With the world moving towards an as-yet-undefined period of self-loathing circa March 2020, it’s worth looking back to another cultural and social crisis point, 1977. Star Wars was round the corner, and a new era of family-friendly fare was about to dawn, but in 1977, things were tough all over. Attendances were down, terrorism was on the up, oil prices were rising, governments were failing, dystopian sci-fi, horror and pornography were the hot subjects of the day, and in an alternate universe, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed would have been the movie that caught and reflected the bleakness of the time.
The Exorcist has married old-school fire and brimstone with new-fangled medical detail, and Demon Seed takes energy from that, as well as science-gone-wrong entries like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Hal in Kubrick’s 2001. Filmed in Germany, it’s the story of an artificial intelligence called Proteus who turns on his creator Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and incubates a child via his wife Susan (Julie Christie). The method of Proteus’s take-over was tricky to understand in 1977, but makes more sense in 2020. The Harris house-hold is supervised by a voice-activated computer (think Siri or Alexa), and Proteus takes over the home by supplanting the existing program, trapping Susan.
Demon Seed has a few wild stabs at visualising this; unfortunately these involve a wheelchair with a metal arm attached, which looks easy to resist. More effective is the sight of Proteus forming itself in an elemental way, a kind of Rubic’s snake which coils around and then decapitates a suspicious scientist. And oddly, Proteus speaks with the silky, saturnine tones of Robert Vaughn, rarely betraying anything but omnipotent power. With the action largely confined to one location, Demon Seed needs a good actress for the central role, and in Julie Christie, it gets a great actress, with Christie remaining empathetic through some difficult narrative transformations.
The kind of movie that the BBC used to show as a prime-time, 9pm, Saturday night treat in the early 80’s, Demon Seed is dark, unpleasant and eventually psychedelic, as might be expected from the visionary behind Performance. Horror would seem a reasonable reaction, and yet Cammell, a Scotsman raised with an interest in Aleister Crowley, seems to be clinically interested rather than repulsed by this formation of a new being that fuses flesh and metal. The final scenes involve a baby with a metal shell which Alex and Susan gingerly remove; after a series of bombastic light-show effects, the effect is strangely tender.
Demon Seed is a pretty horrid film, but it’s a way-ahead-of-it’s time entry in the sci-fi stakes; this was the third time I’ve seen it, but the first with proper framing, and it really makes a difference. What seemed murky and undefined in pan-and-scan seems more precise in widescreen; Cammell was a genuine talent and visionary, even if what he saw was disturbing and hard to fathom.