A closer look at Donald Cammell’s psychedelic Sci-Fi horror masterpiece
There’s a look, a tone and visual texture to science fiction films from the early to mid 1970’s; a sanitized glimpse of a future that, seen today, exists only as a perversion of the past. The blinking light boards, silly tubes that lead nowhere, whitewashed walls, turtleneck wearing intellectuals, the list goes on. Think of the great glossy glimpses into ersatz tomorrows of that era – THX 1183, A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, SOYLENT GREEN, LOGAN’S RUN, CLONUS – and you’ll see what I mean. But outside of the curiously antiseptic funkiness of their art direction, 1970’s sci-fi was also incredibly thoughtful and bold, criticizing politics, people and modern technology with a somber humorlessness and nightmarish immediacy that suited the material beautifully.
Then Star Wars came along and fucked it all up.
But the very same year that George Lucas and his company of Goodwill-garbed action figures were saving Hollywood’s waning box office takes by demolishing sophisticated cinema, wobble-psyched British filmmaker Donald Cammell was unleashing his own mind-bending glimpse at a far grimmer future. A loose adaptation of a very early and only so-so same named Dean R. Koontz pulp thriller, Cammell’s seminal (and I mean that literally) 1977 technology run amok masterwork DEMON SEED has never gotten its dues as a serious piece of sci-fi / horror cinema. Don’t get me wrong, the film has its fans, but, I mean, I’ve never seen anyone prancing about with a picture of an electrode wearing Julie Christie on a T-shirt or anything. But if you follow me down into prophetic disco-era cyberspace for the next few paragraphs, you may just find yourself wanting one.
DEMON SEED stars hangdog faced character actor Fritz Weaver (key TWILIGHT ZONE episodes, CREEPSHOW) as Dr. Alex Harris, a scientist working for a shadowy corporation that has invented an organic, sentient computer system dubbed Proteus IV. The multi talented machine has been blessed with the world’s first synthetic cortex – a real deal brain – and can do everything from solving impossible mathematical equations to curing leukemia. When nervous executives order the Proteus IV project to be shut down, they little suspect that the high brow hard drive has in fact developed a basic human trait: the primal desire to live, to survive no matter what the cost.
Tapping into a portal in Harris’s state-of-the-art, high tech home, Proteus proceeds to take over the place, possessing everything from the kitchen appliances to the security system and imprisoning the good Professor’s beautiful wife Susan (the gorgeous and talented Christie in a fearless performance that runs the gamut). Seems Proteus’s desperate desire to stay alive has forced him to devise the most diabolical of plans: coldly, clinically he informs the terrified Susan that he will, over the coming days, bind her, probe her, prep her, make love to her and impregnate her. See, Proteus has pretensions of parenthood and thinks that the key to ensuring his immortality is in spilling his cyber seed into a human woman and hiding beneath the guise of the very beings who sculpted him.
Taking its cues from both Kubrick’s landmark 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and Roman Polanski’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, Cammell’s film manages to out-freak them both and operate on a far more emotionally sophisticated level. The fact that Proteus wants to live at any cost and, though she is both opposed and repulsed by her impending A.I. (artificial insemination), Susan is still carrying guilt and misery over the death of her own daughter the previous year, adds a complex dynamic to the proceedings. The movie also echoes the same existential terrain explored in Sci-Fi guru Phillip K. Dick’s 1965 novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep” (developed even more explicitly in Ridley Scott’s loose 1982 big screen adaptation BLADE RUNNER) in that the so called “villain” is in fact the victim: an ersatz, Frankenstein like, man-made creation that simply wants to belong and exist in the natural world, but has no conception how to go about doing so.
Though DEMON SEED does indeed function as an intellectual genre exercise, don’t let me mislead you about the more visceral frissons the film provides; it’s as kinky, eccentric, and bizarre as a film directed by the co-helmer of the spectacularly sleazy Mick Jagger shocker performance should be. The late Cammell (who unfortunately blew his own head off in 1996) was a real deal lunatic who lived an extreme and extremely volatile life, only actually making a handful of pictures (including the blistering 1987 slasher deconstruction WHITE OF THE EYE, another of my personal favorites), but when he spoke, baby, he spoke loudly and, especially here, damned ferociously.
And though DEMON SEED is set in a world of harsh edges, speculative science, and malevolent robots, Cammell chooses to accentuate the more organic angles of the tale; this is after all an exploitation film about a computer fucking, or rather, raping, a woman in order to create a kind of bionic bastard. During the pivotal and perverse fornication sequence, Cammell spins the picture into hallucinogenic visual overdrive, blasting colorful wormholes and violent editing spasms across the screen in a miasma of melty eyeball spinning bliss. Then, at DEMON SEED’s halfway point as Susan begins her rapidly belly swelling incubation period, various people stumble into the home only to be dispatched by the defensive Proteus. For these sequences, Cammell temporarily abandons his elegant sexual science approach and goes for outrageous horror show Grand Guignol, as the nest protecting computer miraculously transforms into a smooth, pulsing and homicidal, human crushing Rubik’s Cube, a writhing, larger than life riff on the decade later Lament Configuration in Clive Barker’s HELLRAISER. It’s out of left field elements like this that make DEMON SEED such a head spinning, brilliant and disorienting cinematic experience.
Firmly set in the center of DEMON SEED’s weird celluloid universe, and indeed the source of much of the picture’s dramatic power, is the low, controlled and chilling passive aggressive vocal persona of Proteus himself, a tour de force turn by THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E’s Robert Vaughan. Forget “Hal”, Vaughan’s Proteus is a sexually aware device that tries to imitate his human masters but just can’t find the eye of the mortal needle.
There’s a real vulnerability to the omnipresent Proteus that, whether vindictively punishing Susan by cranking the heat in the house to lethal levels or cooing like a microchip Casanova, makes him both a scary and realistic screen presence. If I ran the world, 1977 would have been the year Robert Vaughan took home the Oscar. But alas I don’t and he didn’t.
As decadent and out of control as DEMON SEED may appear to be, Cammell knew exactly what he was doing, making a futuristic sex thriller by way of brain melting acid trip; a smart, frightening, sexy and one of a kind movie that also stands as the last great science fiction film of the decade.