In 1976, Stephen King’s first novel, a memorable tale about a high school girl with telekinetic powers, was turned into the terrifying and successful movie Carrie by director Brian De Palma. Less than two short years later, apparently not finished with the extrasensory perception motif, De Palma’s next movie dealt with a pair of young people with psychic gifts when he made The Fury in 1978.
In The Fury, Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) plays Peter Sandza, an ex-government agent whose son, Robin (Andrew Stevens from “Dallas”) is kidnapped by a government agency, led by a shady character named Ben Childress (Rosemary’s Baby’s John Cassavetes), that seeks out and acquires individuals who have exhibited psychic powers in order to brainwash them into using their gifts as weapons of war. Peter is left for dead when Ben takes Robin after a staged terrorist attack, and he vows to find his son and exact revenge on the people who have kidnapped him. One of Peter’s spy-buddies (played by De Palma regular William Finley) leads him to another psychic teenager, a girl named Gillian Bellaver (Amy Irving, who played the non-psychic Sue Snell in Carrie), who, with the convincing of Peter’s girlfriend, Hester (Pale Rider’s Carrie Snodgress), pledges to help him track down Robin. Peter and Gillian use his combat training and her psychic ability to maneuver through the city and find Robin, but Robin has already been trained as a psychic assassin and there may not be anything left in his shell of the boy who used to be Peter’s son.
The screenplay and novel for The Fury were both written by John Farris (Dear Dead Delilah), and the story is a neat little combination of spy thriller and psychological horror movie, sort of like Three Days of the Condor meets Scanners. The hush-hush recruiting of the psychic kids is a conspiracy theory plotline that, in 1978, was still relatively fresh, and De Palma’s direction only adds suspense and action to the already tense script. The opening scene where Peter is presumed dead as Ben abducts Robin epitomizes the espionage aspect of the film. Father and son are enjoying a day on the beach with Ben, who they believe is their friend. Suddenly, a group of terrorists storm the beach, shooting and blasting everything in their sights. Peter is separated from his son, and Ben takes Robin away to “safety” while Peter fights back, finally ending up in a boat that is blown sky-high. The action in the scene is non-stop, and it’s a great hook to reel viewers into the film.
The horror element of The Fury comes about when the powers of the psychic assassins are explored. In one scene, Robin makes a carnival ride full of Arabs spin around and around, faster and faster, with his mind. He eventually loosens the bolts that hold the cars to the frame (again with his mind) until his targets fly freely from the machine to their deaths. De Palma cuts between the veins on Robin’s forehead, the speeding ride and the loosening bolts in a textbook case of show-them-the-bomb suspense. In another scene, Robin gets angry with a woman who has been supplied by the government seemingly for the sole purpose of sleeping with him. He telekinetically lifts her into the air and spins her around, in control of his powers but not his temper, and it’s a scary display of what can happen when an individual wields great power without great responsibility. The army of people that the government collects to kill its enemies with their thoughts is chilling, and the methods by which they kill are terrifying.
Brian De Palma wants to be Alfred Hitchcock so badly it hurts, and, at times, his work on The Fury comes pretty close to that of the master of suspense. Most effective is the use of rear-projection in the scenes where Gillian is having psychic flashbacks; Amy Irving is shown in the foreground while the incident that she is remembering or sensing occurs behind her. The technique was used to excess by Hitchcock in films like Notorious and North by Northwest, but De Palma’s use of rear-projection is arguably more believable since the projected scene is an extra-sensory event, so the campiness works; it’s not supposed to be real life, it’s a vision, so the surrealism does not detract from the sequence. De Palma out-Hitchcock’s Hitchcock with his use of rear-projection in The Fury.
Another notable aspect of The Fury is the soundtrack. The music was composed by none other than John Williams at the height of his career, fresh off his scores for Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. His score for The Fury is not as grand and epic as much of his other work, but it is definitely on a different scale as other horror films of the era. The lush orchestrations have his fingerprint all over them, but the music also evokes more minimalistic composers like Bernard Herrmann, adding to the Hitchcockian flavor for which De Palma was striving.
In the years since Carrie, psychic murderers have shown up sporadically and have been exploited in horror films such as Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II and Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. As one of Brian De Palma’s unsung films, The Fury tends to get swept under the rug, but it offers a much more gritty and real, and therefore more frightening, depiction of telekinetic killers than the films that have come since.