Monday, November 21, 2016

"He's Very Knowledgeable on Possession" - Demon Seed (1982) - Part 3 of 3

This is Part 3 of our discussion of the supernatural chamber drama variously known as Demon Seed, Demon Rage, Dark Eyes, Fury of the Succubus, and Satan's Mistress. You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

Previously, Lisa's sexual frustration was alleviated through her affair with a bearded spirit, and then her affair with the bearded spirit was alleviated through a rekindling of her affection for her husband. The forces of evil and of good--or at least marital stability--are pitted against each other with Lisa as the prize.

Michelle is sleeping when she receives a vision from the self-described fallen angel Belline, whose voice intones, "Soon you will help us." The vision involves a great deal of screaming; it is a testament to the filmmakers' skill at producing ambiguity that we cannot tell if people are being murdered or making love. At the climax of the vision, Michelle sees her parents run to the beach and disappear, in fast motion no less, under the sand.

In the night, Ann-Marie visits Burt and kisses him. Lisa and the bearded stranger watch them embrace. Ann-Marie's fingernails scratch bloody marks into Burt's back. He wakes up screaming. It was just a dream.

The next day, Ann-Marie and her jokester husband Carl visit the beach house.

Carl provides some welcome, and truly funny, comic relief with his Dracula impressions and non-sequiturs. His performance is a high point of the film, distracting somewhat from the dark, serious, sophisticated tone of the rest of the narrative.

Carl goes upstairs while Ann-Marie checks out the basement. Her psychic powers give her frightening impressions of the goings-on at the beach house, such as a woman's head covered in chocolate sauce peering from behind a hole in a brick wall.

Disturbed by her psychic vision, Ann-Marie takes a walk with Lisa along the beach. She explains that Lisa is not the first to have a phantom lover. "In the psychic area, we believe that after death, the spirit walks the earth either waiting for another body or his final destiny." The wandering spirits are lonely and drawn to lonely humans. Evil forces can tempt these wandering spirits to become evil like them. Ann-Marie believes that the evil forces are using Lisa to tempt the bearded stranger to become evil.

Back in the house, the lights go off while Carl is joking with Michelle. Because he hates melted ice in his Scotch, he decides to go to the basement to flip the circuit breaker. Fortunately, the electrical box is at the top of the steps, so he tries flipping switches, but nothing happens. "There must be another one downstairs," he says, so he climbs down into the basement to search for the second electrical box. Michelle stays at the top of the stairs.

Next comes the film's most accomplished suspense sequence.

He searches through the basement until he sees legs in silhouette in front of him. When he turns, he sees a pulsing eye. He drops the flashlight and suddenly his head is trapped in the guillotine, facing up and staring at the blade. He tries to free himself but his struggles are in vain. The blade falls, beheading him.

The lights come on and Michelle sees what has occurred. She expresses some concern.

An ambulance takes the body away. A police detective walks over to Burt and admits he can't figure out what happened. "You gonna be around for questioning?" he asks Burt. Burt wanders off without responding.

The film leaves the beach house for a single scene in a cemetery, where Carl's body is buried. Only Ann-Marie and Burt attend the funeral, while Lisa and Michelle remain in the beach house for unclear reasons.

Ann-Marie convinces Burt to talk to Father Stratten, played by the great John Carradine. "He works with our psychic group," Ann-Marie says, "and he's very knowledgeable on possession."


Father Stratten recaps what Ann-Marie told Lisa on the beach: Lisa is being used as a lonely piece of bait for evil forces to take over the wandering bearded spirit.

It seems an airtight explanation of everything that has occurred. Burt is convinced.

Back at the house, Michelle has a vision that Belline is burying her in the sand while trying to convince Michelle to help her. Again, the filmmakers use ambiguity and contradiction to keep the audience off guard. Why is Belline so threatening to Michelle when she is apparently trying to convince her to help? Surely the answers will come in the climax of the film.

As Michelle experiences her vision, in the real world she is in a trance. Lisa watches over her, but when the bearded spirit arrives she abandons her entranced daughter and leaves with him. Burt and Ann-Marie arrive to find Michelle unresponsive, her eyes glowing red.

Burt and Ann-Marie also abandon Michelle to search for Lisa. When they see a ghostly image of Michelle's face in the roaring fireplace, Burt tries to climb into the fireplace, even though he just saw his daughter upstairs. Ann-Marie discourages him from self-immolation.

Burt and Ann-Marie investigate the basement, which has become a fiery vision of hell with low ceilings and topless strangers sitting around.

Father Stratten had warned them that the devil would use illusions to break their faith. Burt reminds Annie that they are experiencing illusions, but she rushes into the flames and they are real, despite the priest's warning. 

Lisa and the bearded spirit are in another corner of the somewhat cramped basement. Lisa watches an image of herself in a nightgown confronting a mime.

The mime rips off her nightgown and they roll around in the fire. This causes the other, presumably real, Lisa to be ashamed of herself. 

Burt tries reasoning with the bearded spirit. "Can't you see they've tricked you? Even if she went with you, they wouldn't let you have her." 

This line of reasoning strikes a chord with the spirit. He silently bids farewell to Lisa and walks off into the flames. 

Burt rescues Lisa from the burning basement by grabbing her shoulders and saying "Come on" in a very scolding manner. 

In the film's coda, Burt and Michelle play frisbee in the surf while Lisa sunbathes.

Burt is glad it's all over, his tone suggesting that the events of the past few days were comparable to spending a few minutes on the phone taking care of an overcharge on his cable bill.

But is it over? The answer is no. Lisa pulls up her sunglasses to reveal her eyes are blinking red.

The genius of Demon Seed lies in its absolute commitment to simultaneously exploiting Lisa and empowering her. It works hard to convinces the viewer that there is no contradiction between presenting the plight of an isolated, frustrated woman and showing her nude at every opportunity. It is a triumph because of the conviction of the filmmakers but also because of Lana Wood's tour de force performance as Lisa. Her performance is the definition of "brave," the word film reviewers use exclusively to describe a woman's performance when she appears nude many, many times in one film. Her underacting to come across as distant and her overacting during all her encounters with the mysterious stranger balance each other perfectly to result in a praiseworthy performance that centers the film.

The audience can only give in to the convictions of the film and enjoy both the abject exploitation of Ms. Wood's body and the suggestion that she is a feminist symbol of empowerment because she eliminates her husband's power over her through her supernatural dalliance.

The surprises the film provides are icing on the proverbial cake. The introduction of the cat and its later disappearance, Belline's rather incompetent attempted seduction of Michelle, and the vision of hell described as illusory but physically very real all keep the viewer on his or her proverbial toes, not knowing what to expect next. In the end, the result is an exciting vision of the resilience of the proverbial human spirit...even though at the actual end of the film, it appears the forces of evil have, in fact, won.