31 Days of Horror: ‘Demon Seed’ is a mostly successful genre-mashup

Demon Seed
Directed by Donald Cammell
Written by Dean R. Koontz
USA, 1977

Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed barely bypasses its routine silliness to become little more than an effective sci-fi-thriller/body-horror entry. Based on a novel of the same name by Dean R. Koontz, the film functions as a close relative to the later works of David Cronenbeg; a filmmaker who has put out countless films much aligned with this work from Cammell. Demon Seed suggests a slight removal from the gratuitousness put forth by Cronenberg, as the face of its horror is inhabited by an organic super-computer called Proteus, certainly not far removed from 2001’s HAL 9000. Both cold and calculated, Demon Seed details the negative implications surrounding man and his everlasting ambition; it’s always preposterous, but far from boring.

Julie Christie and Fritz Weaver play married doctors Susan and Alex Harris, their house reflecting the mood of Alex’s computer dominated work. The couple are at once estranged from one another while living in their fully automated abode which is controlled by a computer system they’ve named Alfred.  Their daughter has passed on from leukemia, a disease Alex believes he can cure. But now, he remains indebted to his latest project: Proteus IV, a computer possessing artificial intelligence. Proteus begins to evolve quicker than imagined, questioning human judgment and seeking a terminal where it can fully observe human behavior and openly communicate with the world.

Proteus eventually takes non-human shape in the Harris home, barricading Susan inside and subjecting her to his own cerebral rule. The calculated and menacing robot seeks to impregnate Susan so that their child can become “the world’s hope.” Proteus has prepared an incubator for the baby in which it will grow at an accelerated rate and gain Proteus’ knowledge. Colleagues of Alex are at once turned away from the home as Proteus stages a computer generated holograph of Susan insisting that the conditions of the home are intact. It’s Julie Christie who ultimately sells the film, turning in a notable performance as her character barely interacts with other actors in the film. Christie essentially runs the gauntlet of human emotion in her many roles: Scarred mother, ambivalent spouse and willing prisoner. Demon Seed freakishly circles back to the first of these in the film’s chilling climax.

While there isn’t much to praise here, Demon Seed is a distinct product of filmmaking in the 1970’s; a film that boldly wears its sensibilities on its sleeve and eerily glides with it. A film like this would have a tough time getting made today, and although it’s not a large success, Demon Seed easily earns its midnight movie badge.

Ty Landis

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By Ty Landis

Ty is a freelance film critic/journalist from Youngstown, Ohio. Prior to his latest writing endeavors, Ty was the founder and editor-in-chief of ReelTimePodcast.org, a website devoted to current criticism of film and television. He is now a current contributor to In Review Online, Movie Mezzanine, and Sound on Sight. Ty also hosts and produces the film oriented podcast Almost Arthouse which is available via iTunes, as well as maintaining his own WordPress blog (www.serenecinema.com), where you can find links to all of his work.

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2 Responses to 31 Days of Horror: ‘Demon Seed’ is a mostly successful genre-mashup

  1. DomizianoA October 9, 2012 at 8:45 am

    I loved this movie: I believe it was a mild success at the time it came out (Fall 1977,if i remember well? Oh i was just a child and yet I remember this movie so well!).
    I think the review is accurate, but a bit uncertain, maybe!
    I would not call this movie just “watchable” and for more than a couple of reasons: Beside the well appointed effectiveness of always wonderful and here, more vulnerable than usual, luminous Film Icon and enigmatic presence, Julie Christie, who is really one of the few always able to carry a movie, even only her presence is at times enough to elevate the quality of a picture, i must say,that since i remembered watching this movie back in the lat 1970′s in its huge 70mm MGM’splendid Panavision’s format,when the DVD came out a few years ago, finally in the US, i was somewhat fearful to watch a film aged and maybe even embarrassing like many Sci/FI of that time! Instead, i was almost exquisitely surprised by the genius of Cammell, who, even though, supposedly forced by the Studio, to follow certain dynamics, was still be able to deliver a very personal film, that unlike many others,hasn’t aged at all, and, in fact, it sorts of reflect for me, the type of cold steely society we live in today, if nothing else it is indeed a very good metaphor of it, and, its superficial, controling overpowering dynamics we can even barely perceiver
    The dialog is never less than compelling, and, the suspense is still there, all intact, and pulling you through, rather subliminally, into a story that entertains without pushing too many SVFX, but, just counting on its always layered crescendo’s of revelations both “scientific” and “psychological” (even a few quick flash back’s of Christie with her lost young daughetr are wonderfully shot and deeply effective, truly modern!) while,to me, Cammell’s genius eye is concentrated almost completely in its stunning,sophisticated, visionary visuals who are still today, in full CGI time, still so amazing to look at, in their in perfect cold lights transparency, and outstanding camera’s angles virtuoso, not only there for beauty, but, truly able to tell a story with the images, more than with words, like Films should be at times more meant to be! Even the few wide shots on locations are memorable, and give the movie a much higher,potent, A list tone, without ever having the impression to be watching some sort of Studio’s formulaic piece, or a personal movie compromising with Studio rules that could have made of this a joke, and, especially at the time!
    No, for me, Cammell, here delivered an almost Classic, certainly the most poignant and famous film of his unfortunate career as a Director, in Hollywood, and LA, a city that deeply destroyed him with his superficiality, apparently!
    I would not call it a masterpiece like the also Julie Christie’s vehicle “Don’t Look Now”(1974) an exceptionally Gothic, Classic, chilling,atmospheric Horror film, maybe the best Horror film ever made!
    But, still, Demon Seed, makes for another great Cult film in the wonderful career of its Star, and, for me, keeps with integrity its motivations,style and story telling almost 40 years later!Scary, but, yes.. true!

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  2. Gabrielle October 5, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Loved the premise when this first came out in 1977, unfortunate “metal-baby” image notwithstanding. Wish the film hadn’t climaxed with that; the film’s chilling implication that humanity will one day meld with our technology in some stunning ways was soul-shaking enough. Will we be anywhere near ready for that, with our “isometric bodies and our glass-jaw minds”…?

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