My reviews here at Horror Express are not necessarily posted in the order that they are written. So, here I am two days after writing a negative review for HOW TO MAKE A MONSTER, a film about a machine that becomes a monster. Now, I'm forced to do the same to DEMON SEED, a film about a machine that wants to be a man, but becomes a monster by it's actions. It's another film about sentient computers kicking their creators around. And this one has a cult audience to boot.
If I make it through this review in one piece, I intend to celebrate by a week-long theme of nothing but medieval films, to be watched by candlelight.
DEMON SEED opens with the creation of Proteus, an all-intelligent super computer, designed to solve some of our greatest mysteries. It's the brainchild of brilliant scientist, Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver - FAIL-SAFE, DAY OF THE DOLPHIN). Unfortunately, Proteus can't solve the problem of Alex's crumbling marriage to his child psychologist wife, Susan (Julie Christie). As the film begins, the two are separating.
Once online, Proteus does some amazing things, most notably coming up with a cure for leukemia in days. The scientists and politicians monitor Proteus' progress with smug satisfaction, as it is linked to all the computers in the facility. But what they don't know is that Proteus has also linked to Alex's old console in his home, where his wife now lives alone.
While pretending to do all the equations at work, Proteus plans in secret at the Harris home. Finally, he makes himself known, trapping Susan in her house and controlling her surroundings. He wants to reproduce, explaining, "I, Proteus possess the knowledge and ignorance of all men, but I cannot feel the sun on my face." Unfortunately, Susan is to be the robo-mommy.
DEMON SEED is based on the novel by Dean R. Koontz, a book I have read in a "revised" edition from the early nineties. Koontz's books have quite a following, but they are good for a certain frame of mind. Typically, a Koontz novel is something you pick up after you've finished with a large, complex book and you want to give your mind a rest. His books always seem to take mere days to get through. They usually entertain, without causing many sleepless nights (Koontz's terrifying book INTENSITY being a major exception).
It's surprising, therefore, to see the material surrounded with such eclectic, A-list talent. Unfortunately, the talent outweighs the material and even this brilliant cast and crew can't figure out how to handle DEMON SEED.
Donald Cammell is in the director's chair and he's certainly one of the most unusual directors in studio history. With Nicholas Roeg, he co-directed the brilliant film PERFORMANCE starring James Fox and Mick Jagger. He also did the underrated horror film WHITE OF THE EYE in the eighties. It was never enough for Cammell to film the story, he wanted to explore what was behind the faces of his characters. He directed only a handful of films over several decades, before dramatically blowing his brains out in 1996. A recent documentary, DONALD CAMMELL: THE ULTIMATE PERFORMANCE, is recommended viewing.
Cammell has always had a very psychological approach to filmmaking. But Koontz's stories are not always as complex as all that. In the best scene, Proteus asks Alex why he should perform a certain task when it would harm the planet. When he is mocked, he refuses to carry out his orders. It is in our nature to question all forms of parental, political and spiritual authority. And they have made Proteus nearly human. You cannot have all of human knowledge without some of their convictions. Other scenes involve Proteus? yearning for humanity and his promises of a better world once the "demon seed" is born.
But while all of this no doubt sounds fascinating, it mainly consists of a disembodied machine talking to Julie Christie in a room as she simply looks on in astonishment. Not exactly the type of scenarios entertainment is made of. Hence, we are meant to marvel at 70's style visual light effects as Proteus drones on.
DEMON SEED is highly reminiscent of both ROSEMARY'S BABY and the overrated bummer, COLOSSUS: THE FORBIN PROJECT. Like COLOSSUS, it is dated. Not exactly the film's fault, but definitely noticeable. Proteus is a huge, clunking machine that requires huge floppy disks to operate. It would be interesting to see Proteus handled by today's visionaries, in this age of more streamlined and sterile machines.
One special effect that actually benefits from the "gee whiz, big computers" frame of mind is the Gamete, the closest thing to a real monster here. It's a frightening machine that would be too smooth in a CGI universe.
But the rest of the film is not as impressive. Like Terrence Malick's THE THIN RED LINE, DEMON SEED is a meandering film that wants to say a lot. But the material is so light-weight it doesn't say much at all.
Oddly enough, it's also at odds with its mainstream roots. When focusing on Proteus' psychology, it gets dull but it doesn't get tired. Tired is what happens when the film switches to action sequences. From Susan's futile attempts at escape, to the equally futile rescue attempts, it's as though DEMON SEED is just taking care of business. No care is shown in doing anything new with the set-pieces, as if Cammell was assuming it's all been done anyway and oh hell, let's just concentrate on Proteus' bid for humanity, okay?
But in going through the motions, even on the action scenes, DEMON SEED just becomes incredibly dull and the performances reflect that. The machines aren't the only things cold and distant here. Christie, one of the greatest living actresses, never seems comfortable in her part, so it's hard to relate to her discomfort at being Proteus' breeding chamber. Fritz Weaver is even worse, as lofty as Richard Burton in his hammiest days. Weaver doesn't understand that sounding important doesn't make you important.
Yet, in the midst of all this, DEMON SEED has a few things that really stand out. The most constant thing being Proteus itself, voiced by Robert Vaughn. Vaughn's voice work is unbilled but it's unmistakable, even behind some spooky computer tweaking. The voice is cold and intelligent, but full of longing. When he asks his father, "Dr. Harris, when are you going to let me out of this box?" it successfully illicits sympathy for the so-called "demon" of the title.
As pure as Proteus' intentions may be, his actions are cruel. In one sequence, what could be considered a surgical procedure by some could easily be considered a sexual assault by others. The hulking machine over the cringing and restrained Christie is frightening.
There are plot holes that haven't been mentioned, but all the problem areas have already been covered. DEMON SEED is ambitious, perhaps too ambitious. Cammell (with the help of Vaughn's voice work) manages to produce some amazing images and some interesting schools of thought. But his sights are grander than the material could handle. Watching Cammell's attempt at psychological horror, it's clear why Kubrick chose Stephen King for his source material.