Monday, July 20, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On At the Movies #119 - The Fury (1978, dir. Brian De Palma)

Two years before The Fury came out, director Brian De Palma had released Carrie - not his first film, but certainly his first hit film, raking in great box office and very good reviews on a low budget. Rewarded for his efforts by the studio, he was granted the largest budget he’d ever worked with (bigger even than 1978’s biggest hit film, Grease) and in a typically perverse De Palma move followed up a huge hit with a weird little movie that allowed him to indulge himself a little more. So taking off from Carrie’s telekinetic teen revenge story, what does he do? Ups the ante, naturally – The Fury comes complete with two telekinetic teens, a revenge story, a kidnapping thriller, an espionage thriller, a secret evil government agency, and some lowballing comedy along the way (albeit generally of the sly kind that De Palma favors to soften folks up for the shocks, gore, and suspense he’s about to throw their way). It was a solid success but not a huge hit, so he’d come back strong in a couple years with Dressed to Kill (and then of course follow that with something decidedly more personal and artsy in Blow Out). Does it all work? Not perfectly, but because of De Palma’s sure hand with his material certainly better than would be expected with so many things in the mix, and the set pieces are brilliant throughout the film.

And as always with De Palma’s films, one of the main things that makes it work is the performances. There’s nothing quite as sympathetic as Sissy Spacek’s Oscar-nominated turn as Carrie White here but Kirk Douglas, starring as a man whose telekinetic son Robin (Andrew Stevens) has been kidnapped by a sinister government agency lead by John Cassavetes, creates a solid, believable portrait of a man who wants to get his son back and will go to any lengths to do so. This includes enlisting the help of another teen psychic, Gillian (Amy Irving), to track him down. And though this already seems like enough plotting to make a movie, I’m only scratching the surface here. But again, as the film moves precariously through events that seem absurd and plot twists that in the wrong hands could turn to pure pulp, each of these actors either creates a character we believe in and can go along for the ride with or, as in the case of Cassavetes, has a good time chewing the scenery and making sure he’s the most hateable stock government villain imaginable.

Coming back to De Palma though, all these performances would be for naught if they weren’t being worked into the fabric of the film in the hands of a master. While De Palma often flirts with the outrageous and over the top in his films, his wit, his masterful camera, and his (perhaps surprising, for such a technical director) great way with actors always helps ground even the most absurd flights of fancy and the most implausible plot devices. As Roger Ebert said in his review of De Palma’s Obsession back in 1976, “If you want realism, go to another movie.” It’s helpful advice when you’re watching De Palma, especially with a story like this one, where moments may not work, but the kineticism of the film keeps you on your toes and rarely pauses long enough for you to think about where John Farris’s tight script might have stepped wrong.

And then the set pieces – particularly Gillian’s escape from the Paragon Institute, the penultimate sequence leading to the compound, and most notably, Robin’s angry (you might say furious) revenge against people he thinks were involved in his plight while at an amusement park – are simply great. De Palma masterfully constructs action/suspense within them between his camerawork and the editing of his longtime cohort Paul Hirsch, and as sheer spectacle and as a master class in film craft, they’re impressive every time out. But even between these scenes he invests the rest of the film with a great look, with an experimentation reminiscent of his earlier work, as when Gillian has a psychic vision and suddenly the camera is revolving around her while she is inserted into a playback of past events, or the POV scene of Robin being tested by the government agency which hearkens back to a similar sinister hospital/lab scene in De Palma’s earlier classic Sisters.

The Fury is in some ways a tour de force – Brian De Palma showing off a bit at what he can do, marshalling an unbelievable plot that ranges wildly in tone and style into something coherent that’s acted and shot brilliantly. Is it perfect? No. But is it a ton of fun? Are the set pieces and performances worth it? Absolutely. And for film student nerds like myself, watching De Palma flex his cinematic muscle has its own rewards. The story moves ruthlessly and effectively forward to its abrupt ending. But when it cuts from its (literally) explosive climax directly to the credits, there’s nothing unsatisfactory about it – it’s all been building this way, so what more is left to be said?

-Patrick Brown

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