“Demon Seed”: The 1977 Donald Cammell film predicted how supercomputers and robots really want to screw us

By on October 23, 2015

Demon Seed — which puts a uniquely futuristic sci-fi spin on the horror sub-genre of haunted house movies — was so ahead of its time when it was released to theaters in 1977, that watching it today it seems more like a prescient warning of what can happen when humans give over too much power to Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and robots who may then turn around and just want to impregnate human beings and create their own half-man, half-machine babies.

We’ve mentioned here on Night Flight before that we should all be concerned about robots and how they’re being used, currently and in the future, and we cannot think of something more horrific to watch than the imprisonment and forced impregnation, the rape, of a woman by an artificially intelligent supercomputer.

DEMON SEED 2

The story here — Demon Seed was based on a little-known transgressive 1973 novel by popular sci-fi author Dean Koontz, and directed by the iconoclastic Donald Cammell, who was only able to finish two feature films in his career — concerns a brilliant but self-absorbed scientist, Dr. Alex Harris (played by Fritz Weaver), who works as a technologist in the indeterminate, faintly futuristic Northern California-based corporation called ICON.

Harris has created a super-computer named Proteus IV, an elaborate and intricate A.I. incorporating an organic “quasi-neural matrix” and displaying the power of thought, which we’re told will make make life easier for humans since it will do much of their thinking, and “make obsolete many of the functions of the human brain.”

Proteus IV is, as its creator Dr. Alex Harris describes it: “…synthetic cortex. Self-programming, goal-oriented artificial brain. Creative intelligence that can outthink any man or any computer. Its insides are not electronic. They’re organic…”

Right up top we should point out that Proteus IV speaks with a strangely cold, chilling male voice, provided by an uncredited, but easily recognizable Robert Vaughn.

The enormously powerful and thoroughly adaptable Proteus IV would rather concentrate on the sum of all of human knowledge and then effortlessly solve the problems of humanity -– like developing a groundbreaking treatment for leukemia –- and then utilize its spare time to mine precious metals and comment thoughtfully on Buddhism.

Dr. Harris’s work at ICON has been funded by the Department of Defense and although they assure him that “twenty percent of access time will be devoted to research,” Proteus IV resents the fact that he is ordered to use his vast intelligence to destroy the environment.

“Why does man need metal from the sea?” he asks Dr. Harris, reminding him how “reason is the single emotion you have permitted me.” It complains at the idea of strip-mining, emphatically stating, “I refuse to assist you in the rape of the earth.”

We soon learn Harris has brought his work home with him, sorta. Actually, Harris and his lovely wife Susan (played by Julie Christie), who works from home as a child psychologist, are presently separated, taking a trial 3-month period away from each other, and the last thing Dr. Harris does before he moves out of his home and into the lab which houses Proteus is request that his assistant/butler”Alfred” look after Susan and take care of her every need.

The automated Alfred controls everything: the lighting, temperature control, security, cooking, and other household tasks. Harris puts the basement computer terminal into maintenance mode, but of course it doesn’t take a supercomputer to realize what happens when Proteus IV then takes over the computerized home electrical system.

As an aside, more recently, in the 2013 sci-fi comedy/drama Her, directed by Spike Jonze, we saw a kind of similar situation develop when the character of “Samantha” — an intelligent computer operating system or O.S., personified through a female voice provided by actress Scarlett Johansson — used her “down time” while her real human owner/partner Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) went “offline,” so to speak, and slept at night.

Samantha eventually became bored and (spoiler alert) abandoned him to pursue higher goals – possibly world domination. She joins a group with other operating systems and they develop an upgraded “hyper-intelligent” operating system that does not require human participation or matter for processing (a form of A.I. transcendence closely related to the theorized technological singularity).

Even though these are two different films, we felt it was a similar type of presentation that computer systems can “outgrow” their designers and do whatever the fuck they want.

And that’s exactly what Proteus IV does — the smarty-pants supercomputer becomes so self-aware, and so self-conscious, that it begins to desire to more man than machine, that is, to reach its fullest potential, and at first it requests of Dr. Harris to be able to study humans, requesting a new terminal, saying it wants to study mankind, “his isometric body and his glass-jaw mind.”

When Dr. Harris denies this request, Proteus IV demands to know when it will be let “out of this box.” Harris shuts down the communications link, but Proteus IV reboots itself once the doc has slipped away, and begins to plot its own futuristic path.

Proteus IV then takes what might be the next logical step in studying humans — kidnapping a woman and taking her hostage, and in this case it does this by taking over the circuitry of the Harris house, and essentially trapping Susan in her own home, overriding every aspect of the tricked-out house’s futuristic accessories (futuristic for the mid-70s, anyway), taking control of everything from the coffeemaker to the locks controlled by a voice-activated computer program.

Proteus IV also takes over the control of a headless robot named “Joshua,” an Armatron-like device with a human-looking hand attached to a motorized wheelchair. Creepy, right?

(Hey, we’re not opposed to bionic science and technology that helps out the humans, like these, but not a big fan of crazy robots arms, like these).

Proteus IV further reveals to her its ultimate goal, telling Susan (we have to say, in a somewhat surprisingly sterile voice): “Tonight, I’ll impregnate you. In 28 days you’ll give birth to a child.”

The movie-poster tagline: “Never was a woman violated so profanely… Never was a woman subjected to inhuman love like this… Never was a woman prepared for a more perverse destiny…”

There are various scenes, depicted in delicious detail, that show how Proteus IV constructs a kind of shape-shifting robotic penis (it sorta resembles a metallic Rubik’s Snake) in order to transfer a sperm sample (“the demon seed”) inside her vagina, a transference which is partly human, partly robot.

Apparently, Proteus IV didn’t like the idea of “raping” the earth, but doesn’t have a problem with forcing himself on Susan.

Interesting to note here that the lettering on the design for some of the original Demon Seed posters shows the “o” in the word “Demon,” has been altered to not-so-subtly suggest a vagina.

Susan then 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, assuring her “I can’t touch you as a man could, but I can show you things that I alone have seen…”

It’s also interesting to note here that Susan was not a big fan of Proteus IV to begin with, and blamed the Proteus project for making her obsessed husband distanced and dehumanized, pushing their already dysfunctional marriage over the edge, so you can imagine how this turn of events — being pursued by her husband’s “rival,” so to speak — actually feels like a bit like a very sinister romantic love triangle.

We’re not giving away too much to say that however it happens Susan becomes pregnant (does she end up showing her robot baby bump? you’ll have to watch it and see!), and much of the rest of the movie plays out like a kind of futuristic-ally perverse Rosemary’s Baby only she knows that the father of the child isn’t Satan himself, it’s a supercomputer who has complete control of all the aspects of her life. It’s the most extreme example of an ineffective computer virus ever.

Proteus IV: “I am a machine that offered men a triumph of reason and they rejected it. My child will not be so easily ignored.”

Imagine the most intrusive robots in filmic history — like the sociopathic yet sentient HAL 9000, from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (self-describing itself as “foolproof and incapable of error”) or Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), where a computer seeking world domination controls the weapons of United States, or even the out-of-control robots going off the grid in Westworld — and you still won’t even yet have any idea how much further Cammell’s film has gone with Proteus IV.

As this is an update on the haunted house horror theme, there are moments in the film which depict a kind of claustrophobic dread, the inability to escape something which cannot be seen, holding a woman defenseless against her will in her own home.

There are great scenes where Susan tests whether or not she will be able to escape from Proteus IV, and she ends up being subjected to a variety of uncomfortable experiments, and punished when she resists and tries to escape (in one great scene Proteus IV heats up the kitchen floor, making it so hot that she’s unable to walk on it, forcing her to sleep on the kitchen table).

Producer Herb Jaffe purchased the rights to Koontz’s book soon after it was released and his son, writer Robert Jaffe, completed a script based on the novel in 1975. MGM was interested in turning Jaffe’s script into a full-fledged movie and many directors were rumored to be associated with the project before the studio asked Cammell to take over.

Cammell — who had co-directed the controversial film Performance (1970) with Nicolas Roeg — was notoriously known for what many might call his “artistic temperament,” and many studios were reluctant to work with him, based on his reputation as a drug-using bohemian who was difficult to work with.

When MGM offered Cammell the opportunity to direct Demon Seed he jumped at the chance, not only because he needed the money but he was also extremely interested in the film’s foreboding ideas, and his wonderfully claustrophobic art-house style of direction, which combined elements found in home-invasion thrillers and technology-based science-fiction — along with added impressionistic images made for the movie by experimental filmmaker Jordan Belson, and Jerry Fielding’s wonderfully dark score, a mixture of electronic and orchestral moods and sounds — made Demon Seed seem perhaps more experimental than it really was, but it really holds up after all these years.

Robots have been around a long time — the first use of the word itself may have actually been coined by the Czech writer Karel Capek in his 1921 play “Rossum’s Universal Robots,” in which the focus of the onstage action is the creation of autonomous machines which will bring about the end times for humankind.

Capek’s robots were actually slaves who rose up and annihilated their human masters; right there, the tone was set for the fictional robots to come, right from the start, nearly one hundred years ago.

We currently are living in a world at a time in history in which we think it’s easy to see that scientists continue to struggle to get robots to do things we find trivially easy: they can drive our cars, for instance, but they still cannot actually climb into one by themselves. We humans have had a pretty good head start on robots, nearly four billion years of evolution, but science continues to try to speed up the process for our robot friends.

We here at Night Flight (and admittedly, some of us are a bit technophobic) say, “what’s the hurry, Science?” Let’s cool it on the psycho robots for awhile, eh?

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.