Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: For The A.V. Club’s Artificial Intelligence Week, we’re focusing on sentient computers and computer programs, a.k.a. our future overlords.
“Tonight, I’ll impregnate you. In 28 days you’ll give birth to a child.” These words don’t come until almost an hour into Demon Seed, a 1977 horror film starring Julie Christie, but it’s what the viewer has been waiting for. With a title like that—and design art in which the “o” in Demon is altered to not-so-subtly suggest a vagina—the movie telegraphs where it’s going with the light touch of a Howitzer.
Story-wise, Demon Seed is a trashy shocker from the wheelhouse of Dean Koontz, the poor man’s Stephen King. It opens with an explanation of Proteus IV, an artificial intelligence program which will—it’s explained, in the kind of unintentionally comical line that doubles nicely as a meta-commentary on the film—“make obsolete many of the functions of the human brain.” After being turned down in its request to study humans, Proteus secretly takes over a terminal in the basement of scientist Alex Harris; the rest of the home is occupied by his soon-to-be-ex-wife, Susan (Christie). The house is equipped with the latest in what passed for futuristic technological gadgetry in late ’70s cinema, with everything from the coffeemaker to the locks controlled by a voice-activated computer program. Proteus immediately takes over and imprisons Susan in her own home, a situation—as with most things in life nowadays—that was ably parodied by The Simpsons.
But where The Simpsons’ Pierce Brosnan-voiced program falls in love with Marge, Proteus’ interest in Susan essentially begins and ends with her womb. Proteus may be the sum total of knowledge on Earth, programmed to be ultimately reasonable, but it still wants to feel the sun on its face. Held prisoner in her own home, Susan has to decide whether to consent to the procedure and permit this man-machine birth operation to proceed, or have her mind wiped and the process done anyway.
The fun lies in the ways director Donald Cammell fuses the hammy special effects and B-movie Velveeta with Christie’s affecting performance and the unnerving horror elements. Despite the hokier aspects of the film, Proteus’ attacks on Susan are disturbing, and as it begins to prepare her body for the pregnancy, we get scenes of what are essentially robot sexual assault. Cringe-worthy images of probes and needles plunging into a tied-down Christie unsettle with ease, as does a final scene that may surprise viewers with how effectively it manages to creep them out.
But part of the enjoyment also comes from watching Cammell deploy overt homages to Stanley Kubrick and Roman Polanski, gratuitously borrowing elements of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Rosemary’s Baby with a flair for unabashed appropriation seen in the best Roger Corman films. These moments pair well with the impressionistic images made for the movie by experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson. See-sawing between dopey killer-computer fun and pretentious gobbledygook works in Demon Seed’s favor; it’s memorable despite the weak material. Having Christie headline doesn’t hurt either, as half the film is more or less a one-woman show, with the actress largely emoting in response to a disembodied voice and ambulatory hardware. The battle of soulful versus soulless builds to a climax that puts fresh life into the ongoing cinematic tussle between man and metal. Those scared by the prospect of a Terminator, take heed: There are worse things a computer can do to you.
Availability: Warner Digital Archive is the only major site currently streaming Demon Seed. It’s available for purchase on DVD through most outlets, or as a rental from your local library or video store.