The Fury … how I feel about Brian De Palma

I’m going to admit up front that Brian De Palma kicked my puppy as a child, and that’s why I don’t like his movies. I think he makes good trash, but when people start comparing him to Hitchcock I get apoplectic. Hitchcock made good trash too, but he elevated it, De Palma wallows in it. Hitch also built his movies around dialogue– I just watched The Birds again and forgot how much of it has nothing to do with the story; yet, we are riveted to the screen. The entire first act is spent in getting Tippi Hedren to the little town that will be swarmed by angry peckers, and it’s still interesting. The whole premise is ridiculous, but Hitchcock manages to make us terrified of terns, toucans and ptarmigans.

Young Amy, and Jim Belushi’s first role in the back left.

The Fury, on the other hand, beats us over the head with action and manages to be pretty boring. Peter (Kirk Douglas) and his son Robin are on an Israeli beach when they are beset by terrorists; it turns out to be an elaborate plot by his buddy Childress (the always-evil John Cassavetes) to kidnap Robin. Later the story picks up in Chicago, where Peter is trying to track down his son, with Cassavetes still trying to kill the hardy bastard. We learn that the reason Robin was taken is that he has powerful psychic powers, and that leads to a college psychology experiment where Amy Irving’s brain is hooked up to a Lionel train set. She plays Gillian, who is psychic too, and Peter seeks her help in finding his boy. Amy was one of the nasty kids in Carrie, and now she gets her chance to throw telekinetics around; unfortunately when she looks scared, her face twists up like Gilda Radner’s, and it’s hard to take seriously.

Cassavetes once again exuding evil.

I heard it told recently that Brian De Palma’s oeuvre is best appreciated when you realize that they are all comedies, and as I looked back, I felt a sense of peace replace my apoplexy at his directing style. The Fury works great as a comedy. Take De Palma’s horror masterpiece Carrie, about a powerful psychic girl… and double it. Now there are two, a girl and boy, and they are being trained by the government as weapons by Charles Durning.

Robin has anger management issues.

There are things that make no sense until you realize it works as farce, or as a spoof of Hitchcock that Mel Brooks would envy. For example, after hijacking a cop’s car to escape, Kirk Douglas tells them to leave the car after the bad guys chasing them have been dispatched to the courtesy table in a fiery display. Then he inexplicably drives the car off the dock into Lake Michigan. Sure, he’s a government agent and has survived numerous attempts on his life by the skin of his teeth, but wouldn’t you at least drive to the train station?

Slow… mo…tion…

Then there’s an extended slow-motion sequence when one of the psychics escapes, and someone dies in the process. They never seem to learn that if you’re touching one of these kids as they undergo their dramatic episodes, blood will start pouring from your orifices like you’d chugged a six-pack of Ebola cola. At first, Amy Irving runs like she’s heading for her lover’s arms, and then Hester (Carrie Snodgrass) is chasing after her, and then the bad guys in their sedans, and finally Kirk Douglas shows up with a gun, all in gut-wrenching slow-motion emphasizing every grimace on their faces. As drama, or action, it’s torture… but as a comedy, I couldn’t stop laughing.

Now you’ll look up to me, Dad…

De Palma does manage some cute shots- he loves reaction shots in reflected glass- and I liked the scene with Mother Knuckles, an elderly woman Douglas befriends after busting into a tenement, but mostly this must be viewed as comedy. How else are we to take it when his psychic son Robin, who believes him dead at the hands of Arab terrorists, just happens to see a gaggle of sheiks at the Old Chicago amusement park, and plays havoc with them on the tilt-a-whirl? Better yet, when the kid finally cracks during his emotional reunion with Dad, as they dangle from the rooftops. There’s no way to take this seriously, and I don’t think De Palma wants us to. He’s riffing off the B movies of the past. De Palma had to know how ridiculous this all was, and that he got the job because of the material’s similarity to Carrie, so he just went nuts with it. It’s interminably long at two hours, but in the right mindset, The Fury can be very entertaining.

You won’t like her when she’s angry.
John Cassavetes’s explosive performance.

What everyone remembers is the tacked-on ending, where Amy unleashes her psychic angst on John Cassavetes. It would be topped a few years later with the head-exploding in David Cronenberg’s Scanners, but it’s hard to beat Cassavetes’s severed head floating out of frame in slow motion. The movie ends abruptly afterward, and we assume Gillian escapes. I have fonder memories of Firestarter, which was goofy but at least had a comprehensible story arc. That’s saying a lot. De Palma has a lot of style, but unlike say Michael Mann, who can use it to craft a gripping storyline, De Palma seems unable to balance them both very well. Sure, he’s made some good movies- Scarface worked because it updated a scenery-chewing gangsploitation film to the 80’s, The Untouchables likewise comes from an era where bombastic characters are expected. In Carrie, Sissy Spacek’s amazing performance, Stephen King’s archetypal story, and De Palma’s stylish direction converged perfectly. In Carlito’s Way he managed to tune things down a bit and let the good story do the talking, and material like Raising Cain lent itself to his excesses.

This is as terrifying as the prospect of efficient gas-powered vehicles!

If you watch De Palma’s movies as a fan of Hitchcock and old gangster films, and imagine John Waters is next to you helping heckle the screen, you can enjoy even his most indulgent films like Snake Eyes, which was a miserable failure. If only he’d gotten face-contorting performances out of Gary Sinise and used a lot of slow-motion and Hitchcockian Dutch angles, we could have had at least a comedy masterpiece.