Film: Video round-up/ The white heat of technophobia

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The Independent Culture
The director Donald Cammell committed suicide on 24 April this year. His curriculum vitae suggests that he was someone who could make Stanley Kubrick look prolific. He edged into the film business armed with a psychedelically inclined imagination and a screenplay, a heist thriller filmed in 1967 as Duffy. But Performance made his name.

Completed in 1968, it wasn't released until three years later because Warner Bros were appalled at its explicit scenes of sex, violence and drug use (not to mention the fact that Mick Jagger, who they saw as a potentially huge box-office draw, didn't appear in the film until halfway through). They simply didn't know what to do with the damn thing. Cammell had written the screenplay - a cryptic tale of smudged identity in London's gangland - and co-directed the film with Nicolas Roeg, the acclaimed cinematographer who was, like Cammell, making his directorial debut. After the movie was eventually released, Cammell left England for Los Angeles. Despite an auspicious and thoroughly audacious beginning, he would complete only three more films in his life. One of them, the unnerving 1987 thriller White of the Eye, looks now like a work of unhinged genius. The last, Wild Side, remains unreleased here (it was butchered in the editing suite, much to Cammell's distress, and received only a video release in America).

But before those films, and almost a decade after Performance wrapped, Cammell shot a disconcerting science-fiction thriller. Demon Seed, from the novel by the popular horror writer Dean R Koontz, could be said to have been out of step with the times. Seriously out of step. It was released in 1977, the year that Star Wars changed the face of commercial cinema. And while George Lucas's film (and, to a lesser degree, Steven Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind) embraced technology and imagined fantastical possibilities, Demon Seed fretted about computers rendering humanity impotent. It was technophobic, and it was doomed.

Looking at the film now, it seems to have sprung from the same fears that inspired Michael Crichton to create Westworld and Jurassic Park. And so it may simply have been ahead of its time, just as Performance had been (and White of the Eye would later prove to be, pre-empting the serial killer trend in movies by at least three years). Demon Seed is a claustrophobic horror story in which Susan Harris (Julie Christie) becomes the victim of technological advances pioneered by her husband (Fritz Weaver). Left alone in the house, with only a voice-activated security system for company, Susan is at the mercy of the master-computer Proteus IV (voiced by Man from UNCLE's Robert Vaughan, in a bizarre approximation of Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey and a debonair gent-about-town).

Proteus assumes control of the house, trapping Susan in the kitchen, where he uses the cranked-up underfloor heating to turn the floor into an enormous griddle. More impressively, he manufactures false images of Susan on the video screen and mimics her voice in order to prevent callers suspecting that she has become a hostage in her home. The drama is not without its humour. Whenever Susan and Proteus bicker, Cammell seems to be inviting a reading of the situation as a futuristic interpretation of domestic mundanity - a woman and a disembodied voice, squabbling like an old married couple. "I've calculated that 7.40am is the optimum time for your fuel injection," Proteus announces, presenting Susan with her breakfast. "I'm not a motorbike!" she snaps, suddenly playful and insolent. Even Proteus's horrific plan - to impregnate Susan with his own artificially constructed sperm - has a tinge of wicked comedy about it, as Susan's husband returns home to discover that his wife is carrying his computer's child. It's the sort of perversion that might have delighted Bunuel.

If you're willing to ignore the shoddy-looking offspring which claws its way out of the wreckage at the end of the film, and the fact that, when mobile, Proteus IV is a dead ringer for the Rubik's Snake, then you'll find that Demon Seed retains its resonance in the same way that Performance and White of the Eye seem to grow richer by the year. There is, though, one spot of unintentional comedy on the new video release of Demon Seed: the inclusion of the movie's original trailer, over which a booming voice repeatedly intones, "Julie Christie carries the demon seed: fear for her!" It's worth the price of the video on its own.

n `Demon Seed' is released on Monday (Warner Home Video, pounds 12.99)

RYAN GILBEY

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