THRILLER: The Fury (1978)

The Fury (USA, 1978)
Directed by Brian De Palma
Starring Kirk Douglas, John Cassavetes, Amy Irving, Charles Durning

When a fledgling director has a financial hit, they are often given more money and told to do the same thing again. Sometimes this can be a good thing, even when taken to its most literal extreme, in the case of Evil Dead 2. But when Brian De Palma sought to repeat the form of Carrie, he wasn't quite so fortunate. The Fury is an odd and disjointed little film, buoyed up by its most Carrie-esque elements but also let down by the thriller that surrounds it.
Every aspect of the film's central problem can be found in the opening scene. We get a nice, comfortable dramatic opening, with a typically understated turn by John Cassavetes and Kirk Douglas downplaying things a little bit. De Palma also works in some camera tricks that are unusual but generally gel, such the nice use of panning shots as father and son sit round the table. Then the fire-fight happens, Douglas turns into an action hero, and it all gets pretty damn silly. The developments come so thick and fast that it all seems ludicrous, with first the revelation of Cassevetes changing sides and then the news that everything we just saw was staged.
For the first hour of its running time, The Fury resembles two very different films, running side by side. One film is a new take on Carrie, in which a young girl finds she has telekinetic powers - the twist being that she causes people to bleed whenever she touches them. The other is a silly thriller involving Kirk Douglas trying to track down his son, who is now being experimented on by the US government to turn him into a weapon. As charismatic as Douglas normally is, the story he's in is so goofy that for once he's not the one we want to see on screen.
The first story, involving the telekinetic girl, is very interesting. It takes the basic conceit of Carrie (a girl discovering she has telekinetic powers) and remoulds it into a similar but equally distinctive story about adolescence and teenage rage. While Stephen King's story is about a young girl rebelling against the oppressive influence of religion, this is more a story of alienation, taking things much closer to the territory of X-Men. Gillian combines Jean Grey's immense psychic power with the insecurity of Rogue, while Robin's rebellious and impulsive streak exhibits traits of both Wolverine and Magneto.
The X-Men comparisons continue by the change in setting. While Carrie is set primarily in a high school, and centres on the relationships between different teenage girls, The Fury spends much of its time with Gillian in the institute, where she is observed and tested by Charles Durning, best known for playing Snyder in The Sting. Where Carrie is isolated against her will, being already unpopular and not conventionally beautiful, Gillian consents to her special treatment on the grounds that it will help to explain her powers. But even the higher levels of security do not ensure she has control, and like Carrie there is a question up until the end of whether she commands her powers or the other way around.
This part of the film is grounded by the brilliant central performance of Amy Irving. Irving had a significant role as Sue Snell in Carrie, who wakes up screaming from a nightmare involving Carrie in the film's final scene; she clearly knows the territory very well, and draws on her experience to make this role her own. Irving plays the terror of the character so compellingly that we really feel for her even when she's causing horrible things to happen to people. It's a performance every bit as powerful as Sissy Spacek's, and that's no mean feat.
As good as Irving is, however, she has to contend with a second story which is almost parodic in nature. Even if we set aside our expectations of Douglas (i.e. at 62, he's too old to be an action star), the scenes involving his character are so over-the-top that he's almost impossible to take seriously. As a typical example, he throws off his FBI tail by breaking into the apartment of an elderly couple, rubbing mayonnaise into his hair and shoving a sofa cushion down his trousers so he can look like an old man.
Having thrown off his tail on foot, Douglas holds up a cop car, asking the two officers to drive around until he loses a car that is following him. Having been followed to the docks and lost his other tail, Douglas proceeds to drive the car into the water, and then calls up a contact from a payphone. His contact recognises his voice, but he pretends to be a heavy-breathing pervert on the off-chance that her line is tapped. There is nothing in this section that couldn't have made into Naked Gun or Fatal Instinct, right down to an unintentionally hilarious one-liner; when a cop asked what happened to Cassavetes' arm, Douglas retorts: "I killed it."
In the midst of all this, De Palma somehow finds time to work in a number of Hitchcock references. Dependent on the scene or storyline, he's either doing this to try and give the silly moments weight, or as a passing note of thanks in the midst of something important. You could argue that the FBI's pursuit of Douglas is something of a wrong man plot, and that therefore the film nods to North by Northwest or The 39 Steps. But the homages don't make the goofy scenes any less so; if anything it makes the Hitchcock motifs look like parody, as though we had wandered out of Vertigo and into High Anxiety.
Having juggled two stories up to this point - one intriguing, one utterly silly - the film starts to mesh together around the hour mark. One by one the different plot threads become intertwined in a way which makes sense on paper and comes across just about well enough to keep us in the main flow. The side effect of the stories meshing, however is that it makes us wonder how it would have been to have viewed the whole story from Gillian's POV, with her growing psychic ability causing her to slowly uncover more details of the mystery or conspiracy. That would have been more narratively disciplined and strengthened Irving's character even further.
As it is, what we get is something as enjoyably silly as The Boys from Brazil with bits of Carrie and X-Men thrown in where it can. The substance of Gillian's storyline helps to bring the sillier aspects down to earth a tad, giving some weight to Peter's predicament and a sense of pathos about the death of his son. The scene where Robin causes the fairground to malfunction with his powers would have a lot less impact if De Palma had made no prior attempt to connect his character with Gillian. On the other hand, the film never quite fulfils on the promise of Gillian's section, and for all the pyrotechnics and the John Williams score, there is a tinge of disappointment that her arc was not made the centrepiece over that of a spoilt child.
Having balanced elements of spy thriller, comic book and horror up to this point, the ending of The Fury takes things steadily further into horror territory. As Peter grows more powerful his rage manifests itself in more destructive ways, beginning with the fairground and culminating in him giving a powerful haemorrhage to the woman he loved. After the death of him and his father, there is a moment of calm before Gillian wakes up with Ben sitting at the end of her bed, about to make her his prisoner. The film then follows in Carrie's footsteps with one last big shock, only this time we are in full-on body horror territory. Gillian accepts her powers and uses them to explode Ben from the inside out, in a sequence that would have been David Cronenberg proud.
The Fury is an odd and flawed yet strangely compelling film. From a structural point of view it's as much of a compelling mess as Phantom of the Paradise, and in attempting to reconcile its storylines, it doesn't deliver quite the amount of substance we need. But it's still worth seeing, whether for the intriguing and gripping moments involving Amy Irving, or for an unintentional laugh. It's not Carrie, not by a mile, but you could do a hell of a lot worse.