Those difficult teen years. A time when you have no money, power or influence, and have to spend your day going to school without getting paid for the privilege. Have to do what adults say all the time, but have little money to do what you want, and anyway, increasingly, the things you really want to do won’t be legal until you turn 16, 17, 18… Your body is changing in awkward and embarrassing ways, and as for those ranging hormones… Is it any wonder teenagers get cranky? The biggest wonder is that they don’t get more cranky, more often.
And it’s no wonder our favourite genre provide outlets for teenage fantasies of empowerment. In the second-half of the ‘70’s from Carrie to Star Wars those fantasies often included the ability to directly, through the power of thought alone, impact the world for good or ill. Carrie brought the house down, but Luke Skywalker learned to use the power of the Force to save the Rebellion. In the UK we had already been following the TV adventures of The Tomorrow People for several years, a teleporting, telekinetic group of teens who were ITV’s rival to Doctor Who. In comics the X-Men demonstrated advanced mental powers while wearing silly costumes. All, to a greater or lesser degree, found dramatic power in teenage angst and explored the maturing of fantastical powers as a metaphor for the often painful transition from child to adult.
Meanwhile a counter trend, children and teens in supernatural league with the devil and offering nothing but darkness, were box-office gold in a horror subgenre fronted by The Exorcist and The Omen. With a screenplay by John Farris from his own novel, Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978) sought a line somewhere between the two. Rejecting religiously-themed horror for a more science-fictional view of fantastical mental abilities, De Palma nevertheless offered teenagers with nightmarish powers, but then sought our sympathies for them. Like any teenagers, the young heroine and (anti)hero of The Fury are coming to terms with who they are, what they can do, who they might be – and if they are just a bit different and things sometimes get out of hand…
Farris’ innovation was to combine teens with fantastical powers with post-Watergate paranoia. It must have seemed a perfect box-office formula in a period when fears of Government Conspiracies and Secretive Organisations With Hidden Agendas were movie-ticket gold, as anyone who queued to see All The President’s Men, The Parallax View or Three Days of the Condor could testify. And we now know that during the Cold War the US government really did get up to some barking mad stuff, investing huge sums in top secret military projects researching the viability, or otherwise, of psychic warfare. Check-out Jon Ronson’s fascinating book The Men Who Stare At Goats, basis for the film starring George Clooney and Ewan McGregor.
After half-a-dozen now almost entirely forgotten dramas De Palma had reinvented himself at the Gothic end of the thriller market with Sisters. Employing virtuoso style and Bernard Herrmann, the composer most associated with Hitchcock, quickly resulted in critics dismissing De Palma as a Hitch-wannabe. The charges stuck through Obsession (De Palma’s most obviously Hitchcockian film) and Dressed to Kill. Carrie, based on Stephen King’s first published novel, was De Palma’s break-out hit, a film considerably more successful than anything the director had made before.
20th Century Fox had the rights to The Fury (only published in 1977), and while the story looked like a perfect way to capitalise on both the cinematic popularity of both malevolent teens and the malevolent secret agencies, the guy who demonstrated with Carrie that he did have a taste for terror seemed like the perfect choice for director. Topping the package off was the casting of screen legend Kirk Douglas. The Omen has given Gregory Peck, Douglas’ exact contemporary, his biggest hit in years. Douglas must have been disappointed when The Fury, though taking $24 million at the box office on a $7.5 million budget, didn’t come anywhere close to The Omen’s $60 million haul.
The story is relatively simple, yet though somewhat slowly paced by the standards of 2013, The Fury manages to pack a lot of incident and detail into its 118 minutes. Peter Sandza (Douglas) and Ben Childress (John Cassavetes) are old friends who have both worked for the same, unnamed and highly clandestine, government agency for the last 20 years. Peter’s teenage son, Robin (Andrew Stevens) is developing strange mental powers and in a middle-east set prologue Childress pulls a double-cross, kidnapping Robin and seemingly leaving Peter for dead. The story picks up months later with Peter back in the US, desperate to find his son. His search indicates there is another teenager, Gillian (Amy Irving) with similar powers, but Childress also has her in his sights.
The stage is set for a mix of spycraft cat-and-mouse action and paranormal-powered furioso set-pieces ranging from retrocognition to telekinesis to Farris’ own invention, the highly cinematic ability to make people bleed simply by thought or touch. There will be blood, and lots of it. Not for nothing did one wag dub the director Brian De Plasma. Consider yourself warned.
The Fury isn’t a profound film, though it makes some points about the use and abuse of power, both on a personal and corporate level. Its high Gothic melodrama focused on two confused, frustrated, put-upon teens in extremis is no doubt why the film appealed to me so much when it reached British cinemas in early 1979. Being a teenager is tough, but wouldn’t be cool if, when the world got too much, you could just really let rip…? In their different ways Robin and Gillian try to cope with circumstances far beyond their understanding or control. While they cause injury, death and destruction through a combination of inexperience and, eventually, fury, far more culpable are those adults in positions of power and responsibility who coldly and rationally abuse their own secret powers. Eventually, they will reap what they sow…
I saw The Fury four times on its original UK release, sitting through it twice on two occasions. De Palma’s swirling Gothic struck a real chord with me. His film Obsession was both the first adult-rated (in the sense of carrying a AA censor’s certificate, meaning you had to be 14 or older to get in) film I ever saw at the cinema, and the first film which convinced me that ‘the movies’ could do something more personal, affecting and ‘artistic’ than the standard blockbuster fare I had seen to that date. Equally important, Obsession was the film which transformed me into a lifelong devote of film music. Obsession played as an audio-visual poem, and Bernard Herrmann’s soundtrack album was the first full-price LP I ever bought.
In 1978 John Williams was on fire – UK cinemas were dominated by Star Wars (which went on general release in February), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (April) and Superman (December). All three films ran for months ran and were immeasurably uplifted by a trio of the finest, most melodic, dramatic, richly-orchestrated and developed orchestral scores anyone had heard in years. And in-between them, arriving in record shops without any announcement, was an album for something called The Fury. Those were the days when all but the biggest blockbusters arrived in UK cinemas, usually months after their US release, with very little fanfare. When I saw the album it was the first I had ever seen of The Fury. The cover was immediately striking. It remains bold and unusual to this day, featuring a pair of models, not the stars of the film, backlit with golden light. It was simultaneously beautiful, threatening and elegant. More striking still were the names John Williams and Brian De Palma, together on the same LP jacket.
I played the album to death long before the film came out. The score, which could be summarised as a homage to Bernard Herrmann by way of Wagner and Mahler, remains one of the greatest ever written for the cinema. I mean that quite seriously, without any exaggeration. The film itself may not be a great film but it is great cinema. Let’s settle for cult classic, one of De Palma’s best. I love it more than it probably deserves.
Kirk Douglas breezes through The Fury with effortless charisma. John Cassavetes is terrific as one of the most gentlemanly of 1970’s screen villains. Clearly a great actor slumming it to raise money for his more personal productions. Amy Irving is fine as Gillian, often her best moments delivered, almost ‘silent movie’ style, by physical reaction. Dialogue isn’t The Fury’s strongest point. Irving’s role is that of the beautiful Hitchcockian heroine in distress, which she plays beautifully – even if at 25 she was almost a decade too old for the part.
Apart from the score the real strength of The Fury is its set-pieces of escalating intensity and destruction. De Palma may be operating in similar territory to Carrie (teen with paranormal powers wrecks a trail of bloody carnage) but he doesn’t repeat himself. The Fury doesn’t feel like a horror film, but rather plays as a darkly grandioso SF-action thriller. There is emotional intensity, but no sense of terror. De Palma doesn’t try to scare the audience. He’s done that already. Rather The Fury has a strange sensibility all its own. The action set-pieces are to The Fury as songs to a musical, and are gracefully crafted in a masterclass of polished filmmaking. One sequence in particular, in which Gillian flees captivity, is a bravura masterpiece, slow-motion combining with John Williams’ music to deliver one of the most heart-pounding, spine-tingling, exhilarating, breath-taking sequences ever put on film.
The Fury is prescient too. Apart from slightly anticipating Steven King’s own Firestarter (which King was obviously already writing at the time The Fury hit the screen, though King had read Farris’ novel – the film tie-in edition carries a cover quote from King), The Fury also paved the way for David Cronenberg’s much colder take on similar material, Scanners. Not only that, in its paranoid combination of covert organisations, conspiracy and paranormal SF The Fury laid the groundwork for The X Files and, coming right up-to-date, Fringe.
The Fury has been released on Blu-ray by the label Twilight Time in a limited edition of 3000 copies. It is encoded at 1080p at the original 1.85-1 cinema projection ratio with a choice of a 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio, 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack and an isolated music score track. There are English SDH subtitles, but apart from the isolated score, which enables one to hear John Williams’ score in all its glory, the only extra is the original theatrical trailer and a booklet essay by noted film writer Julie Kirgo.
Richard H. Kline’s cinematography is a little soft and is very grainy, particularly in night-time scenes. Sound is a occasionally boxy, with some dialogue, especially in the opening sequence, sounding unnatural, clearly because it was dubbed in post-production. But all these failings are to be attributed to the original film. I’m not one of those people who claim they can remember exactly what a film they last saw in a cinema 34 years ago looked like back then, but the fact is many films in the 1970’s did tend to a softer look than films of earlier and later decades. Ditto, the sound is presumably authentic to original screenings. Twilight Time take great care in transferring films the way they were made, not adding modern digital processing to change the image or sound into something it never was and was never intended to be. The Fury is a rather grainy 1978 film, not a modern digital production. The truth of it is on the Twilight Time Blu-ray The Fury looks and sounds as good as it ever did. It’s certainly far better than any of the previous video or DVD incarnations of the film.
The trailer, though it gives far too much away, makes a nice reminder of how films were advertised in the 1970’s. Julie Kirgo’s essay is short but very informative. The one misstep is the ECG-like font spelling out the title on the front cover. Who knows what was wrong with the typography used on the much classier original film poster, book and soundtrack LP.
The isolated score is great to have, but real fans – and if you’ve read this far you are a real fan – will want the simultaneously released 2CD set of John Williams’ complete score as issued on the Lalaland specialist film music label. This release includes the original 1978 LP (plus the bonus track included on the first CD incarnation of that album) plus the complete original score as recorded and heard in the film, including several bonus tracks. The reason for this apparent duplication of music is that the original soundtrack album from 1978 was actually a re-recording John Williams made with the London Symphony Orchestra, with the music arranged into a 40 minute work more akin to a symphonic suit intended for the classical concert hall than the typical soundtrack. The actual score as heard in the film was recorded in America with different orchestration, including use of the ARP synthesiser in homage to Bernard Herrmann’s classic SF and horror film score work. Had Herrmann lived he would almost certainly have scored both Carrie and The Fury. There is also rather more music in the film than on the 1978 album, so for the serious fan the 2CDs worth of music are essential.
Note – a similar (now long out of print) 2CD set was released by the Varèse Sarabande label in 2002, but the sound, especially on the actual film tracks, was very disappointing. While often remastering is just an excuse to sell the same old thing over again with slightly better sound, here the difference is enormous. Not only is there more music – though the source tracks don’t amount to much – but it is finally in the sort of high quality we expect from a quality production from the late 1970’s. Which is to say the tracks now sound as good as anything from any other John Williams soundtrack of the period. The set comes with more excellent notes by Julie Kirgo, and this time the original 1970’s cover art is retained. Limited to 3500 copies, the Lalaland album is required listening for anyone would really cares about the movies.
The Fury (Blu-ray) is distributed exclusively by Screen Archives: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/23997/THE-FURY-1978/
The Fury (Expanded Original Motion Picture Score) is available from Lalaland Records: http://www.lalalandrecords.com/FuryThe.html