Review: The Terminal Man

[Originally published in Movietone News 34, August 1974]

What a fancy exploitation flick this is! The Terminal Man‘s dressed to the nines with gleaming color, elaborate art direction, smooth camerawork (lotsa tracking shots and long-focus). All this, and—wait for it—”ideas” too! Oh, yeah. THRILLER STUDIES MIND CONTROL goes the headline over Michael Walsh’s long, respectful review in the Vancouver Province. (Walsh: “Since men first began clubbing one another over the head, violence has been a serious social problem….”) George Segal’s brain has been damaged in a car accident, see, and now he’s subject to fits, a dangerous man. They gonna plant these bad bundles of computer-controlled electrodes in his haid; maybe the computer’ll abort the fits. The Psychosurgery Question. In the back of the lecture hall, a very old doctor rises to his feet. Why, he’s … Mr. Humanism personified! Denounces the proposed procedure, the intervention, in a furious quavery voice; draws political parallels. Heavy stuff. But They (with the patient’s consent) go ahead. “Medical totalitarianism” (Walsh). Result: “a tale of psycho-horror.” Because something, of course, goes wrong, terribly wrong.

It sure as hell does; whatever subtlety Michael Crichton’s novel may have had as either a novel of ideas or a thriller, it’s certainly been shaved clean as George Segal’s post-operative head thanks to director-adapter Mike Hodges’s vulgar intervention. Hodges, says reviewer Walsh admiringly, has taken “a definite stand on the issue involved.” And he adduces a scene where the something-that-went-wrong, an ironic and unseen side-effect of the electrode brain stimulation, pushes Harry Benson (the Segal character) over the brink again for the first time since his operation. Here Walsh—who is that rara avis among daily reviewers, a genuine film buff—notices that the elegant apartment of Benson’s girlfriend (Jill Clayburgh) includes not only a TV set flickering some late-night sci-fi movie in the background, but also, of all things, a white cockatoo and a glass snowball. Quelle mise-en-scène! Well, Citizen Kane, sure, where “a … bald Orson Welles flies into a murderous rage in a room where he afterwards discovers a fluid-filled snowball.” But furthermore: Mad Love (1935). There’s a cockatoo in there, too, and that was a thriller starring Peter Lorre as a shaven-headed insane … surgeon! And furthermore: the movie on the tube is Them! (1954), in which a colony of ants mutates via atomic bomb tests (science again, geddit?) into rampaging monsters. Wow! So when Benson goes round the bend and stabs Clayburgh to death, says Walsh, this conglomeration of old-movie symbols “drives [Hodges’s] own point home with unmistakable ferocity” and “exonerates” Benson. Uh huh. As if Benson, eyes rolled up and practically foaming at the mouth, clearly driven by Forces Beyond His Control, needed further exoneration, or Hodges’s “point” further belaboring.

I don’t mean to belabor Walsh here, either; it’s just that his enthusiasm for the film as both a supposed genre thriller and a message piece probably echoes Hodges himself, the Artful Dodger. Like, if he’s so goddam committed, how come he just keeps hanging in there, after Clayburgh’s murder, hanging in there, sliding his camera up, down, across, along the floor so’s he can bring you in glorious living color and wide screen those fab patterns the rivulets of her blood make, seeping and swimming along the tiled grooves? How come he concocts this schlock scene where medical-totalitarianism victim Benson comes skulking through psychiatrist Joan Hackett’s front door while she’s upstairs taking a shower (ah, there, Psycho) and—though he is still, mind you, between computer-induced fits—he takes the phone off the hook downstairs; he mounts the stairs slowly, slowly; we get more shots of Hackett under the shower; we get a closeup of the shower drain, yet! How come we’ve got to watch him walk towards her in the narrow kitchen, and ask, Are you (sinister pause) all alone here? Some “intellectual thriller.”

Come to think of it, there is one really thrilling moment in The Terminal Man: one. It’s during the operation. The surgeon, that non–life-enhancing cardboard baddie, is sliding the electrodes in, very gingerly, millimeter by millimeter. Suddenly, as startling and loud as a burglar alarm, a buzzer goes off. An electronic monitor has sensed a trouble spot just ahead of the probe, and on a small TV screen the computer instantly spells out several possibilities (e.g., “approaching a tumor”). Aside from that electrifying moment, all the action in The Terminal Man is melodrama, or worse, Significance of the coarsest grain. At the very end, it’s pure camp, an outtake from Pulp ill suited to a “serious” thriller. I liked some of Pulp, and most of Get Carter. For a while there, I even thought Hodges—this far-out, feisty, facile dude—might have the makings of another, say, Polanski. Now I’m beginning to suspect he’s just another case of terminal facility.

THE TERMINAL MAN
Screenplay, Direction, and Production: Mike Hodges, after the novel by Michael Crichton. Cinematography: Richard H. Kline. Editing: Robert Wolfe. Art Direction: Fred Harpman; Set Decoration: Marvin March.
The Players: George Segal, Joan Hackett, Richard Dysart, Michael Gwynne, Donald Moffatt, Jill Clayburgh, Gene Borkan, Burke Byrnes.

Copyright © 1974 Ken Eisler