A barn-burning blockbuster mixed with a post-psychedelic phase-out, The Fury was released (or unleashed) at a point in time when freakishness was something to contain and compartmentalize rather than flamboyantly unhinge. Yet director Brian De Palma, his corporate cred already in good hand after kick-starting the wave of Stephen King adaptations with Carrie, lets the crazy all hang out. An evolution and perversion of Carrie, The Fury won’t be to everyone’s tastes, although it certainly was to critic Pauline Kael’s. In one of her most infamous typeset orgasms, the famous moralist critic let loose, felt the film’s pulse, and ran with it.
Although the movie reduces her review a little (or that review stokes and arouses the movie), De Palma’s sensory kaleidoscope of gonzo gooeyness is the sort of film for which Kael’s spasmodic, surface-first writing style and critical interests were built for. The Fury is all tingles and pulses, throbs and glimmers, seedy urges and peculiar and mordant energy, emblematic of the old “style as substance” proverb, even if it isn’t quite as substantial as you want it to be. Kael’s bodily writing (emphasizing how films devour or copulate with you, as well as how you dialectically engage the film in similar actions) is dead-center for a film of bodily emissions, stylistic secretions, and orgiastic spasms of outré filmmaking panache drizzled all over you. Nothing is sacrosanct, least of all the human body which is no temple here but a vessel for malleability, corrosion, explosion, implosion, and a sojourn into the limits of human physicality beneath the flattening force of De Palma’s splatter aesthetics.
A duo of telekinetic youths played by Amy Irving and Andre Stevens are the focal points and the objects of concern, but the locus of control is the boy’s father. Played by Kirk Douglas, he’s on a desperate quest to relocate his son before an insidious shadow agent played by John Cassavetes does (the two adult actors are more than a sloppy strut of a B picture like this could ever hope for). You might expect something credible with names like that, but De Palma defies credit. This is a film about extrasensory perception that is never once anything more or less than completely dedicated to the beauty of it vital sensations. It’s not avant-garde enough to earn the renegade cinema credit some might append to it, but it is a sensual experience, for Kael not a romantic one but a libidinous, physical one, like the film was having its way with her while she cackled with laughter. Perhaps Kael was on something at the time of viewing and inordinately prone to the film’s charms, but flaws aside, bring a cigarette. You’ll need it afterwards.
De Palma’s style is masculine not in a thematic but formal sense, a work that does what it wishes with you, a gleeful and irresponsible cinema in the urge department that marries misty cinematography (a dock scene is like Peckinpah remaking Josef von Sternberg), staccato editing, profundo rosso coloring, and a John Williams score that is less famous that its predecessors in Jaws and Star Wars, but is more polyphonic and multi-faceted. It’s an ejaculation of cinema, not an aria but a tantrum, a one night stand that’ll stay with you for reasons beyond your control. De Palma creates what the script neglected: a repertoire of visual and aural clamor endemic to the tribal cinematic cabal of stylists he belonged to (Kael mentions Peckinpah, but Argento is obviously around the corner) for whom logical sense was a quarry to hunt with aesthetic flavor. You can even sprinkle a little French New Wave in the way De Palma disfigures not only cinematic morality but continuity and aesthetics in his jump cuts.
This film is also yet another pubescent coming of age story, but with a differential: the emotional anarchy of teenage life is formalized as visual bedlam, friction and formal disruption, the sensations of teenage life getting liquid all over the formal stability of the film. Adolescent confusion erupts and is unleashed in full flowering, with the nerve endings of teenage disarray mushrooming into formal explosion and then, befitting Kael’s famous “greatest ending” remark, formal collapse. Don’t expect a moral vista, but the film mobilizes existing social fears and anxieties that trample the liberating beauty of sensations, of impulses, especially youthful sensations and impulses fanatically stitched up by a puritanical society until they rankle into knots of teenage tension. As a film, it’s a critique of “rationalizing what our senses try to tell us”, as one character puts it, and a work that punctures the timid sphere of rationalism with its idiosyncratic tempo of soap-opera-hallucination. And, when the laces come loose, a tone of rhapsody of death.
A mordant air of loss looms large as well, especially in De Palma’s caustic humor which keels into tragedy in anecdotal scenes of Douglas interacting with an elderly old lady herself dislocated by her adult children. These scenes counterbalance the adrenal drive of the rest of the film, providing wistful intrusions that don’t undermine the necessarily off-balanced, arrhythmic strangeness of the production as a whole but instead provide fascinating counterpoint.
Indeed, while The Fury isn’t De Palma’s greatest film, it does illuminate his aesthetic habits as a pile-on of counterpoints and influences, more variegated than many of his critics assume. The Hitch comparison is obvious, but De Palma was also a harsh-lined mad scientist with an anxious perspective and a sensual, baroque puppeteer in the realm of self-consciously-grand-style-as-study-in-decadent-morality (all Welles there). Although De Palma is more of a tour guide through greater masters or an inspired auteur mix-and-match DJ than a true genius, the spirit of his works is too deliciously over-stuffed and inconclusive that the Hitch comparison, or any single comparison, is reductive. Hitchcockian wit and masculine satire does show up for a ruffle or two though ( see Tough Guy One and Tough Guy Two, the calling cards of two hot-shot government agents).
Much like a future David Lynch, De Palma is also oddly sincere in his application of, and perversion of, youthful innocence through a soap opera style. The soft-focus, and the slightly affected and gently aww-shucks acting style, suggest an undisturbed innocence not yet opened up to the nastiness of the world. Mordant comedy aside, De Palma also channels his melodramatic style as a wavelength of sincere, full-bloom emotion untroubled by the need to rationalize (much like in a Nicholas Ray film). He evokes a freedom to emote and to shout and to feel that necessarily and fundamentally disrupts the realist drive to consider and simmer down in the face of terror.
If a certain sense of unexpected death hovers over the film, at least De Palma’s cunning brand of omnivorous cinematic exultancy can tip its hat to the act of going out in style. Even if you’re alone, the film has more than enough orifices and stylistic limbs to please you with the hammer-head punch of a bodily, devoutly non-spiritual epiphany. Or a death spasm. For filmmakers like De Palma, when symphony of destruction mutates into carousel, the two work in tandem.