Brian De Palma’s “The Fury” was a transitional film for the famed director, both in terms of his career trajectory and the post-“Star Wars” era of the late 1970s.
De Palma, coming off the surprise success of his adaptation of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” made a follow-up work that also portrayed a teen girl struggling to harness her telekinetic powers, but on a much larger scale.
We meet Peter, played by Kirk Douglas, as he engages in horseplay with his teen son, Robin (Andrew Stevens), on the beach in “Mid East, 1977.” A run-in with Childress (John Cassavetes) is abruptly cut short by gunfire, as Robin is rushed to safety and Peter is presumed dead.
Robin’s psychic abilities and his father’s occupation, both revealed much later, are the culprit for the assassination attempt.
In a correlating subplot, Gillian (Amy Irving, in a terrific, forceful turn) demonstrates her power to read minds and manipulate objects, an ability that draws fascination and worry. She becomes a student at the Paragon Institute and is initially unaware of the insidious intentions the caretakers have for her.
The institute offers the same psychic card test administered by Dr. Peter Venkman at the start of “Ghostbusters” (who, considering his credentials, probably came up with the test watching this movie!). Other psychic tests involving the use of model trains and PONG.
Again, Dr. Venkman would have loved this place.
“The Fury,” which presents straight-forward, pseudo-science spin on telekinesis, plays like a secular take on “Carrie.” The latter film was about the wages of sin, whereas this not about accepting a supernatural ability (at least from the perspective of Carrie’s mother) but the corruption of attempting to weaponize such a power.
Gillian, like Carrie White, is fearful of her destructive powers and human touch, providing an obvious metaphor for the changes and struggles of a young woman undergoing puberty.
While it would have been billed as a spin-off today, it’s more of a larger budgeted companion piece to “Carrie.” In terms of an unintentional Stephen King connection, “The Fury” is actually a lot closer to “Firestarter” (a man on the run from imposing men in suits, who struggles to save a girl with telekinesis) and “The Dead Zone” (a character has the ability to read people’s minds through touch).
I won’t give anything away but “The Fury” comes to a similar conclusion to “Carrie,” where, in both cases, the control of old power cannot contain the passion of youth.
Douglas is miscast but, nevertheless, a welcome presence. As always, Douglas is eternally credible as an action hero (in the same way Clint Eastwood and Harrison Ford are), making some of his visibly hairy stunt work and shirtless chase scenes somehow plausible.
As the central villain, Cassavetes is, likewise, too good for the role but still excellent.
Dennis Franz (in his film debut and working overtime to convey “dopey”), Daryl Hannah, soap opera veteran Melody Thomas Scott and James Belushi (an extra during Gillian’s introductory scene) appear. Also in the cast is Charles Durning, playing one of Gillian’s most attentive doctors.
The nurse who tends to Gillian’s wound is Alice Nunn, who played none other than Large Marge in “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.”
Like Clive Barker’s “Nightbreed” in 1990, this is another “X-Men” pre-cursor about outsiders with fantastic abilities who are either being oppressed or tortured by powerful, well-connected men. Another “X-Men” similarity: two older male figures are the central representatives of good (Douglas instead of Patrick Stewart’s Prof. X) and evil (Cassavetes’ Childress in place of Sir Ian McKellan’s Magneto).
Adapted by John Farris from his 1976 novel, the narrative is over-plotted. It feels exactly like what it is: an overly faithful adaptation of the novel that could have used tightening, composited characters and less travelogues.
There’s too much cloak and dagger activity, as Farris should have connected his two most compelling characters (Gillian and Robin) and trimmed back on all the sneaking around. One of the strongest components is its loopy sense of humor, such as an extended hostage scene (in which a bemused Douglas holds court) and a throwaway gag in which agents on watch are bartering over food.
Although the hook of “The Fury” is a grabber and the strongest portions ground the rest, Farris’ story structure is flawed. Despite this, De Palma takes Farris’ pulpy screenplay (with its sometimes-risible dialogue) and turns it into a delicious B-movie that Hitchcock would have enjoyed.
De Palma is forever tied to the Master of Suspense, cited as either a worthy inheritor of his style or a filmic thief of Hitchcock’s approach. No matter where you stand, no modern living filmmaker has ever been this good at implementing the feel, craftsmanship and depth of Mr. Hitchcock.
De Palma utilizes recurring cinematic devices like rear-projection effects (and not just for driving scenes), operatic slow-motion for key suspense sequences and explores the theme of voyeurism and a world under constant watch.
Call it the cinema of heightened un-reality.
Best of all, he tends to spring his most flamboyant smoke and mirrors when we least expect it. Don’t get too comfortable, as seemingly slow, dialogue-driven scenes are the ones in which bursts of ultra-violence and sudden plot turns give audiences a jolt.
John William’s score is as grand, slinky and emotionally charged as one would hope. Like his best non-Spielberg works (particularly “The Witches of Eastwick”), it creates a feel of approaching evil and moral struggle.
Rick Baker provides make-up effects, including one so astonishing, De Palma shows it in 13 different cuts (no fair elaborating further).
There’s lots of post-Watergate paranoia on hand, with scenes of surveillance, wire-tapping and bugged phones creating a sinister feel (likewise, that gliding, first person shot of the tour of the Paragon Institute).
“The Fury” was a sign of what was to come for the genre, as the film is youth baiting, with a scattering of grown-up actors for the older audience members. It was the first big budget De Palma work, financed by big studio (20th Century Fox) and top lined by major stars.
Even more so than “Carrie,” “The Fury” is an indication of the direction the horror genre would take: the grown-ups in reactionary roles are on hand to give balance and credibility to the teens carrying the story, with Douglas and Irving working in a similar team-like fashion as Donald Pleasance and Jamie Lee Curtis did in “Halloween,” later the same year.
“The Fury” has a youth appeal it doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with; the scenes of corrupt, middle-aged authority figures pontificating about the fate of Gillian and/or Robin takes too much emphasis from the far more interesting young protagonists.
The obvious discomfort of Cassavetes and the tireless professionalism of Douglas is no match for Stevens’ sulking, menacing good looks and Irving’s emotionally volcanic performance. The model for the modern-day horror film is there but buried by Farris’ crammed worldbuilding.
At one point, Durning considers, “There’s no place for these kids in our culture, because they’re superior to what we hold sacred.” That’s a piece of the narrative but symbolically, that’s the reflective commentary of how the film, and De Palma in general, was received at the time.
There are amazing uses of pure cinema on display, such as a brilliantly realized scene in which two psychics communicate silently through scratching surfaces. Some of the most outrageous moments are, without argument, excessive and self-indulgent but clearly the work of a maestro.
While the climax is rushed and cluttered, with too many pivotal exchanges of information passing too quickly, there is that closing scene to talk about.
I won’t describe or spoil it, but the abrupt, outrageous and truly awesome manner in which De Palma concludes “The Fury” is a tour de force. It might be the greatest movie ending of all time.
“The Fury” is unloved by De Palma, as noted in the Noah Baumbach/Jake Paltrow 2016 documentary “De Palma.” In that highly entertaining, informative documentary, De Palma explains that “The Fury” was a project made available to him, with a “huge” budget (around $5 million), and that, overall, “it’s not one of my favorite films by a long shot.”
He’s entitled to his sour evaluation but “The Fury” is as thrilling as his best work and a feature-length demonstration of how De Palma’s handling can elevate a mid-range screenplay.
Early on, a Paragon Institute member instructs Gillian to “Visualize yourself in an empty theater with a blank screen…let that blank screen fill your mind.” She’s basically speaking on De Palma’s behalf, as he uses the language of cinema to shape a nutty horror/action/fantasy hybrid into an elegantly crafted, surreal and jaw-dropping spectacle of a fiendish imagination unleashed.