When watching The Fury, one gets the distinct feeling that it’s an adaptation of a Stephen King novel that King never wrote. This is perhaps unfair to novelist John Farris, given the width and breadth of his large body of work, which predates King’s. Then again, if you take a look at his Wikipedia page, The Fury is his only novel that actually has its own page; prolific though he may be, one must wonder whether or not his prose has much staying power. There are certain trappings that make The Fury feel like a King work, not the least of which is having Brian De Palma at the helm, just two years after he directed the first King adaptation with 1976’s Carrie (and a year before the second, Tobe Hooper’s made-for-TV Salem’s Lot). The film also features mysterious agents working for an unnamed government agency that is similar to the role played by The Shop in King’s works, Firestarter most notable among them; the paternal relationship that forms one of the movie’s emotional cores likewise echoes, or rather presages, that of Charlie and her father in that novel.
Of course, Firestarter was published in 1980, two years after the release of The Fury (and four years after its publication date), so take from that what you will. Did King rip off The Fury? Is the superficial similarity due simply to the fact that De Palma’s Carrie influenced the perception of King in the public sphere? Perhaps the similar theses of Firestarter and The Fury were simply born out of similar anti-authority distrust and anti-government paranoia that sprang up in the wake of Nixon’s 1974 impeachment and the spilling of government secrets that accompanied his fall. (Any similarities between the phrase “Firestarter and The Fury” and the title of a certain questionable-but-plausible book about another polarizing and demagogic American “leader” are unintentional, if interesting.)
The Fury opens with Peter Sandza (Kirk Douglas, in his sixties and still obviously capable of beating the tar out of a man a third his age) and his teenage son Robin (Andrew Stevens) preparing to return to the U.S. after spending most of Robin’s life in exotic locales as part of Peter’s work with the aforementioned, unnamed agency; Peter is retiring. Robin is hesitant, not just because he barely remembers the states, but also because he has his doubts about the special institute where he will be enrolled upon his return, a kind of school for psychics. Peter is confident, however, that Robin will succeed in any environment. Their idyllic last days are interrupted by a seaborne attack from sheikhs with machine guns, and Robin is spirited away by Peter’s former partner, Ben Childress (John Cassavetes), while Peter is seemingly killed. He has survived, however, and sees Childress paying off the apparent attackers for their false flag operation; Peter shoots Childress, maiming him, but Robin is already gone.
A year later, Chicago teenager Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving) is noticed by one of Sandza’s old compatriots, who calls the older man to tip him off that he’s discovered another psychic, one who might be able to help him find Robin. This informant is killed immediately; Childress has been keeping tabs on him, and uses the phone call to track down Peter, who must flee from his hotel in his underpants. He makes contact with Hester (Carrier Snodgress), an old flame and his secret informant within the aforementioned psychic institute run by Jim McKeever (Charles Dunning), which has already recruited Gillian. Working together, can Hester and Peter rescue Gillian from Childress’s clutches? Can Gillian help them find and rescue Robin? And after a year of being honed and trained to be Childress’s psychic weapon, can Robin truly be saved, even if he can be found and freed?
I’ve lost count of the number of reviews I’ve written here where I note my love of seventies and eighties conspiracy thrillers. I’ve always been fascinated by the way that certain social events have a far-reaching and undeniable effect on the media of that time. The seventies were fertile ground for the genre, given the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971, Nixon’s actions that led to his impeachment, and the resultant collapse of the American public’s faith in its leadership. This was the fertile well that gave us Three Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, and The Parallax View, as well as countless others. It’s no surprise that conspiracy thrillers with a supernatural (or at least a parapsychological or science fiction) twist would emerge as well: The Fury, of course, as well as the aforementioned Firestarter, but also Scanners (psychics created as the result of careless prescriptions with untested drugs, à la the tragedy of Thalidomide babies), Capricorn One (a faked space mission, the cover-up of which endangers the lives of the astronauts involved and the journalists who discover the truth), and others.
I would wager that, in spite of the similarities between The Fury and Firestarter, the latter does not plagiarize the former; they were both simply born out of similar sentiments and sweeping social (and sociological) anxieties. It’s also possible that future Class of 1999director Mark L. Lester, when filming Firestarter for its 1984 release, took inspiration from the films that came before it. The novel on which the film was based mentioned that the use of psychic powers caused “tiny cerebral hemorrhages,” which simply doesn’t translate well to the screen. Lester instead invoked the image of the psychic nosebleed, a common trope now (see its use in many works as shorthand for strenuous psychic activity, most recently in Netflix’s Stranger Things); in fact, many people believe that this was the first use of this visual, but in fact it goes back at least as far as Scanners three years previously, and a bleeding nose is involved with psychic phenomena in The Fury, although in this film it is the result of a psychic attack, not a symptom. It’s a fascinating amalgamation of convergent ideas coming to bear in a short amount of time, and perhaps homage, but not evidence of intellectual theft.
With regards to The Fury itself as a film, this is a classic that deserves to be seen. The film features a great soundtrack by John Williams, fresh off of his Oscar win for Star Wars. There’re also some truly dynamite effects used to demonstrate the use of psychic power, the most effective being a shot of Gillian being fully transported into a vision of Robin inside the institute as she stands frozen on the stairs, the past playing out in a rear projection as the camera swims around her. It’s truly stunning, especially for 1978 and on a budget of a mere 5 or 7 million dollars (different sources conflict each other on this matter). One of the film’s greatest overall strengths is the way that De Palma invests time in the daily lives of the people who are tangentially affected or in some way attached to the agency and its pursuit of Gillian and brainwashing of Robin. We spend a few minutes with the family whose home Peter invades in his initial flight from Childress’s men, and we get to know a lot about their interpersonal relationships in a brief span of screentime. There’s even friendly banter between agents on surveillance duty about coffee and chocolate; these are small moments, but they paint the world of the film in vivid hues, giving us a lived-in sense of time and place where other, lesser filmmakers wouldn’t have bothered.
Getting back to the topic of anti-government paranoia in mass media, perhaps we will soon see a resurgence of films in this rhetorical space, given the current political climate. We are already seeing a revisitation of the Pentagon Papers with the release of The Post, and even 2016’s Zootopia got in on the action. Until this movement takes full flight, we can take comfort in the arms of films past that reflect the anxieties of our present. After all, if we survived it before, we can survive it again.
As of January 2018, we are still here, and The Fury is streaming on Netflix. Good night, and good luck.