Lame Slasher Flick Valentine Has Nothing on De Palma's The Fury


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The Fury
Directed by Brian De Palma

Brian De Palma's The Fury is one of the greatest stylistic achievements in movie history. Each sequence of its thriller plot plays out a spectacular event that conveys the emotional anguish of the characters, exciting your eyes and senses. Lots of crude thrillers are pitched to your nervous system, yet few filmmakers are able to express sensory experience at De Palma's existential level, using style to relay feeling. But when style has no meaning, all you're left with is discussing the ludicrous plot, as with Valentine.


First paying homage to De Palma's Carrie, the opening scene in Valentine reverses it. At a junior high school dance, a clique of girls reject dorky Jeremy Melton, leading to his torture by the entire school. Melton gets stripped and red punch is poured over him like the pig's blood at the prom in Carrie. Years later, the now-college-aged girls receive threatening Valentine's Day cards ("The journey of love is an arduous trek/My love grows for you as you bleed from your neck" and "Roses are red/Violets are blue/They'll need dental records to identify you"). A humorless, lovestruck killer stalks them all. Valentine literally combines the sex and violence that most horror movies play with and only De Palma's films credibly explore. Director Jamie (call him "Shoots") Blanks lacks the erotic/surrealist gift that allows De Palma to turn routine thriller plots into treatises on sexuality and destiny. De Palma's artistry (apparent from interesting characterizations and thoughtful plot developments to his estheticized visual conceits) raises the stakes of the stories he tells. Blanks plods through his kill-fest like a stodgy game of Ten Little Indians (or is it Scream?).


Sex is barely at stake here, despite much innuendo, a killer in a cupid mask (he symbolically shoots arrows through the body of his first victim) and a cast featuring cartoon-kittenish Denise Richards as one of the doomed vixens. Valentine gets grim and violent but is never leering or seductive. Its style doesn't relate to any recognizable conflicted feelings, whether the torturous frustration of the masked killer or the thwarted passions of the hot-to-trot, guilty-secret prey. Blanks' setpiece murder scenes are void of peculiar forensic details, animated editing or camera movements that might personalize death or add shock to a character's fate. Drowning, electrocution, hatcheting, gun shots, even a pummeling by steam-iron are all...routine.


Obviously no more thought was given to killing and grief than to the girls' adult remorse. Instead of the archetypal confused, vacuous teenagers in Carrie or The Fury, these coeds remain selfish flirts. (Even the aggressively vacuous supermodels in Head over Heels show more compassion.) Blanks and his team of four gender-balanced screenwriters stop just short of venting misogyny by falling back on feminine pathos. Though it's hard to distinguish them at first, the girls represent a range of female enticements and humiliations. Dorothy (Jessica Capshaw) can't forget her adolescent distress over being fat, fights with her father and stepmother and latches onto a golddigging pretty boy (a dimply young Treat Williams type). Capshaw's teeth-clenching neurosis provides the film's most interesting?and ominous?characterization. She makes more feminist sense than the put-upon heroine of the atrocious Carrie 2: The Rage. Through Dorothy, Valentine approximates a true Carrie sequel, almost articulating modern sexual anxiety.


In the most promising scene, the girls visit an art gallery installation where a mazelike arrangement of panels bombards them with erotic body images. "This is like a lingerie commercial," one says (though all the images are of males, a particular kind of oppression). One large projection of lips demanding "Love Me" recalls the toothpaste bright closeup of Nancy Allen's vicious smile in Carrie. Using the gallery's pop-art exaggeration to convey the modern problem of love reduced to sex, this is the most De Palma-like scene. A giant eye dominating the exhibition and a slide of a shirtless black male torso flashed just before a murderous jolt also suggests Paul Verhoeven-style satire. There's an inchoate cultural critique in this sequence, but Valentine's wayward characters aren't implicated into the deceptive imagery strongly enough to bring out the filmmakers' (or our own) latent resentment.


From there Blanks might as well be making I Know What Movies You Saw Last Decade. Marley Shelton and David Boreanaz play troubled lovebirds in a manner too reminiscent of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. The dialogue is as dully paced as an Ang Lee movie and the killings occur only a little slower than scheduled. Despite its sexy-scary premise, Valentine has no style. And style at the movies sometimes separates art from trash.


 


Compare the killings in Valentine (or any other recent slasher/horror film) to The Fury and Brian De Palma's extraordinary artistry becomes unmistakable. De Palma's violent scenes transcend mere generic function and comment on audience expectation. The Fury's plot, in which psychic twins Robin (Andrew Stevens) and Gillian (Amy Irving) oppose the older generation of secret agents (Kirk Douglas and John Cassavetes) out to either help or harm them, harnessed New Wave innovation against Old Wave convention. The inventive camera moves (by Richard Kline) and creative editing (by Paul Hirsch) culminate in the most elaborate and funniest Hollywood chase film because of De Palma's hyperconscious manipulation of thriller techniques. De Palma and his team make audiences respond to the excitement of the moment, of his ingenuity transcending genre convention.


From his beginnings as an underground, radical cineaste, De Palma's anarchic streak is always apparent in the way he pushes Hollywood gimmicks to a point of extremity. In Carrie, he vaulted over bad taste to examine the essence of sexual repression and its destructive force. In The Fury, he examines the power of cinema as a basically sensual, kinetic force tied to the memory of youthful vigor and morally innocent experience. As dark as the movie is with its hint-and-blending of the occult and espionage, it primarily features Robin and Gillian's young energy released in a world of unknowable destiny, tragic fate and the cosmos' pitiless sense of humor. It's a metaphor, really, for Vietnam-era paranoia and for the 70s American Renaissance's romance and delight with moviemaking.


A remarkable fusion of narrative and technique, The Fury demonstrates how style and content coalesce. The sci-fi/occult subject may have been a commercial concession to the success of the 1976 Carrie, but it also fulfills the pop-art fascination De Palma had already made apparent in other films like Wotan's Wake, Hi, Mom!, Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise. It's a form in which he was free to experiment?note The Fury's ceaseless panning shots, the different tempos of the cutting, the sparkling nighttime shoot-outs. He achieved a perfectly modernist hallucinatory style in which the world of mundane experience seemed enhanced by his taste for an unknowable, outrageous, fairy-tale ideal.


The Fury offers an ecstatic movie experience, but that doesn't mean it's a happy story. A viewer's elation comes from seeing the medium used to its fullest, realizing the satisfaction of seeing characters achieve their narrative fulfillment. Most times this is hard to take; De Palma proves his artistic integrity by being unafraid of tragedy. And though De Palma is a technological wiz, given to elaborately designed setpieces, he remains?as Tim Robbins' death scene in Mission to Mars proved?a maestro of tragic experience. The sense of blood in The Fury implies a deep rage and horror that no grotesque slasher movie made since has even approached. Creeped out by the body's fate, De Palma shows a Hawthorne-like quality of being equally appalled by the hesitance and weakness of the human spirit that disgraces the body.


Of all the shocking, unforgettable moments in The Fury, none proves De Palma's powerful expression more than Robin's dispute with Susan (Fiona Lewis), the double agent assigned to watch and sequester him. Their lovers' quarrel, based on misunderstanding, results in an unleashing of the undercurrents of blood and lust. Imagine Strindberg with Goya's brush, or Henry Miller with Buñuel's audacity. But it's De Palma, now Hithcock's peer. And in the end the scene is also appallingly funny. Its unveiled emotions terrifying to contemplate?Vertigo with fangs. I remember first seeing The Fury in 1978, and gasping as Susan begged, "Robin, please." A scene like that (and the equal-time feminist finale) stays with you. Valentine's various sexual confusions (and Fatal Attraction's, Thelma and Louise's, American Beauty's and Quills') are child's play by comparison.


When Godard returned to feature filmmaking in 1980, the only recent innovation he could cite was The Fury's kinetic, visionary editing. De Palma's expansion of his usual sexual themes and youth alienation and political paranoia resulted in an undeniably inventive accomplishment. A litmus test for movie-lovers. This supreme demonstration of rhythm-emotion-spectacle (featuring John Williams' richest score) proves how powerful film can be. Its intensity is both awesome and hilarious. And to this date, The Fury has the greatest ending in the history of movies. How Amy Irving's Gillian (an ideal reactive heroine) first discovers her psychic gifts, is also a lesson in movie appreciation. She is told: "Let that screen fill your mind."


The Fury shows as part of the "Critical Passions" series at the American Museum of the Moving Image, Feb. 11 at 4:30. I will introduce the fun.


 


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