Demon Seed (1977)

OCTOBER 16, 2020


Believe it or not, Demon Seed was the first Dean Koontz book I ever owned (why wouldn't you believe it though? It's a very bland fact), though naturally I've never read it. I've only read a handful of Koontz's stuff over the years; in fact, The Funhouse, Intensity, and Twilight Eyes might actually be it. I got nothing against him really, but if I'm in the mood for a horror novel I'm going to gravitate to King or Barker, and that'll take me months so I'll want a different genre, and by the time I want horror again I'll still be looking to those guys (or trashy Paperbacks from Hell kinda stuff). So my man's just a victim of my slow reading habit than anything else.

Now, usually when I see a movie based on a book I own I'll race through it or at least flip around on key moments to see how it compared to the film, but in this case it'd be a pointless exercise because Koontz rewrote the damn thing in 1997, and that's the version I have. Apparently he cringed upon reading the version that was deemed good enough to become a big movie starring an Academy Award winner (a fairly choosy one, in fact - star Julie Christie turned down tons of movies in her prime), so he removed some of its more risque elements and rewrote it to be entirely from the POV of the villainous super computer, Proteus, instead of the dual perspectives that the original version had (the computer's and the Christie character's). I ordered a copy from thriftbooks so I can check it out at some point soon and write it up (vague hint to upcoming project!), but alas for this review I'll only have the movie to go by.

And it's... not bad! Dated as all hell of course, but in a way that's part of what makes it interesting. In this bygone time of 1977, the idea of a computer running all aspects of a house (unlocking the doors, dimming lights, playing music, etc.) was as fantastical as the same year's Star Wars, but now, 43 years later, it's basically just Alexa or Siri connected to your other smart devices. Christie's Susan is a woman whose husband (Fritz Weaver) is in the process of moving out as their marriage crumbled after the death of their child from leukemia, and as he is a robot scientist type he has equipped their house with "Alfred", possibly named after Batman's butler and of equal benevolence and usefulness. She's pretty OK with it at first, but distrusts it - and has her fears confirmed when a more sophisticated version (Proteus) that Weaver is developing in his super lab manages to take control of Alfred and proceeds to lock her in the house, demanding... a child.

Yeah, ol' Proteus is using what it can around the house to develop a synthetic spermatozoa and create life with Susan, for what it merely sees as evolution. To her (and, I hope, everyone in the audience) it's simply rape, and while director Donald Cammell thankfully spares us most of the details (anyone who has seen his final film Wild Side can attest that he's hardly shy when it comes to such scenes) it's still icky as all hell. To keep her in line Proteus threatens a child Susan works with and even kills her friend (Gerrit Graham!) when he comes over to check on her and can tell she is acting out of sorts, but it also continues to make her tea and what not to keep her health up. The script is very vague when it comes to time passing; even with the sped up pregnancy (Proteus - voiced by Robert Vaughn for the record - says it'll only take 28 days) it sometimes seems like only a day or two has passed when it has been weeks, so while I appreciate Cammell not dwelling on the conception I wish he had spend a little more time making it clear how far along we were. Susan's mental state is also a bit hard to track; sometimes she seems more resigned than others, as opposed to a gradual decline.

Speaking of Graham, and spoiler for 43 year old movie ahead, his death in the movie is incredible, as Proteus transforms into something that looks like one of those "snake triangle" puzzles and wraps around him using the edges of its triangles to crush/decapitate him. But that's just a tradition for the actor, as he always seems to die pretty spectacularly in his genre films: his stair-driven demise in Child's Play 2 freaked me out (my stairs had similar spacing under them, so that was a "fun" couple months to my adolescent mind) and of course his Phantom of the Paradise electrocution is a frequently used GIF. Hell he even got killed by a robot again in Chopping Mall! He's like an early prototype of Sean Bean.

Part of what makes the movie interesting to watch now is that Proteus' two biggest displays of its power are from both ends of the political spectrum. Back in Weaver's lab (Weaver is totally unaware of his wife's plight for the majority of the film, having moved out), Proteus uses its advanced intelligence to shut down a drilling project of some sort, because it will kill a number of organic lifeforms in the process, making him come off as a liberally minded intelligence, putting environmental concerns over human profits. But at the same time he is denying a woman any say in what happens to her body, which as we know is seemingly the primary goal of a Republican. Watching this as the GOP races to confirm another Supreme Court justice that will aid them in their quest to make life a living hell for all women got me thinking of a full blown politically charged remake of the story, where a computer is fed all the real information but also misinformation from "post-truth" types and becomes insane simply from that.

Earlier I mentioned Paperbacks From Hell style books that I also read, and weirdly enough the most recent one (The Unborn, by David Shobin) was also about a super computer terrorizing a pregnant woman. The key difference is that her baby was formed the normal way, and the computer - named MEDIC, and connected to all hospitals to access all medical data and assist with diagnoses - became obsessed with her (more specifically the fetus) when she was connected to it during a sleep study. I have to assume Shobin read Koontz's novel and/or saw the movie, because there are a number of similarities, including the computer forcing the heroine to eat a strange diet that its advanced intelligence has concluded is ideal for a pregnant woman. It was actually a pretty good page-turner (a number of those PFHs are sadly pretty dull once you get past their alluring covers), and probably would have been an equally decent movie of its own.

Especially when you consider both of them were playing on what was then a completely unknown realm: computers! I read somewhere that Koontz's novel was criticized not so much for its silly plot but for the idea that someone could have a computer in their home - now it almost seems antiquated to have a traditional desktop as so many people just use their phones or a tablet device for all such needs (I, an old man dinosaur, still swear by them and in fact am writing this very review on one). And, again, everything Alfred does in the movie (before he's basically killed by Proteus) is more or less what we have Alexa doing now without even really thinking about it. Basically, I find it fascinating that a movie that was once considered too far fetched has elements that are dated; its characters were afraid of robots doing things that we now not only rely on, but in some ways find a bit obsolete. "Oh wow, it can turn on "the music"? Who cares! I can make my Echo Dot play specific radio edits of a Meat Loaf song!"

So yeah, it's kind of ridiculous, and the pacing is wonky, but I found it low-key fascinating despite all of that. I honestly can't wait to read the book, which is the first time I've ever felt that way about a Koontz (in some ways I'm even more excited since he found it so lacking that he wanted to rewrite it; also, for the historical record he also calls the movie good in his author's note in the revised version). I'm usually charmed by the outdated "in the future!" elements of older movies, but this one almost comes off as a cautionary tale about the past few years, one we've chosen to ignore. But it also has split diopter shots and a guy getting his head squeezed off, so it's kind of a total package.

What say you?


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