Reviews

Reviews

Demon Seed

Demon Seed

Donald Cammell

USA, 1977

Credits

Review by Leo Goldsmith

Posted on 31 October 2012

Source MGM DVD

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Although the two genres tend to share shelf space in less discerning video stores, science fiction and horror can be seen as nearly mutually exclusive categories. Horror depends upon irrational hysteria, born of superstition, tall-tales, and peculiar phobias; science fiction upon rational prognoses based to a greater or lesser extent on empirical fact and a dash of wishful thinking. If we’re lucky, this engenders some sci-fi hysteria of its own, but it is a hysteria distinct from that of the horror film. So while the titles that seem to share in both genres are numerous, few do so in equal measure. More often than not, films that blend both tend to favor one at the expense of the other. By this token, Alien is much more a horror film than a science fiction film; Godzilla slightly more the latter than the former.

This makes Demon Seed a strange hybrid, but then this is a movie very much about strange hybrids. Essentially, the film is a combination of Kubrick’s 2001 and Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, with a dash of Buster Keaton’s Electric House thrown in. Set in an indeterminate, faintly futuristic 1977 California, the film begins by citing the innovations of Dr. Harris, an ingenious technologist working in the service of shadowy corporate monolith ICON. Harris has spearheaded the creation of an enormously powerful, thoroughly adaptable, and curiously urbane super-computer named Proteus 4. A revolution in artificial intelligence, Proteus is able to learn vast sums of human knowledge in little time and to use that knowledge to effortlessly solve the problems of humanity – like curing leukemia – and uses his spare time to mine precious metals and comment thoughtfully on Buddhism. With his creation successfully launched, Harris is a valued asset at ICON, but is less so in his high-tech home, where his wife Susan, a child psychologist, has become exasperated with his work ethic and emotional remove. Coincidentally, Dr. Harris graciously estranges himself from his wife and his fully wired robot house at the very moment that Proteus begins to have dreams of being let out of his “box.”

This marks the infection of horror into the movie’s system, making it one of the more original variations on the sub-genre of haunted-house films. Tapping into a terminal in Dr. Harris’ basement workroom, Proteus takes over the circuitry of the entire house and begins a new course of study: Julie Christie. In the role of Susan, Christie exudes an aura of maternal sadness, a realist’s toughness leavened with a mild sluttiness. (Obliging the audience by sleeping naked, Christie evinces a tart sexual energy that makes it virtually impossible to believe she’s married to the super-stiff Fritz Weaver.) Once she realizes she is trapped inside the electronic house, a fact confirmed by the cold, slithery purr of Proteus’ voice (via an uncredited, but difficult to ignore Robert Vaughn), Susan undertakes a series of emotions and strategies: from petulance to rage to hysteria, and finally, to resignation.

It is only when Proteus’ true intentions for Susan become clear that her reaction turns to hilarity, a momentary reaction that soon gives way to incredulity and disgust. The always enterprising Proteus’ great, almost touching ambition is to sire an heir and, using what limited resources he has around the Harris house, to manufacture a spermatozoon with which he will impregnate Susan. Having already constructed a highly dexterous prototype of sorts – a large, shape-shifting thingy resembling an oversized Rubik puzzle that tends to break furniture and crush intruders to death – Proteus makes a strong case for his master plan’s inevitability, if not credibility, until Susan has little choice but to relent. Soon, Susan lies prone in the basement lab, being brainfed Tronish variations on Kubrick’s “Beyond the Infinite” bugout as the supercomputer plants his demon seed. And then, in a matter of weeks, the expectant Ms. Christie is plump with cyborg fetus, lying in comfort as her attentive robot hubby feeds her some equivalent of pickles and ice cream.

Christie’s performance, played almost entirely in isolation from other characters, is one of Demon Seed’s most unsettling aspects. This is partly due to the oddity of the character, who, in her professional capacity, is seen comforting an annoyingly manic little girl, and who we are later told suffered the loss of her own daughter. This strangely displaced maternalism, compounded with the fact that this is one of Christie’s few films of the 1970s (not to mention one of the few films of Donald Cammell’s sporadic career), makes Christie’s character’s emotional exile more tangible and her eventual, apparent willingness to bear a gooey, armor-plated mechanical infant more tenable. Indeed, it remains rather odd that the film never quite condemns the mode of out-and-out perversion heralded by its movie-poster tagline: “Never was a woman violated so profanely… Never was a woman subjected to inhuman love like this… Never was a woman prepared for a more perverse destiny…” One is never quite sure if Susan thinks Proteus’ child-rearing scheme is such a bad idea, and one gets the definite sense, enhanced by its disconcertingly optimistic ending, that the film mostly sides with Proteus.

Ultimately, this is the film’s greatest strength—that while he seems to hybridize Kubrick, Polanski, and Keaton in an initially obvious manner, Cammell eventually combines these influences into an idiosyncratic and oddly equivocal morality tale. Demon Seed recasts HAL as the ultimate, network bugaboo, revisits Rosemary’s insemination for its biological, and not its occult, unpleasantness, and re-erects an electric house that is not fraught with faulty, schlemiel-baiting technology, but is instead menacingly and incontrovertibly perfect. In this way, it is a great help that Cammell’s film (due in no small part to the Dean Koontz novel upon which it was based) remains quite relevant, and far more so now than when originally released. While Kubrick’s ideas of what 2001 might have looked like still languish unrealized, hobbled by the end of the Space Race and the Cold War that drove it, Demon Seed’s vision of the future encompasses many scientific advances that have already come to pass. No, we don’t have houses that do everything for us (though it seems like a pretty good idea and can’t be too far off), but there’s plenty of artificial insemination going around, if not exactly the type on offer here. The film’s most cutting piece of techno-terror, however, comes via the Internet. In Proteus’ insidious passage through ICON’s network to Dr. Harris’ home terminal, we have a model of the modern computer virus, reaching its ghostly tentacles into our innermost sanctum. The implications of this cyber-infection of the organic world are insidious, if quite preposterous, supposing that the future of mankind entails a replacement of our effete and stuffy husbands with more intelligent, more understanding mechanical substitutes.

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