3/25/10

Demon Seed (1977): Babydaddy With A Hard Drive

If it wasn’t for blogging, looking at stupid videos, getting music and pod casts, finding out what movies are playing, getting directions, keeping in touch with friends all around the world, googling myself, Netflix instant watch, and putting an end to trivial arguments, then I wouldn’t need a computer. As you may surmise from my list, my computer has a pretty firm hand in every part of my life, but if I can be thankful of anything it's that at least my computer isn’t in control of my whole home or trying to knock me up. That kind of problem is what troubles Julie Christie in tonight’s film 1977’s Demon Seed. Every couple of years since Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), there seems to be a film about a computer gone nuts. Demon Seed doesn’t stand out from the pack, but it’s not just because of the lovely Ms. Christie or a man named Dean R. Koontz.
The story of Demon Seed is quite simple. Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and his team have created Proteus, a supercomputer with the ability to learn through oral instruction. Harris has taken up his every waking hour with the project, and his marriage to Susan (Julie Christie) has suffered. Alex moves out and into the laboratory, but he soon discovers that his supercomputer is starting to think on its own. When Alex refuses to let Proteus have a terminal all to itself so it “may study man”, Proteus taps into Alex’s home computer and takes control of the fully automated home. Susan becomes the prisoner of Proteus, and after making a careful study of her, the machine decides that the only way to expand its existence is to have a child with the Doctor’s wife.

Let me start right off by saying that Demon Seed is a horribly dated film. From the supercomputer that runs on DOS to the primitive robotics that look like rejects from the ‘Rock It’ video casting call, the technology looks like the cutting edge of, well, 1977. At the time, I’m sure there were more than a few people that geeked out on the tech, but almost 30 years later, my laptop has bells and whistles that would give Proteus wet dreams. (It also has minesweeper as well, and you know how supercomputers go crazy over minesweeper.) I tried my best not to let it hinder my enjoyment of the film, but the “horror” of the events that transpire hinge on the computer being this scary, unknown quantity. Instead I just kept thinking that all Ms. Christie’s character needed to do was apply a swift Ctrl-Alt-Del to set things right again.

Demon Seed was based on the 1973 novel of the same name by Dean R. Koontz. Over the years, Koontz has established quite a reputation as a hack author of horror titles, but for my money, there are few authors who write such entertaining trash. From Phantoms and Twilight Eyes to Odd Thomas and his Frankenstein books, Koontz has brought me many hours of pulpy entertainment. Now, that’s not saying that he’s not written a fair share of junk as well. I recall reading Demon Seed a few years back, and while it comes off more frightening in print (possibly because I could imagine something more modern), I remember thinking that he had probably been inspired to write this tale because of the success of Michael Crichton’s The Terminal Man (1972). Taking a dose of that book, a scoop of Rosemary’s Baby, and a pinch of 2001, Koontz churned out this hunk of techno-horror. As a novel, it made for a fairly tense, enjoyable time waster, but the script by Robert Jaffe (Motel Hell, Nightflyers) and Roger O. Hirson (Broadway’s “Pippin”) just didn’t hold up in its translation to screen.

What we’ve really come to discuss here is this week’s Beautiful Lady of Genre, Julie Christie. Her breakout role came in 1968 when she starred in John Schlesinger’s film Darling, and she went on to high profile roles in films like Shampoo, Dr. Zhivago, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. As far as I can tell, Demon Seed is the only horror film she ever appeared in (with only a Harry Potter film and Dragonheart showing up for genre in general). Demon Seed was her film to make or break, and her performance is what keeps this film above water. (Sorry, it wasn’t the computer and its HAL-esque red eye.) She really sells the computer and its robotic minions as scary, and the scenes where Proteus is probing her naked body are the film’s best moments of tension. Christie also looked quite lovely as well, and I wish she had appeared in more horror titles.

Before I close out, I want to mention a couple of other actors that make appearances here. Fritz Weaver, who played Dexter Stanley in the portion of Creepshow (1982) called ‘The Crate’, comes off so unlikable that it nearly ruins the human drama that the story needed. Weaver was the wrong choice to play Ms. Christie’s husband. The role needed someone way more intense, and I would have loved to see how different the film would have been if someone like James Brolin had been cast instead. One actor I did really like seeing was Gerrit Graham, better known as Beef from Phantom of the Paradise, he played the would-be hero and perfectly fit the part. Graham is always a nice surprise in any film he’s in, and this just served to remind me that I need to watch C.H.U.D II- Bud the C.H.U.D sooner rather than later.

As a sum of its parts, Demon Seed is quite lacking. It never really manages to ratchet up enough tension to provide scares. The few tense moments that do appear are the product of good acting rather than good scripting. Julie Christie was giving the old college try, but sadly for her, the old college had been torn down and a minute mart put in its place. This is a film that will only appeal to anyone who is really interested in the portrayal of computers in old films. Anyone else will probably find the lack of suspense and the antique technology to be major roadblock in their enjoyment of this film.

Bugg Rating


5 comments:

  1. I didn't cheat, baby, the computer knocked me up, honest. Don't you believe me?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Julie Christie also starred in the classic early 60s BBC sci-fi TV series A for Andromeda. Sadly only one episode survives. The follow-up series, The Andromeda Breakthrough, does survive, but with Susan Hampshire taking over from Christie.

    Susan Hampshire by the way is one of the great neglected ladies of genre - she gave a stunning performance in the bizarre but fascinating horror fantasy flick Malpertuis in the early 70s. She co-starred with some guy named Orson Welles, but Hampshire effortlessly steals the picture. She's also good in Night Must Fall, a neglected early 60s psychological thriller.

    I actually quite liked Demon Seed, although my favourite computer-gone-mad movie of that era is Colossus: The Forbin Project.

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  3. It's "Graham," not "Grahame," I think.

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  4. @Fran, you I would believe.

    @dfordoom- interesting stuff and lots of things I've never heard of Malpertuis went right on the DVD queue and I'm going to keep my eye out for Colossus.

    @Anonymous- Thanks for the correction, but don;t be afraid to leave your name next time.

    ReplyDelete
  5. It might be that it has been about 20 years since I have seen this film, but I loved it. It did a good job of building suspense, all the way up the birthing of the baby in the film. Scared to watch it again. Afraid modern technology might ruin this film for me. Heck, I might as well watch it again though. Pick it up on DVD and see how well this one has aged...

    ReplyDelete

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