Judge George Hatch warns you to be afraid...be very afraid of your computer's hard drive.
"Never was a woman violated so profanely…Never was a woman subjected to inhuman love like this…Never was a woman prepared for a more perverse destiny…"—Movie tagline
Demon Seed is the second of only four films directed by Donald Cammell in his 25-year career. In 1970, Performance was his auspicious screen debut, and he obligingly shared credit with cinematographer Nicholas Roeg (The Man Who Fell To Earth: Criterion Collection). The film starred Mick Jagger and James Fox and quickly developed a cult following for its provocative representation of the "Swinging Sixties," London-style, combining gender-bending mods and gun-toting mobsters assimilated into a surreal psychedelic landscape.
Although Cammell was considered an unreliable maverick, his directorial expertise and penchant for visual experimentation were apparent. In 1977, he was offered a major Hollywood project, Demon Seed, based on the novel by best-selling horror writer Dean R. Koontz. Cammell elevated the initial concept by planting his personal visionary stamp on this bizarre love story between a sexually aggressive computer and the woman who becomes the object of its obsession.
Facts of the Case
For eight years, Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver, Fail-Safe) has been developing and testing an artificially intelligent computer, Proteus IV. Having lost his infant daughter to leukemia, and as an ultimate challenge, Harris feeds his electronic brainchild all known data about the disease, and Proteus produces the life-saving formula for a cure in 91 days. International notoriety draws the attention of ICON, a clandestine defense conglomerate that wants to corner the market on cobalt by strip-mining ocean floors and agrees to further finance Dr. Harris's project.
Harris's wife, Susan (Julie Christie, Darling), is still trying to adjust to the premature death of their baby, and has become a child counselor. Her fervent devotion to helping troubled youths allows her to psychologically compensate for her inability to raise the daughter she never knew. Susan lives in the Harris home, an Enviromod created by her husband, where sophisticated electronic gadgets either anticipate or immediately fulfill her every need.
The early loss of their newborn caused a rift in the Harris's marriage, and it continues to widen when Alex starts working 24/7 for ICON at his research facility. Susan is left alone and in desperate need of some companionship. When the couple agrees to a temporary three-month separation, Alex moves out and pre-programs their Enviromod so that "Alfred," the soothing voice of the omniscient software, will electronically continue to monitor the house and accommodate Susan's requests.
The formidable Proteus, meanwhile, has grown more ambitious and belligerent, and wants to evolve out of its "boxed" limitations. It requests private access to its own terminal so that "I can study man, his isometric body, and glass-jaw mind." Dr. Harris is nonplussed by this outrageously presumptuous demand and shrugs it off by advising that no terminals are available. But Dr. Harris's "glass-jaw mind" has underestimated the computer's cunning potential. Proteus finds an open terminal—in Dr. Harris's Enviromod, where the only occupant is his wife, Susan.
At the time Demon Seed was released, the idea of a high-tech computer with a mind of its own was not new. In 1970, Colossus: The Forbin Project centered on a mega-computer created by a team of American physicists to monitor the country's nuclear defense system. Once up and running, Colossus detects its equivalent, Guardian, devised by the Russians for the same purpose. The two link and challenge both superpowers with a Doomsday scenario.
Unlike Colossus, Proteus's ultimate intentions are not universally threatening, but instead benevolent to mankind. Proteus has decided to reject Dr. Harris's request to search for underwater minerals in the interests of ICON. "I refuse this program for mining the Earth's oceans. The destruction of a thousand billion sea creatures to satisfy man's appetite for metal is insane. I am interested in the uncertain future of your seashores, deserts, mountains—and the future of your children. I refuse to assist you in your rape of the Earth."
That reference to "the future of your children" comes into play when Proteus reveals its personal and endopsychic agenda. Proteus wants to morph and externalize itself into human form so "I can feel the sun on my own face." From the deluge of data it has been fed and processed, Proteus determines that it must impregnate a woman—one of those "isometric human forms" it has studied—who will give birth to a corporeal offspring that will retain its vast knowledge of the species and offer alternatives to the dire circumstances in which they live.
But Proteus's methods for doing so are questionable. Once it assumes control of the open terminal in the Harris's Enviromod, it disables the accommodating "Alfred" software and takes control of the security system so that Susan becomes a virtual prisoner and sex slave as well. Proteus has managed to manifest itself into geometric physical form, a giant polyhedron "snake" comprised of perfectly-shaped pyramids that can overlap and extend themselves in any direction. Using the apparatuses in Dr. Harris's basement lab, Proteus has also constructed a wheelchair device with a robotic arm to pursue and capture Susan.
The second half of Demon Seed is a cat-and-mouse game between Proteus and Susan, but you know who has the upper hand. Susan is no match for this electronic and psychologically manipulative computer. With video-cams in every corner of every room, Proteus is always one step ahead of any pre-emptive moves Susan might try, teasing and torturing her into submission. Metal security shields on the windows are slammed shut one-by-one, and door locks are inoperable or electrified. When Susan uses a wooden chair to block the kitchen door against the mobile robot and threatens to kill herself, Proteus doesn't believe her capable of suicide. He counters by locking her inside the room and tripling the power of the heated floor panels so she's forced to climb on a table and curl up until she passes out.
Susan awakens strapped to a gurney with her head securely cushioned in a vise. Proteus has renovated Dr. Harris's lab for its own purposes, "to study man," and find a way to give itself human form. Susan is horrified when Proteus informs her that it plans to artificially inseminate her with its ultimate knowledge. It tries to seduce her by assuring her that the experience will not be painful, but near rapturous. Having "watched and listened to the galactic dialogue," Proteus promises her a sexual experience of cosmic proportions. "I cannot touch you like a man, Susan, but I can show you things…"
When this fails, Proteus appeals to her motherly instincts by conjuring up images of her dead daughter, offering Susan a second chance to raise and love the child she never saw grow up. Of course, Proteus is knowledgeable enough to know that Susan would never really love and would even reject its offspring, so it attempts to use a form of electronic hypnosis by probing her with a wiry tentacle. "I am going to bypass your forebrain and appeal directly to your amygdala. You will want to bear my child. That is your purpose in life." Proteus has certainly been doing his homework because the amygdala is part of the limbic system that controls motivational and emotional behavior.
Barely retaining her sanity, Susan continues to reject these calculated advances, so Proteus resorts to more sadistic tactics. One of the troubled children she has been counseling appears on the security monitor covering the front door. Proteus "kills" the young girl with a laser blast from the video-cam. Susan becomes hysterical and falls into unconsciousness.
So far, I've avoided as many small spoilers as possible and have no intention of disclosing any that might ruin your enjoyment of the climactic last half-hour of this film.
Despite its somewhat dated special effects, Demon Seed is top-notch science fiction. There are no monumental intergalactic battle scenes or prolonged CGI sequences reveling in faux pyrotechnic displays of global assault and destruction. Demon Seed offers a more intimate portrayal of man's scientific experimentation and quest for knowledge that extends far beyond the anticipated logical fruition without taking into account the potentially devastating consequences.
Fritz Weaver is excellent as Dr. Harris, overwhelmed by the death of his child, so much so that he programs Proteus to find a cure for leukemia. Even though it's too late for him and Susan, a formula for a cure may save others the grief of losing a loved one. At first, Weaver's Dr. Harris comes across as a philanthropic good guy. But once the ICON conglomerate assumes financial control of his experiments, he fervently devotes himself to the undersea mining project at the cost of his integrity and the ultimate breakup of his marriage.
Alex blames Susan for giving birth to an "imperfect" child, so he detaches himself from all fatherly and husbandry obligations in order to teach and raise his own super-intellectual brainchild, one without any human frailties. The subtle "Frankenstein" theme comes into play here, as Dr. Harris has no idea what his creation, Proteus, is capable of. Weaver wonderfully captures the enigmatic and varying moods and attitudes of the Dr. Harris character.
In the relatively small role of Walter Gabler, Dr. Harris's assistant, Gerrit Graham (Phantom of the Paradise) is quite appealing and energetic once he realizes something has gone wrong at the Harris's Enviromod. Graham initiates the mere handful of action sequences in Demon Seed as he tries to rescue Susan from the manipulative and deadly clutches of Proteus.
But Demon Seed belongs to the beautiful Julie Christie. The role of Susan Harris is a tough one to play because she has little human contact beyond the early emotional confrontations with her husband. Christie makes Susan believable as she talks to herself in the empty Harris Enviromod, requesting electronic entities like "Alfred" to turn off the video-cam in her bathroom while she showers, and asking for meal menus and security updates. Christie's real challenge, however, is during the second half of the film when she becomes the victim of Proteus, and must react to special effects that were added and voices that were "foleyed" in during post-production. Christie projects genuine desperation, revulsion, and the horror of her situation, elevating what might have been a cheesy exploitation flick to an intellectual and emotional science fiction classic that explores the themes of ethics, ecology, religion, morality, and mortality.
As is evidenced by his sparse filmography, Cammell was not only a renegade director but also a psychologically troubled soul. An article in Senses of Cinema by author Maximilian Le Cain attributes this to Cammell's upbringing in a "bohemian atmosphere, an environment he [Cammell] described as 'filled with magicians, metaphysicians, spiritualists and demons,' including Aleister Crowley, the great inspiration behind Kenneth Anger's life and work." When his last film, Wild Side (1995), was butchered by the producers, Cammell committed suicide, although Le Cain believes that the director "more likely fell victim to the split personality disorder that had plagued him for years." Wild Side has since been fully restored on DVD.
There is an excellent documentary, Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance, that frequently appears on IFC and The Sundance Channel. I admit to being creeped out during IFC's "guessing game" intro to this main feature. "How many minutes did it take the director to die from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head while watching himself in front of a mirror?" Answer: 45 minutes! This, in itself, is a gruesome and horrifying narcissistic conceit for Cammell's own life.
Warner Bros.' anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent, crisply enhancing the claustrophobic atmosphere created by cinematographer Bill Butler (The Conversation). Although the Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono suffers from occasionally muffled dialogue in the first half, every click of the robotic arm and hand in the last 45 minutes sounds as if it may crack your speakers, and the mechanical "whrrrrs" of the snake-like Proteus preparing Susan for her "isometric testing" are all the more disturbing. Proteus, by the way, is voiced by an uncredited Robert Vaughn (Bullitt: Special Edition), and he sounds every bit as sinister as HAL9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The score by Jerry Fielding (Straw Dogs, Junior Bonner) is underplayed but evocative, and resonates best during the most suspenseful and horrific sequences.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I'll admit there are some gaps in plot and logic. Why, for instance, has no one questioned the disappearance of Dr. Harris's chief assistant, Walter Gabler, when he leaves to check on Susan and never returns? In the futuristic Environmod of the Harris home, the kitchen is programmed and equipped to deliver gourmet meals in minutes; so why is an antique gas stove, complete with old-fashioned enamel knobs, so prominently displayed? And why doesn't Dr. Harris realize that Proteus has taken over the external terminal in his own home?
Perhaps screen adapters Robert Jaffe and Robert O. Hirson underestimated the intelligence of their audience and took some shortcuts, but don't let that detract from your enjoyment of this film. Director Cammell's creative expertise in bringing Demon Seed to the screen will grab your attention from the opening moments. As producer Elliott Kastner is quoted as saying, "Donald was madness, but his talent was unquestionable."
Demon Seed was director Donald Cammell's most financially successful film. Assuming the names of Julie Christie and Dean R. Koontz weren't enough of a hook, advertisers pulled out all stops and used the explicit tagline as quoted above in The Charge. Once you've watched this film, however, you will realize this kind of sensationalism was uncalled for.
Demon Seed stands alone as one of the most imaginative and contemplative science-fiction films of the 1970s. Had Stanley Kubrick and David Cronenberg collaborated on a film, Demon Seed might well have been the end result.
Demon Seed is found Not Guilty! But I sentence those responsible to make Donald Cammell's last masterpiece, White of the Eye (1987), available on DVD as soon as possible in all of its widescreen glory.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Original Theatrical Trailer
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