By Brian Lafferty
January 3, 2011 (San Diego) – Demon Seed, available from the Warner Archive Collection and adapted from a novel by Dean Koontz, may borrow from Rosemary’s Baby and 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I still felt like I hadn’t seen anything like it before.
Demon Seed starts out ten minutes too slow in showing the separation between Susan Harris (Julie Christie) and her husband Alex (Fritz Weaver). Their daughter died of leukemia and Alex has spent hundreds of hours tirelessly working on Proteus 4, an artificial brain. As a result, the two become estranged and Alex temporarily moves out for a few months, leaving Susan home alone.
Proteus 4, which is able to think for itself, invades the Harris home through a terminal linking the house’s computer and security system with that of the lab’s where it’s constructed. It traps Susan in the house, terrorizes her, probes and prods her, then impregnates her.
Proteus 4 deserves a spot among the elite mechanical movie villains, a pantheon that includes HAL in 2001 and the original Terminator. Upon first glance, it appears to be an unconvincing villain. It’s housed in a gigantic lab deep in the mountains of a remote desert. It has barely any “body” unless you count a giant room of mechanical workings and viewing screens.
Kenneth Johnson, the creator of the original Bionic Woman and the 1970s TV series The Incredible Hulk, once said that audiences will only make so many buys when it comes to believability. Here director Donald Cammell is asking the audience to make a very big buy that this giant computer, benign in both looks and attitude, will turn evil and wreak havoc.
And it does. At one point Susan becomes uncooperative after being closed off from the outside. It traps her in the kitchen, turns off the water, electrifies the doorknob, and turns up the temperature on the kitchen floor. It’s so scorching that eggs fry. I felt the same chills as I did when the Terminator pursued Sarah Connor.
What distinguishes Proteus 4 from HAL and the Terminator is its ultra-invasive tendencies. It constantly watches Susan’s every move through the surveillance cameras stationed in every room. It wants to study her body and it does so with the mentality of a rapist. It is so malevolent and almost so human that when writing this review I had to remind myself to refer to Proteus 4 as “it” instead of “he.”
There’s another aspect of Proteus 4’s deceptive appearance. It traps Susan in the house, toys with her, harms her, rapes her, and kills anyone who tries to help. On paper, it reads like it’s a purely vile and evil character. If that were the case, it wouldn’t have been as effective as a movie villain than the way screenwriters Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson portray it. What makes Proteus 4 intimidating, scary, and despicable is it’s capability of pretending to be nice about it while doing all these horrible things to this innocent woman.
Proteus 4 is half the equation of Demon Seed’s success. The other half is Julie Christie. Victimized, scared, brave, and resilient, if it weren’t for her performance, Demon Seed wouldn’t be as compelling. The aforementioned kitchen trapping sequence is terrifying because she plays it frightened, weak, and psychologically battered. When one of the robots under Proteus 4’s control undresses her, her face and body language call to mind Susan George in the infamous double-rape scene in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs.
The transfer is fine, but not great. It hasn’t been remastered like a number of Warner Archive Collection titles, but it’s perfectly acceptable. The only noticeable instance of imperfection is in the opening credits set at the desert, which look too grainy and blotchy. But even then I’m being picky.
Demon Seed is available only via manufacture-on-demand from the Warner Archive Collection. You can order it here.
A Warner Archive Collection release. Director: Donald Cammell. Screenplay: Robert Jaffe and Roger O. Hirson, based on the novel “Demon Seed” by Dean R. Koontz. Original Music: Jerry Fielding. Cinematography: Bill Butler. Cast: Julie Christie and Fritz Weaver. 94 minutes. Rated R