a visit and asks if she remembers their talk the previous night. (She doesn’t.) Lindstrom then asks Gillian to tell her what she knows about Robin Sandza, and shows her old photos of the boy. Gillian then enters a dream-state and sees herself as Robin, being tested in a dark room. Various doctors force Robin to watch a film of the terrorist attack that he believes killed his father. When the raft in her vision explodes, Gillian grasps Lindstrom’s hand. Lindstrom’s face pours blood from every orifice onto the glass dining room table. (Yikes!)

Peter rides the L again, and when he hears the payphone ringing at a stop, impulsively leaves his car and picks up. Good thing, because it’s Hester on the other end of the line with valuable new information about Gillian Bellaver. The Paragon team keeps Gillian sedated in her bedroom while Childress looks on menacingly. He’s unhappy McKeever lied about her abilities; he insists that Gillian be delivered to him and his secret team the very next day. McKeever worries that her mother is wealthy and influential and this could cause problems, but Childress says that falls squarely into the “not my problem” category.

Peter and Hester have a secret mall rendezvous in which Peter insists that Hester somehow helps Gillian escape Paragon – and it has to happen tomorrow. (Thanks for the advance notice, Peter.) That night, Gillian leaves her room and enters an empty one. But she soon sees things as if she were in Robin’s room in another location. She sees Dr. Charles (Fiona Lewis) try to demonstrate care and trust to Robin. (This largely involves rubbing his thigh.) Dr. Charles, romantically involved with the teenage Robin, says she and Robin can get away to an area north of Chicago some day soon. Hester comes across Gillian staring at a bare mattress and interrupts. Gillian explains that people are trying to harm Robin. When Hester grabs Gillian to steady her in her panic, nobody bleeds. (Ideal!) Gillian insists they find Robin: “I have to see him.” They plot their escape from Paragon.

Back at the estate where Robin is being kept and tested, Childress discusses his progress with the doctors. The films of his father’s death have turned Robin into a volatile atomic bomb: drugs have no effect on calming him and he flies into sudden rages. Childress inquires with Dr. Charles about his performance in bed. (Inappropriate.) Charles feels she needs to take Robin on a short getaway to maintain his sanity, and Childress reluctantly agrees – as long as they return within 24 hours.

“This is the last time the staff at Walgreen’s disrespects me, Hester.”

Robin goes to some sort of indoor carnival. After being separated from Dr. Charles, he finds her in a bar, laughing with a few male colleagues and he just about spontaneously combusts. “Which one of them are you going to screw first?!” he sneers. (Again: inappropriate.) Charles calms him down, but then Robin spots a group of Saudi men at the carnival. In his mind (as in the mind of so many conservatives), Robin has associated all Middle Eastern men with terrorism and his father’s death, so he stalks the men until they hop on a spinning ride. As Robin stares at the ride’s centre, it begins to spark and spin wildly out of control. Eventually the car holding the Saudi men detaches from the ride and smashes through the window, landing on another group of Saudi men who were – seconds earlier – enjoying a meal.

Back at Paragon, Hester offers to take the mail to the post office. Before leaving, she visits Gillian, busy eating food prepared by their cook, Mrs. Callahan (Alice Nunn). When she goes to prepare a “bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich” (this film is pre-BLT!), Hester pretends to drop some packages. Gillian picks them up, then shoves Hester into Callahan and dashes out the door. The ensuing chase is all shot silent and in slow-motion. Gillian runs into the street. Government agents surrounding the building converge on her, but Hester – wise to the plan – runs into one of them and knocks him unconscious. A car filled with agents drives after the fleeing Gillian, but Peter, hidden in a taxi cab, shoots the driver dead. However, the car veers out of control and collides with Hester in a really gruesome crash.

Maybe Brian DePalma’s second-best slo-mo action sequence.

Peter begins to cry and Gillian, seeing the dead Hester, panics. A G-man disguised as a jogger tries to grab Gillian, but Peter – enraged by his ladyfriend’s death – fills him full of bullets and carries Gillian away. Next we see them, they’re in the back of a Trailways bus to where Robin is being kept. Peter boozes from a paper bag to kill the pain of Hester’s death and offers some to Gillian. Gillian asks what his son, Robin, is like, and Peter responds by mainly describing the boy’s athletic prowess and how he raised him without a mother. Gillian assures Peter that his son is okay.

When Gillian wakes from a nap in the back of the bus, she sees the bus has stopped and Peter has exited. She rushes after him, but he insists that now Gillian has located Robin, he must complete the rescue on his own. Gillian refuses to get back on the bus, so Peter slaps her (!). After much heated debate about the danger ahead, Peter agrees to take Gillian along. Soon, they find the country estate where Robin is being held.

Inside that estate, Robin is busy being a total dick to Dr. Charles, excitedly berating her. Robin calms down and sits facing the window, scratching the arm of his chair with his nails. Outside, Gillian mirrors his actions – they’re psychically linked, after all – as she and Peter hide behind a wall. Robin apologizes to Dr. Charles for his outburst, but explains he’s upset about “that goddamn girl” (Gillian); he can sense she’s outside. Dr. Charles pretends there is no girl; he’s being paranoid. But Robin doesn’t trust her. He thinks they’re going to have him replaced. That’s when he turns on the doctor.

Blood begins to pour from the head of Dr. Charles. “I’m tired of you,” Robin says, killing her with his mind. Gillian, sensing this attack happening inside, screams, which sets off alarms. Soon she and Peter are being pursued by guards and attack dogs. Back inside, Robin telepathically lifts Dr. Charles off the ground and forces her to spin in the air like a top. Blood sprays the walls as she screams in pain. Outside, Peter and Gillian – running very slowly – are eventually caught. A dog leaps on Peter and the two intruders are captured. They are promptly brought to Childress inside the house’s living room. Childress is unsurprised to see his old friend, and asks him why he doesn’t just give up.

Never follow the unstable, angry psychic to a second location.

Upstairs, two government agents bust through Robin’s locked door and witness a scene of horror. Gillian, the floor below, runs out screaming, just in time to see the two G-men thrown out of the upper-storey window to their deaths. Childress suggests Peter go take a look at his beloved son upstairs, and hands him a flashlight.

Peter enters the darkened room and finds blood decorating the walls and furniture overturned. Eventually he discovers the bloody body of Dr. Charles. Peter turns and trains his flashlight on the ceiling, where his son Robin is levitating. Peter asks what they’ve done to him. Peter explains he’s been looking for him over the past year, but Robin only glares at his father. “Don’t you recognize your old man?” Peter asks. Robin flies at him and swats Peter’s face. The two smash out the window. Peter grabs onto a drainpipe, but Robin dangles from the edge, holding on by Peter’s sleeve alone.

The younger Sandza begins to climb up his dad’s arm to safety, but as soon as he gets close enough, claws Peter’s face. Peter drops the boy from a great height and his body hits the stone patio like a sack of potatoes. With his dying act, Robin looks up at Gillian’s face, his eyes glowing blue. The blue glow transfers to Gillian’s eyes, and Robin dies. Peter, in his terrible grief, throws himself off the roof, too, and dies. “Get them out of my sight,” Childress instructs his staff.

Gillian, showing the true power of jazz-hands.

The final scene of The Fury opens with Gillian waking up in an opulent bed. Childress, waiting at the other end of the room, offers her coffee and a seat by the roaring fireplace. “Peter was my friend,” Childress explains, but he did what he had to do. And now that Robin is dead, Gillian is the only one who matters. He suggests that Gillian accept his help to learn about her powers, and put the tragedies of the past behind them. He pulls her into an embrace and insists, “I’ll be a good father to you.”

Gillian kisses Childress’s eyes, and when he pulls out of their embrace, his eyes begin to pour blood. Childress staggers around blindly, swinging at the air. Gillian just follows him around the room, totally in control. “You go to Hell,” she instructs. Her eyes shine blue and Childress begins to convulse. Finally, he explodes, gloriously, in a scene that is replayed over a dozen times from different angles. End film.

Your disappointment in the film makes Childress cry.

Takeaway points:

  • The Fury is an interesting film that plays with the fun ideas of ESP and government conspiracies, but it’s too mired by some of the weirdest pacing I’ve ever seen to be fun itself. There are so many drawn-out sequences that seem entirely irrelevant. Why do Cheryl and LaRue feature so largely in the intro, but are never seen again? Why an extended sequence of Robin attempting to land a pole vault? Why does the car chase move slower than a foot race? (And don’t get me started on how slow the foot races move – though that may be largely due to Kirk Douglas being 61 at the time of filming.) And what’s with all the inept attempts at humour? The Fury could have been something great, but it reads like a film that tried to be all things to all people.
  • The film falls between Carrie (which DePalma also directed) and Scanners (directed by David Cronenberg), and feels like a mash-up of both. You have the tormented teen telepath played by Amy Irving (who was in Carrie, as well), but also a secret government program training people to use their ESP (as in Scanners). And Cronenberg just took that final explosion from The Fury and perfected it for his own film.
  • My favourite element of the film is its futility. Peter struggles the entire movie – living on the run for a year – to find his son. But his son has become someone not worth finding. By the time Peter reaches him, he’s been twisted and perverted by government tests. His anger over his father’s death has morphed into a racist hatred of all people from the Middle East. Somewhere along the line, he developed an MRA-like misogyny that fills him with unreasonable jealousy. Imagine being separated from your teenage son for a year and he turns into James Woods. What a Shakespearean tragedy. Even moreso, once you find him, you end up killing him, then killing yourself. If The Fury doesn’t speak to the futility of life, I don’t know what film does. Maybe that’s why it’s so dull and boring: the medium was the message.
  • People have come after Brian DePalma for the misogyny in his films for years, and with good reason. It seems like much of The Fury is designed so we can watch women bleed from their faces, go crashing through windshields, and/or be tortured in a mid-air spin by woman-hating telepaths. But it’s hard to reconcile this with how developed the women characters are: Gillian, Hester, Lindstrom. There are great roles for women in this movie – a movie that passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours – but there are also many fetishized deaths for those same women. DePalma remains an enigmatic puzzle box of misogyny.
  • And don’t think I missed all the Freudian stuff about dads and sons in this movie; it was directed by Brian DePalma, after all.

Truly terrifying or truly terrible?: If you like really boring car chases and scenes shot in slow-motion, do I have a movie for you! But, in all seriousness, there are some really neat scenes (the chase out of the Paragon Institute, the final sequence) that are poorly served by the weirdly dull majority of the film. And the few really hammy attempts at humour don’t help.

Do you have a phone call for Kirk Douglas? Well, take a message.

Best outfit: Check out 61-year-old Kirk Douglas in disguise on the L-Train as Remy Shand.

Best line: “Telepathy is a timeless form of communication.” – Dr. Jim McKeever explaining ESP as if it were the tango. (Really?)

Best kill: It’s hard to beat the full-body, multi-angle explosion of a John Cassavetes. But I was shocked by Hester’s death. I can’t recall another filmic car death so sudden and jarring. (It was pretty rough, guy.)

Unexpected cameo: The film has too many great cameos to count. Two of Gillian’s high school classmates are played by Daryl Hannah and The Young & the Restless’s Melody Thomas Scott. Mr. Nuckells was played by WKRP in Cincinnati’s Gordon Jump (Arthur ‘Big Guy’ Carlson). And an un-recognizably young Dennis Franz plays one of the cops Peter takes hostage, Bob Eggleston. And if you feel you’ve seen Mrs. Callahan, Alice Nunn before, that’s because she memorably played Large Marge in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

Unexpected lesson learned: If you are trying to conceal your teenage pregnancy from your friends and classmates, do not taunt the telepathic girl.

Most suitable band name derived from the movie: The Paragon Institute or Mother Knuckells.

Next up: Leprechaun (1993).

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