The Fury: Brian De Palma’s Underrated, Explosive Movie

Director Brian De Palma followed Carrie with another gory vaunt into the supernatural. Here's why The Fury deserves a revisit...

When it comes to telekinesis and gory visual effects, the movie that generally springs to mind is David Cronenberg’s 1981 exploding head opus, Scanners. But years before that, American director Brian De Palma was liberally dousing the screen with claret in his 1976 adaptation of Carriestill rightly regarded as one of the best Stephen King adaptations made so far. A less widely remembered supernatural film from De Palma came two years after: De Palma’s supernatural thriller, The Fury.

The Fury was made with a more generous budget than Carrie, had a starrier cast (Kirk Douglas in the lead, Nick Cassavetes playing the villain), and it even did pretty well in financial terms. Yet The Fury had the misfortune of being caught in a kind of pincer movement between Carrie, which was a much bigger hit, and 1980’s Dressed To Kill, De Palma’s deliriously sordid and blackly comic homage to Hitchcock.

As a result, The Fury is one of the less commonly-discussed films from De Palma’s creatively fertile period between the middle of the ’70s and the middle of the ’90s – a point in his career that brought us a few misfires, for sure, but also such striking movies as Blow Out, Scarface, The Untouchables, Casualties Of War, Raising Cain, Carlito’s Way, and Mission: Impossible. The Fury is arguably up there with some of the best of these. 

Adapted from the novel of the same name by its own author, John Farris, The Fury takes place in an alternate version of the late 1970s where a segment of the Central Intelligence Agency is attempting to create an army of supernatural warriors. The shadowy Ben Childress (Cassavetes) is the mastermind behind this operation, and he kidnaps a teenage psychic, Robin (Andrew Stevens) with the intention of moulding him into a new recruit.

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Robin’s father, Peter (Douglas) is himself a former member of the CIA, which is why he’s capable enough to survive a very public assassination attempt on a beach somewhere in the Middle East. Resolving to track down his son, Peter tracks his son to the Paragon Institute, which specializes in turning young psychics into weapons of the state.

Like Scanners, The Fury places its warring psychics in a recognizably ordinary, sometimes grubby real world: teenager Gillian (Amy Irving, who previously appeared in Carrie) goes to a school where telekinesis is demonstrated matter-of-factly in class. Robin’s initial search for his son takes in the kinds of down-at-heel Chicago hotel rooms and apartment buildings you’d associate more closely with a conspiracy thriller of the period than a typical supernatural horror movie. 

Douglas brings all his movie star intensity to his role of a father-turned-detective, and De Palma even allows him to indulge Douglas’ tendency to strip off for his movies – such as the scene where Robin escapes from a pair of assassins by fleeing across a railway line wearing nothing but a pair of ice-white underpants.

It’s worth pausing for a moment here to talk a bit about where De Palma’s career was in the late 1970s. Murder A La Mod was his first feature in 1968, released in one solitary New York theatre and poorly reviewed at the time. While Murder A La Mod was full of the grisly murder and cinematic back-flips that De Palma would become well known for later in his career, its rapid disappearance meant that the director would become better associated with off-beat comedies thanks to Greetings (1969), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom (1970). The success of those underground movies, which provided early roles for a young Robert De Niro, led to another comedy, the quirky Get To Know Your Rabbit. De Palma’s first film for a studio, it proved to be a bruising experience, with the filmmaker fired from the production and the movie shelved for two years. When Get To Know Your Rabbit finally sneaked into cinemas in 1972, it was a commercial failure.

It was after the stinging experience of Get To Know Your Rabbit that De Palma began to make the kinds of films for which he’d be associated for the rest of his career, beginning with the macabre psychological horror Sisters in 1973 and then exploding with the critical and financial success of Obsession, written by Paul Schrader and released in 1976 and Carrie, released later that same year. But while the success of those films meant that De Palma’s name would forever be synonymous with a certain brand of ultra-stylish thriller, I’d argue that his capacity for comedy never left him – it just took on a new, blood-curdling hue. 

Sissy Spacek’s blood-soaked rampage at the end of Carrie is so effective because it takes on the tone of a blackly comic fireworks display. Like the build up to a great, very grim joke, De Palma makes us anticipate Carrie White’s prom humiliation for several stomach-churning minutes: Amy Irving’s fellow pupil at the prom, spotting the rope that leads to the bucket of pig’s blood at the school prom. Nancy Allen licking her lips in expectation as she prepares to send the bucket of blood pouring all over poor Carrie’s head. The girl’s response, of course, is one of pure rage, and De Palma captures every moment of it in slow-motion, split-screen and intense red filters. It’s horrific, for sure, but there’s also a suggestion of slapstick in the electrocutions and fiery deaths. It’s the friction between horror and black comedy, I’d suggest, that makes De Palma’s work in Carrie and his other great films so effective – just as it did in Hitchcock’s thrillers (the 2013 remake, by contrast, makes Carrie’s prom melt-down into a more straightforward horror sequence).

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The same fascination with the aesthetic power of comically outré violence is there in abundance in The Fury. A car chase in thick fog ends with a car flying off a jetty on fire. Robin uses his psychic powers to send a fairground ride spinning out of control, with distinctly messy results (for unexplained reasons, the ride is populated almost entirely by what appear to be princes from somewhere in the Middle East).

It’s in these scenes that De Palma’s baroque camera movements, which are largely low-key and understated during the scenes of exposition, suddenly come to the fore. A scene where Gillian demonstrates her supernatural powers on a train set could have been shot with a conventional series of cuts. Instead, De Palma uses a clever split-screen effect, which shows the train whistling by the camera in the lower half of the shot and Gillian’s staring, ice-blue eyes at the top. It’s an instance of De Palma producing a visual set-piece out of almost nowhere. 

He pulls a similar feat near the film’s midpoint, where Gillian learns that the Paragon Institute she volunteered to join, and where Robin was also sent for a time, isn’t quite as idyllic as it first appears. While chatting to the seemingly benign Dr Cheever (Charles Durning), Gillian accidentally slips and grabs his hand to steady herself. As in Stephen King’s later The Dead Zone (adapted by David Cronenberg to memorable effect), this physical connection creates a psychic image of the future in Gillian’s mind. She sees Robin running from Dr. Cheever and falling from a window.

Again, De Palma uses a visual effect to put two pieces of action in one image: Amy Irving’s shot in front of a blue screen with the action projected behind her, thus allowing both foreground and background action to appear in focus. It’s only a brief moment, but it’s also a critical moment in the story, and De Palma’s filmmaking cleverly highlights it and underlines it twice.

Even when The Fury’s story sags a little – and at two hours, the movie does feel a touch too long – it’s De Palma’s flourishes that constantly engage the eye. The use of overhead camera angles, split diopter shots (a special lens which allows a foreground and background element to remain in focus in the same frame) and POV all add to the film’s suspense – the latter neatly used in a moment which establishes Gillian’s psychic connection to Robin. Robin, who has been largely off-screen since the opening reel, has been driven crazy by the experiments brought on him by Dr Childress. Again, De Palma caps off this revelation with a visceral image – blood issuing from the eyes and mouth of a doctor, her suffering shot from below as her head collides with a glass table. 

The ingenuity of these scenes is such that it’s easy to imagine that De Palma chose to direct The Fury because of the way the story plays with time and space (a moment where Gillian stands in an empty room and sees the events that took place in it months earlier is a prime example). Certainly, the scenes in which Kirk Douglas gradually makes his way to the institute thanks to the help of his insider, Hester (Carrie Snodgress) seem rather flat by comparison.

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It’s De Palma’s direction, combined with Amy Irving’s superb performance and John Williams’ operatic score, that make The Fury such an effective movie in its best moments. All three come together in the final half an hour, first in a superb sequence where Gillian escapes the clutches of the Paragon Institute, and shot in glorious slow-motion. Then there’s the grand finale – a dervish of Rick Baker-designed blood and fireworks that, in concert with Williams’ thundering score, creates an ending as bizarrely triumphant as it is over the top. 

With its story of gifted youngsters twisted by evil grown-ups and devastating psychic powers, The Fury could be regarded as the half-forgotten grandfather of such films as Akira and Chronicle. It certainly appeared to have inspired Cronenberg’s Scanners, particularly in a late scene involving close-ups of eyes and the transference of special powers.

In the lengthy and varied catalogue of De Palma’s films, The Fury is one that’s well worth revisiting. Although it isn’t perfect, it’s an example of how much power he can lend to a pulpy story about shadowy CIA bad guys and psychic teenagers. And in a body of work where women often have a rough time, The Fury is one of the rare De Palma films where a female lead gets to turn the tables on the bad guy. It’s a glorious moment worth savoring – just as De Palma’s camera lingers over every gory detail.

This article first appeared on Den of Geek UK.