and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about Sir Diddley Squat’s latest xenomorph instalment is that after the prologue – and if you overlook the clunky dialogue, indistinguishability of the ‘characters’, poor grasp of physics, idiot plotting and general boring-ness of it all – most of the first hour is nowhere near as bad as Prometheus (Scott 2012) or, indeed, as the second half of Alien: Covenant, even if the second half is the half in which we get to see Michael Fassbender in a dopey hat, Michael Fassbender play Kurtz as Hannibal Lecter, Michael “you blow into it and I’ll do the fingering” Fassbender finally have a queer romance with Michael Fassbender, and, in the very final shot, Michael Fassbender show off his enormous feet in clown shoes…
and so anyway it turns out the best thing about Overlord (2018) is, as any sane person would expect, the always awesome Bokeem Woodbine, though the second best thing about this very silly film featuring a mission behind German lines in Normandy in the early hours of 6 June 1944 discovering mad scientists manufacturing a Nazi zombie army is the way it poses a mystery every bit as big as how Bokeem “Okay I’ll Be In It, And The Best Thing In It, But Only For 5 minutes” Woodbine makes a living, namely, how in the hell was this film not called D-Day of the Dead
Just back from finally seeing Mother! at a late screening. For me, it reiterates with startling clarity Aronofksy’s three key themes, all of which are evident throughout, but each of which in turn comes to the fore in the film’s three sections.
Part one: men are dicks, perhaps especially Darren Aronofsky.
Part two: other people are just unbearably awful, perhaps especially Darren Aronofsky.
Epilogue: people who consider themselves ‘Artists’ are complete assholes, perhaps especially Darren Aronofsky.
I must confess to be being baffled at all the fuss and controversy. I can only assume that audiences were upset that, despite its fair share of laugh-out loud moments, Mother! just wasn’t as continuously hilarious as Aronofsky’s earlier comedies, The Fountain (2006) and Noah (2014).
Once upon a time, in contemporary Denmark, there were two middle-aged, infertile half-brothers, each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.
Gabriel is younger, more responsible, more conventional. Multiple surgical reconstructions have failed to eradicate his cleft lip, and when nervous or upset he suffers from uncontrollable gagging.
Elias, a disastrous lothario, hides his cleft lip behind a scruffy moustache. He cannot resist picking arguments, however foolish or futile, and must masturbate at regular intervals to relieve the priapism from which he suffers. He scours dating websites in search of female psychotherapists so that instead of paying consultation fees he can ask them over dinner to explain his recurring nightmare. (The meaning of the gothic dream’s imagery – full of sibling rivalry, separation anxiety, sex and violence – is obvious, yet utterly beyond him.)
When their father dies, they discover that he had adopted them. Gabriel, keen to break free of Elias, decides to go in search of their biological father, the long-disgraced doctor and geneticist Evelio Thanatos. Elias, desperate not to lose the closest thing he has to a friend, insists on accompanying his reluctant not-exactly-brother.
And, on the distant island of Ork, in Thanatos’s now derelict and otherwise abandoned sanatorium, they discover three more (infertile) half-brothers, each of whom has his own deformities and peculiarities, and each of whom lost his mother in childbirth.
Writer-director Anders Thomas Jensen – who is currently scripting, of all things, the Dark Tower adaptation – is probably best known for his deadpan, heart-breakingly sad and yet really quite beautiful cannibalism comedy De grønne slagtere/The Green Butchers (2003). He returns with many of the same cast (including Mads Mikkelsen and Nordic noir regulars Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Nicolas Bro, Ole Thestrup and Bodil Jørgensen) to once more scale the heights of absurdist gothic Jutland grotesque – a genre I just made up while writing this sentence. It consists, as far as I know, of Jensen’s two films and maybe Henrik Ruben Genz’s Frygtelig lykkelig/Terribly Happy (2008).
In Men & Chicken, Jensen introduces another gallery of adorable yet pathetic misfits, all of them broken and disconnected and abandoned by the world, full of pettiness and desperation, and driven by violent impulses and mundane yet still unattainable desires. And this time he replaces butchery with bestiality. And abasiophilia. And chronophilia or anililagnia or gerontophilia, depending on how you interpret events. And arguably morphophilia or, if you even more mean-spirited, teratophilia. And turophilia. And even a science-fictional twist or two.
Suffice it to say, Evelios Thanatos is a Baltic Moreau.
And are his children not men? Are they not capable of building a utopia in the ruins of their father’s legacy?
‘I may not be normal’, Elias ultimately confesses, to which Gabriel replies, ‘None of us really are’.
The film ends moments later with a golden-lit vision of community, of extended family as a metaphor for the triumph of affiliation and conviviality over a normalcy of marginalisation and exclusion. It is genuinely moving.
And so absurdly golden that Jensen clearly doesn’t mean a word of it, while simultaneously wanting it to be true.
[The last of the pieces written for that book on sf adaptations that never appeared]
Written in 1920, ‘From Beyond’ is an early, minor Lovecraft story. Crawford Tillinghast’s new invention stimulates the ‘unrecognized sense-organs that exist in us as atrophied or rudimentary vestiges’, enabling him to perceive the ‘strange, inaccessible worlds … at our very elbows’ (90). The narrator, summoned by Tillinghast, finds his previously stout, clean-shaven friend a dishevelled, muttering, yellow-skinned shadow of his former self. After switching on the machine, Tillinghast warns the narrator not to move, because the rays that enable them to see beyond also make them visible to whatever exists there. As the narrator’s ‘augmented sight’ (95) develops, he perceives roiling clouds, a temple, the cosmos, ‘huge animate things brushing past … and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body’ (94–95), another realm ‘superimposed upon the terrestrial scene much as a cinema view may be thrown upon the painted curtain of a theatre’ (95). The laboratory fills with ‘indescribable shapes both alive and otherwise’, with ‘inky, jellyfish monstrosities which flabbily quivered in harmony’ with the machine’s vibrations (95). The ecstatic Tillinghast has ‘seen beyond the bounds of infinity’, ‘drawn down daemons from the stars’, and ‘harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness’ (96). The things pursuing Tillinghast come for the narrator, who shoots the machine. He passes out and Tillinghast suffers a fatal apoplexy. The narrator can never forget the teeming, invisible world around him, or shake the feeling that something hunts him still.
Following the success of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), adapted from Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ (1922), Charles Band’s Empire Pictures, its US distributor, offered Gordon a three-film deal. Gordon pitched an adaptation of Lovecraft’s ‘Dagon’ (1919) but Band preferred one of his alternative suggestions, ‘From Beyond’ (Gordon would eventually make Dagon in 2001). Since Lovecraft’s story is little more than a single scene – and one that would be prohibitively expensive to film – Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna adapted it as the opening sequence: Tillinghast (Jeffrey Combs) switches on the Resonator for the first time, and a piscine creature, swimming through the air, attaches to his face like some monstrous leech, tearing open his cheek; when his boss, Dr Pretorius (Ted Sorel) – named after Ernest Thesiger’s wonderfully queer mad scientist in Bride of Frankenstein (Whale 1935) – activates the Resonator, something tears his head off. We are not shown Pretorius’s demise. It is the last time the film will show such restraint.
Lovecraft’s unseen realm, populated by fragmentary teratalogical wonders, can be interpreted as figuring all that is excluded from what Jacques Lacan calls the symbolic order; and weird intrusions from there can be understood in terms of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject – things that are neither subject nor object, neither living nor dead, and which are often associated with female bodies and queer sexualities. Although From Beyond now seems quite innocent, twenty-five years ago its escalating and increasingly elaborate special effects sequences looked like a handbook of post-structuralist psychoanalytic theory.
Tillinghast is committed to an asylum run by the draconian Dr Bloch (Carolyn Purdy-Gordon), named after Lovecraft’s friend and protégé, Robert Bloch. The police hire ‘girl wonder’ psychiatrist, Dr Katherine McMichaels (Barbara Crampton), to determine whether Tillinghast can stand trial. Along with the cop Buford ‘Bubba’ Brownlee (Ken Foree), she takes him back to the house, where she discovers evidence of Pretorius’s BDSM predilections and reconstructs the experiment that, according to Tillinghast, released whatever killed his mentor. A toothed, tentacled creature attacks Bubba, and Pretorius returns, monstrously transformed, before Tillinghast can switch off the machine. McMichaels, sexually aroused by the Resonator’s stimulation of her pineal gland, is compelled to turn it back on. Pretorius returns in even more hideous form. The enormous slug-like creature that sucked his head from his shoulders fastens on to Tillinghast, tearing of his hair before the Resonator is again switched off. McMichaels, fascinated by the BDSM clothes and equipment in Pretorius’s room, dresses up in dominatrix gear and attempts to have sex with the unconscious Tillinghast and with Bubba. Her sexual energy reactivates the Resonator, unleashing locusts that strip Bubba’s flesh to the bone. Returned to the asylum, the mutating Tillinghast becomes hungry for human brains. He sucks out one of Bloch’s eyes and eats her brain through the socket. McMichaels and Tillinghast return to Pretorius’s house for another extravagant display of sexual apparatuses and gloopy special effects before the Resonator is destroyed.
From Beyond never quite achieves the gleeful excesses of Re-animator, although that did not prevent the MPAA refusing it an R certificate three times before finally approving a cut. Nor did it enjoy the same critical and financial success or cult afterlife. Its prosthetic and make-up effects were soon surpassed – not least by Screaming Mad George’s work on Yuzna’s Society (1989) three years later – and its use of lurid purples and greens whenever the Resonator is switched on now seems like some archaic VHS aesthetic.
Although the original story lacks the adjectival proliferation associated with Lovecraft’s relentlessly failing specificity of otherness, the film’s comic tone detracts from the special effects’ ability to convey the gross materiality that Lovecraft strove to catalogue. Gordon is not concerned to replicate the critical seriousness of Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), but his slapstick humour is not as well developed or focused as that of the young Sam Raimi and Peter Jackson. From Beyond’s more salacious content lacks the shock-value of Re-animator’s notorious cunnilingus scene, while its elaboration of Lovecraft’s sexual undercurrents pales in comparison to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1987). But it is still worth watching, if only for Combs’ remarkable performance. He is adept at conveying with just his eyes the eagerness, hope, anxiety and inarticulate regret of a young man a long way out of his depth. The intensity he brings to the role contrasts with the blandness of everyone else in the cast. It is as if he really has seen beyond and knows more than he should.
H.P. Lovecraft, ‘From Beyond’, in H.P. Lovecraft Omnibus 2: Dagon and Other Macabre Tales. London: HarperCollins, 1994. 89-97.
[another of those pieces written for the book on sf adaptations that never appeared]
Narrated from the perspective of the doctors treating him, particularly psychiatrist Janet Ross, Crichton’s novel tells the story of divorced, thirtysomething computer scientist, Harold Benson. He suffers from blackouts during which he becomes extremely violent. Since orthodox medication has no effect on his Acute Disinhibitory Lesion (ADL) syndrome, he agrees to a radical surgical procedure, conducted by the Neuropsychiatric Research Unit (NRU). Forty electrodes are inserted into the damaged section of his brain and a nuclear powerpack into his shoulder. A computer implanted in his neck will detect the onset of a seizure and abort it with a shock through one of the electrodes. Ross considers Benson, who believes that machines are ‘competing with human beings’ and will ‘ultimately … take over the world’ (15), an unsuitable candidate for this procedure. Professor Manon is also opposed to the operation since it will do nothing to cure Benson’s psychosis, but the ambitious Dr Ellis justifies his decision to proceed on the grounds that it will at least stop Benson’s seizures and the accompanying violence. On the eve of the operation, a young woman called Angela Black visits Benson.
After the operation, Roger McPherson, head of the NRU, is troubled by Benson’s continued conviction about the machine threat. Monitoring Benson’s brain activity, Ross notices the increasing frequency of stimulations as he starts to ‘initiate seizures in order to experience the pleasurable shocks’ (131). Benson escapes from the hospital. A computer projection indicates that within hours he will be receiving almost continuous stimulations, making him uncontrollably violent. The medical staff set out to find him. Shortly after the tipping-point passes, Angela is found murdered, her skull crushed and her body repeatedly stabbed post-mortem.
When Benson attacks Ross in her home, she uses her microwave to disrupt his powerpack, but Dr Morris, who tracks him to a hangar, is brutally beaten. While Ellis spins the story for the media, the LAPD’s Captain Anders discovers that Benson obtained plans for the hospital’s wiring system. Ross and Anders descend into the labyrinthine basement housing the hospital’s mainframe, and when Benson attemps to destroy it, Ross shoots him dead.
The selection of Mike Hodges – director of the quintessential British neo-noir Get Carter (1971) and the self-reflexive black crime comedy Pulp (1972) – to adapt Crichton’s novel might seem a curious choice. However, even if Hodges’ background in documentary (including ITV’s hard-hitting current affairs series World in Action (1963–99) in the early 1960s) had not recommended him for the project, it certainly assisted him in crafting the most aesthetically (and least financially) successful Crichton adaptation. Crichton uses various techniques in an attempt to lend his potboiler a kind of documentary realism, including: the same title format for each chapter (e.g., ‘WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 1971: Implantation’); a timeline of the history of psychosurgical therapy, culminating in an entry which reads ‘Harold Benson is operated on in Los Angeles’ (the October 23 1971 date of this introduction, like the chapter titles, implies that the novel is a record of something that has already happened); sundry computer outputs; facsimiles of LAPD crime and death reports; and a six-page bibliography. While Hodges’ documentarian skills might suit him to these and related aspects of the novel, his black humour and leftist political sensibilities are utterly at odds with Crichton’s distinctive reactionary blend of moralistic earnestness and hysterical technophobia.
Crichton presents his novel as a cautionary intervention into technoscientific developments and the failure of a purportedly democratic system to foster informed popular debate about key social issues and trends. Whatever degree of hucksterism this involves, it is presented as a genuine concern. However, although the novel does evoke concerns around the dehumanising potentials of technology, it fails to articulate a coherent position in relation to them. This ideological fuzziness, typical of Crichton’s work, may in part account for his phenomenal success.
The key contradiction shaping the novel is between linear and non-linear determinism, articulated through a dislike and simultaneous embrace of authoritarian structures, and through an equally muddled championing of individualism and moralistic disdain for the ways in which certain people ‘misuse’ their freedom. Crichton’s reactionary leanings often take on a pseudo-pragmatic, anti-intellectual, anti-big government tone (for example, substantial passages are devoted to characters arguing that violent behaviour results from physical brain damage, while no-one even contemplates any of the other potential causes suggested in all the ‘bad theory floating around, written by sociologists and paid for by good taxpayer money’ (41)), which completely contradicts his growing awareness of complex determinism.
When Benson arrives at the hospital, Morris signs for him ‘as if he were receiving a package from United Parcel’ (8), a subjection to bureaucratic processes that resonates with the patient’s psychosis. McPherson later suggests that Benson has been turned into ‘a read-out device’ for the implanted computer, ‘as helpless to control the read-out as a TV screen is helpless to control the information presented on it’ (83; italics in original). The hospital computer refers to Benson as an ‘auxillary unit’ (120), while he describes himself as ‘an automobile in a complicated service station’ (125). Morris begrudges his pager, which keeps him perpetually networked into administrative systems, and at one point suddenly notices that computers monitor and predict LA traffic flows. Such ruminations are given a sense of inevitable – and detrimental – consequence through the linear determinism espoused by several characters and by the frequency with which futurological and computer projections are treated as inarguable: in 1967, McPherson surveyed the fields of ‘diagnostic conceptualization, surgical technology, and microelectronics’ and concluded that it would be possible to perform ‘an operation for ADL seizures in July of 1971’ (197), a prediction which proved too conservative by four months; and the positive progression cycle, in which Benson’s brain learns to trigger seizures, is plotted from just three points on a graph, predicting to within a couple of minutes when he will go into continuous stimulation. Consequently, when Morris is told about July 1969’s ‘Watershed Week’ – ‘when the information-handling capacity of all the computers in the world exceeded the information-handling capacity of all the human brains in the world’ – and that by 1975 computers will ‘lead human beings by fifty to one in terms of capacity’ (159-60), the novel succeeds in conveying a sense of menace. This is achieved by conflating a not unreasonable prediction of quantitative change with the implication that it must necessarily result in a threat to humanity – or at least to our human qualities (which consist entirely of small-town, middle-American values).
Such linear determinism seeps out into Crichton’s depiction of a dehumanised social world. As Ross drives around LA, she muses upon the ways in which an automobile-dominated culture ‘thwarted some deep human need to congregate, to be together, to see and be seen’ (147), producing a depersonalized society of ‘recent emigrants and therefore strangers’ (147) who lack traditional institutions and infrastructures. LA offers ‘freedom’, but no ‘supports’, and tends to attract ‘people with problems’ (148), a euphemism for homosexuals, who are equated in the same passage with loneliness and suicide. The novel’s homophobia is striking (for example, Ross bemoans a short-lease culture which results in apartment buildings ‘full of hookers, full of gays, full of drugs and transients’ (171)), implying that any alternative to heterosexuality is a form of deviance born of dehumanising modernity.
Curiously, though, Crichton also struggles at times to express a sense of the complex, non-linear determinism underpinning his trademark narrative about the failure of complex systems, best – if still rather clumsily – articulated through the chaos mathematics he invokes in Jurassic Park (1990). In The Terminal Man, it is most clearly developed through Gerhard’s computer programmes, called Saint George and Martha. Designed to interact with each other, they are capable of responding ‘with three emotional states – love, fear, and anger’ and of ‘produc[ing] three actions – approach, withdrawal, attack’ (99). Despite this system’s simplicity, it ‘produce[s] complex and unpredictable machine behavior’ (115). After running more than a hundred times, Saint George, ‘programmed for saintliness’, ‘is learning not be a saint around Martha’ (103), even threatening to kill her. This is presented as a value-neutral experiment, but the obvious gender stereotyping suggests that the dependence on initial conditions need not be that sensitive to produce this result. The implications of a later discussion, in which Gerhard and Ross contemplate the possibility that after twenty-four hours of stimulations Benson’s brain has become something radically different than the one on which they operated and thus beyond their capacity to predict, are likewise countered by the utter predictability of the plot.
A generous reader might construe the material about Saint George and Martha as Crichton’s commentary on his own deployment of blandly named, more or less indistinguishable characters. One might even see such characters, typical of Crichton’s fiction, as an elaboration upon his screeds against the anonymity of modern, urban life while working within an American popular fiction idiom which privileges the description of externalities from which the reader is to infer interiorities. However, Crichton does describe several characters’ interior lives, albeit perfunctorily, and just as the novel reads like the treatment for a screenplay, these formulaic passages seem like notes for the actors who might step in and bring them to life. A more conventional adaptation would undoubtedly have sought to animate them through the verisimilar and melodramatic strategies typical of Hollywood productions (such as Crichton himself deployed, with some success, in adapting Robin Cook’s Coma (1977) in 1978), but Hodges takes a rather different path. He transforms Crichton’s dyspeptic, incoherent jeremiad into a rigorous critique of totalizing institutions (here, medicine, combined with legal and penal systems, as well as the police and patriarchy) which can be understood as modelling the deeper logic of social, political and economic structures governing everyday life – like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Forman 1975), but without its sentimental desire for heroism and redemption.
The film opens in pitch black night, the only light emanating from the cockpit of an insectile police helicopter facing the camera, the only noise that of its engines as it takes to the air; the helicopter will become an aggressively loud presence, signalling the powerlessness not merely of Benson (George Segal) to avoid it but of the audience in the face of the system it represents. The film cuts to a restaurant, in which doctors Ellis (Richard Dysart), McPherson (Donald Moffat) and Friedman (James Sikking) discuss Benson and ADL syndrome. Benson’s back-story is related, with impressive economy, through a series of photographs that the three men examine – Benson with his wife and daughter, Benson being arrested, the battered face of Benson’s wife – while planning the media coverage of the operation. To Hodges’ regret, he added this sequence to help allay studio concerns that ‘the film had no one to root for’ (personal email) rather than cutting directly to the title sequence: a black screen with white credits, accompanied by Glenn Gould’s performance of Bach’s Goldberg Variation No. 25; footsteps approach in a corridor; a key chain rattles; there is a scraping sound, a peephole opens on the right of the screen and an eye peers through, looking out at the audience; the men in the corridor, functionaries of some institution, discuss Benson; the caption ‘tuesday’ appears, and the film cuts to Benson being delivered by the police to the hospital. Three more times during the film the screen goes to black, a peephole opens, and these anonymous, uneducated men – it is not clear if they are prison warders or asylum orderlies – discuss Benson. The film also ends with a version of this shot, in which one of the voices says, ‘They want you next’, to which the other responds ‘Quit kidding around’. These final words comically deflate the clichéd threat intoned by the first speaker; but beneath the end credits, the police helicopter descends through the night, coming full circle, yet instead of the deafening rotors there is silence, and then a cold wind howls. This hesitation – erasing then reinstating the film’s ominous implications – indicate Hodges’ wry amusement at the materials with which he is working and, simultaneously, a genuine sense that, despite their pulpiness, they can be utilised to critique contemporary social realities.
Hodges’ damning depiction of the total institution depends upon four major strategies. First, there is the film’s remarkable production design, in particular its use of colour. The title sequence establishes The Terminal Man’s oppressive palette; it is as close as a colour film can get to a black-and-white production, with several shots among the most overtly expressionist to be found in Hollywood outside of classical film noir. The walls, floor and furniture of the hospital lobby are black, and its windows open onto utter darkness outside. Throughout the hospital, if walls are white, then doors and furnishings are black. The staff all wear white, except for when, off-duty, they wear black. If there is a source of light, everything around it is pooled in darkness. The only relief – slight that it is – comes from occasional blue-greys or flashing orange lights. Until the final stages of the film, there is no indication that daytime even exists, but once we are there, bright clear light and whiteness – from the walls of Dr Ross’s (Joan Hackett) apartment to Benson’s choice of suit – dominate, although black furnishings remind the audience of the night to come. Day or night, there is no escape from these carefully orchestrated constraints.
Second, there is Hodges’ meticulous shot-construction, perhaps the most significant aspect of which is his frequent partial obscuring of Ross. Marginalised by the medical establishment for being a woman, a psychiatrist (rather than a surgeon), and more concerned about the patient than the procedure, Ross is often pushed by Hodges to the edge of the frame or picked out, diminished in the distance, from between foregrounded surgeons. While Crichton does acknowledge the sexism Ross faces, including incidents and passages of introspection, Hodges’ low-key spatialisation of patriarchal hegemony is far more effective. This spatialisation of gendered power is further emphasised during the sequence in which Ross’s discomfiture, when alone with Benson during the testing of his electrodes, is ignored by the male doctors observing them through one-way glass positioned high on the wall above them. The Foucauldian aspects of commonplace surveillance are even more clearly evinced during the lengthy surgical procedurals – articulated through an impeccable low-key precision, self-consciously devoid of the melodramatic imperatives shaping such sequences in Crichton’s E.R. (1994–2009) – as a crowd gathers around to observe the operation from above.
Third, there are the performances. Joan Hackett’s self-conscious awkwardness as Ross is essential to the critique of gender politics. The very different physiques, looks, mannerisms and accents of Richard Dysart, Donald Moffat and, as Dr Morris, Michael C. Gwynne provide a clearer sense of differentiation between the senior medical staff than can be found in Crichton’s novel, but Hodges does not permit them to become more than components of the systems within which they function. An occasional line or gesture suggests that they are fuller human beings than their social roles allow, but such moments (for example, Ellis’s off-colour comment to McPherson about Ross, or Morris’ attempt to flirt with Angela (Jill Clayburgh)) seem to bemuse the other characters. Retrospectively, George Segal seems an unlikely Benson. Despite a successful career as a dramatic actor on stage, television and film, by the early 1970s he was focusing on the kind of comedy roles with which he has subsequently become most closely associated. By effectively casting him against type, Hodges produces a soft-spoken, genial everyman who is overtaken by external forces (the pre-credits material is, indeed, a misstep, giving Benson too much specificity, and counteracting the effectiveness of a later scene in which a recording of his litany of suburban lifestyle elements and possessions plays on multiple diegetic screens). He is particularly effective when his actions – stabbing Angela, attacking the robot on which he had been working – become mechanical, taking control of his body.
Finally, there is the revised ending of the story. Rather than seeing off Benson’s attack with her microwave, Ross, fearing he might attack her, holds out a knife towards him. In a moment of lucidity between stimulations, he walks onto the blade. Instead of launching an assault on the hospital computer, Benson then heads to a cemetery and descends into an open grave. The police close in and while Ross struggles to reach her patient, the police helicopter appears once more, bearing the sniper who will shoot Benson. People rush forward, and from the bottom of the grave we see them forced back by police whose vizored helmets recall not only those worn by the surgeons while they operated on Benson but also the brutally anonymous robot police of THX 1138 (Lucas 1971).
Thanks to Hodges’ stylistic innovations, The Terminal Man should be spoken of in the same breath as other films of the period in which Britons brought a European arthouse sensibility to American genre fiction, such as Point Blank (Boorman 1967) and The Man Who Fell To Earth (Roeg 1976). In terms of its political critique, however, it belongs alongside Medium Cool (Wexler 1969), Punishment Park (Watkins 1971), The Parallax View (Pakula 1974) and The Conversation (Coppola 1974). It is without question one of the most accomplished and important sf films of the 1970s.
Michael Crichton, The Terminal Man. London: Arrow, 1996.
Mike Hodges, personal email. 5 July 2009.
[This is one of several pieces written several years ago for a book on sf adaptations that never appeared]
A middle-aged New York banker, who may or may not be called Wison, leaves for lunch, intending – perhaps – never to return. Charley, a friend who faked his own death, wants to introduce Wilson to the company that arranged for his rebirth into a new life with a new identity. Wilson tries to weigh his prosperous but dull existence against this chance to start over, only to discover that the company has already set the process in motion and set him up as a rapist should he try to back out. His reluctance fades under the gentle persuasion of the old man who founded the company (a mildly Kafkaesque organisation, its friendly, professional façade barely conceals the brutal indifference of its economic structure).
Wondering how long it will be before he is missed – ‘Days might go by, even weeks … and then, quite by chance, his wife might decide to organize a dinner party for eight, say, and in the course of reviewing seating arrangements, would discover, to her annoyance, that he was simply nowhere to be found’ (42) – Wilson undergoes extensive cosmetic surgery to become the thirty-something bachelor and successful painter, Antiochus Wilson. Relocated to California under the care of a servant, John, assigned to help him through his ‘initial period of adjustment’ (65), Wilson struggles to fit into his new life. Unable to paint, his self-alienation, which has never entirely disappeared, returns in force when a voluptuous teenage model hits on him. He realises that he must root out ‘the habits of nearly five decades’ (74) if his rebirth is to be meaningful. Charley phones again, rather too anxious to explain that Wilson is living ‘a dream’, composed of financial independence, social mobility and lack of responsibility, on ‘the frontier of personal freedom’ (82). As in Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives (1972), this dreamworld is available only to men. Some of Wilson’s neighbours are ‘reborns’, briefed to fake knowing him. All of them are ‘“about 40,” and … engaged in rather vague occupations’ (86); and one of them, Bushbane, warns Wilson that his ‘passing phase’ threatens their ‘tremendous monetary investment’ (97).
Wilson, posing as a friend of his old self, visits his daughter but is disillusioned by her view of the man he had been. Despite the company’s efforts to dissuade him, Wilson also visits his own ‘widow’, but to his surprise and dismay Emily has moved on with her life, remodelling and redecorating the house, effectively removing all trace of him. He surrenders to the company, imagining that he is going to be reborn again, this time with his input so as to avoid the errors of the first attempt. Spending his days in a room full of mildly tranquillised men, including Charley, he is badgered for the names of friends or acquaintances who might be interested in the company’s service. When he is finally summoned for surgery, he slowly and resignedly realises that he is not going to be reborn. He is to contribute his corpse to another client’s fake death.
John Frankenheimer’s adaptation – the third of his borderline sf movies, after The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964) – follows Ely’s plot fairly closely, eschewing the possibility of transforming it into another broad canvas political thriller in favour of the more individual focus of his non-sf The Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). Saul Bass’s opening credit sequence collages distorted views of a face reflected in a curved, metallic surface, recalling his title sequence for Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), another film about appearance and identity, and indicating the skewed visual style for which Frankenheimer and cinematographer James Wong Howe opted.
The film opens with two men moving separately through the crowds in Grand Central Station (much of the film is shot on location). Howe used extremely wide-angle (9.7mm and 18mm) lenses, which allow greater depth of field, magnify the apparent distance between objects, and produce perspective distortion (especially in the frequent low angle shots) and barrel distortion fisheye effects. (Howe also makes innovative use of handheld cameras, a camera wheeled along in a suitcase and a chest-mounted camera that provides close-ups of the actor wearing it; elsewhere in the film, Howe anticipates the effect of the not-yet-invented Steadicam by shooting handheld from a wheelchair.) The uncertainty and instability of the space thus produced is accentuated further by David Newhouse’s editing, which pushes the classical continuity system towards the more improvisatory style of the French New Wave. As Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) boards his commuter train, the second man passes him a note. It is the second time the company have made contact, following a phone call the preceding night from Charlie Evans (Murray Hamilton). In a departure from the novel, we actually witness some of Wilson’s solidly bourgeois home-life, as Emily (Frances Reid) collects him from the station. That night, Charlie phones again, and the next day Hamilton leaves the bank to be reborn as Antiochus Wilson (Rock Hudson).
In the early pages of the novel, Ely’s tight control over first-person narration create a strong sense of a man alienated from the world around him and from himself, restricting our knowledge of the cautious, self-doubting, self-deceiving protagonist to incidentally revealed information. Howe’s deep focus black-and-white cinematography achieves a similar effect: extremely wide-angle compositions separate Hamilton from the people and objects around him; two-shots keep Hamilton and his interlocutors in perfect focus at opposite ends of the depth of field; and wide-angle close-ups simultaneously make faces appear to loom out of the screen and seal them off behind a curved, hermetic surface. (In the sequence in which Hamilton dreams he is raping a woman – only to discover later that it was staged and filmed while he was drugged – Howe’s fisheye lens is aided by a set with visual distortion already built into it. The film also features mild aural distortions throughout, with post-synchronised dubbing of most of the dialogue necessitated by shooting on noisy Arriflex cameras.)
The transformation of Hamilton into Wilson culminates in an effective double revelation. Although audiences might have been expecting Wilson’s new face to be that of Rock Hudson, who through the 1950s and 1960s epitomised a certain kind of hedonistic bachelor lifestyle (see Cohan 264-303), it is a Rock Hudson they had never seen before: white-haired, gaunt and scarred, enfeebled by surgical procedures. Frankenheimer uses the stiffness that sometimes infects Hudson’s performances to great advantage, upsetting the familiar ease with which one might expect him to occupy the spaces of Wilson’s stylish Malibu beach house. Instead, the uncertainty with which he moves through its rooms suggests not only the unfamiliarity of his physical and social location but also of his own body. It lends a vulnerable fragility to Hudson’s performance of loneliness, isolation, self-disgust and dread. (Later, when he returns to Hamilton’s home, he looms awkwardly, completely out of place.)
In the major divergence from the novel, Wilson begins a romantic relationship with Nora Marcus (Salome Jens), a woman who walked out on her previous life as a wife and mother. She takes him to a bacchanalian revel, in which middle-class countercultural types celebrate the grape harvest, crown the Queen of the Wine, and indulge in mass, nude grape-treading. This is perhaps the most badly-dated sequence of the film (it was heavily cut for the US release, ironically making this rather innocent event appear far less innocent, but the missing footage has been restored from the version released in Europe). However, Hudson’s own reported discomfort with such nude celebrations – which seems evident in his posture – effectively expresses the gulf between who Hamilton was and Wilson is. His climactic leap into the vat to tread the grapes with other revellers carries less conviction.
Frankenheimer also claims to have got Hudson drunk to enhance his performance in the following cocktail party sequence, although Wilson’s trajectory from tipsy to laid-back to dishevelled is well within Hudson’s unaided range. The sequence is rather more remarkable for its invigorating use of multiple hand-held cameras, and for Newhouse’s editing, which eschews then-conventional transitions between shots, locations and events. As in the novel, the party culminates in Wilson talking about things which are no longer supposed to be part of his identity, but it is only after Charlie reveals that Nora is a company employee that he decides to visit his ‘widow’. (Wilson’s visit to Sue was shot but cut to reduce the film’s run-time, and the negative appears to have been lost.)
The film ends with Wilson, who has returned disillusioned to the company, finding himself gagged, strapped to a gurney and being wheeled into the Cadaver Procurement Section. Wildly distorted by a fisheye lens, he struggles against his bonds, but to no avail. A corpse with his build is required in the staging of a ‘fatal’ automobile accident.
Despite Frankenheimer’s close adherence to Ely’s narrative, he considerably transforms its meaning. The novel is an oddly moralistic, and unthinkingly misogynist, absurdist thriller about the dissatisfactions of the grey flannel suits who were produced in droves during post-war America’s period of corporate consolidation. It is critical of a culture that had overseen a shift in dominant notions of masculinity (from the individual, physical and entrepreneurial, to the corporate subject of hierarchical structures) and which construed wives and families as the true beneficiaries of white-collar labour. In Frankenheimer’s film, which casts a number of formerly blacklisted actors and writers in minor roles, this complaint is made less insistent by the absence of first-person narration. While it does resonate with films noir about masculinity threatened by and trapped within corporate environments and expectations, such as Double Indemnity (Wilder 1944), The Big Clock (Farrow 1948) and Pitfall (De Toth 1948), it never quite achieves the existential crises of The Face of Another (Teshigahara 1966), adapted from Kōbō Abe’s novel. Ultimately, Frankenheimer’s film is perhaps best understood in terms of its exposure of the gulf between American realities and American dreams, and of its peeling away of the fantasy of being Rock Hudson (and all that his model of handsome, charming, pleasure-seeking, consumerist masculinity represented) – a fantasy embodied by the actor’s star persona on- and off-screen, but made all the more poignant by subsequent revelations about his sexuality.
Steven Cohan, Masked Men: Masculinity and the Movies in the Fifties. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.
David Ely, Seconds. London: Four Square, 1965.