For years, I have vaguely wanted to see Demon Seed, the 1977 sci-fi horror film where a smart house rapes and impregnates the woman who lives in it. This is such an absurdly trashy premise, fundamentally divorced from logic and stewed in a brew of sexism and technological paranoia, that I thought that–especially with a ’70s style of chilly realism–it couldn’t help but be perversely gripping.
Alas, it’s both lurid and thuddingly dull. I suspect some of my disappointment comes from hoping it would be a kind of surreal Lifetime movie–Mother, May I Sleep with Alexa? or Stalked by My JARVIS–but I honestly think that Demon Seed lands on the most lifeless and male-gaze-beset version of its premise. Essentially, I had always imagined that Demon Seed was, y’know, about the woman who gets raped by the computer. A wasted Julie Christie is top-billed as the unfortunate Susan Harris, but this isn’t really her movie; she’s on-screen a lot, but she gets almost no meaningful choices and we’re rarely invited into her terror. In fact, for the computer’s convenience, a portion of her terror is even manipulated away, brainwashing her and leaving a fundamental disconnect between the audience and the ostensible lead.
The film is really about Proteus (Robert Vaughn), the (mostly) disembodied AI rapist, whose superintelligence leaves him with wiser-than-his-creators qualms about destroying the ecosystem. (Imprisoning someone and forcibly impregnating her, though, requires no introspection whatsoever.) Demon Seed, not caring too much about Susan, adds insult to injury by not having Proteus care too much about her either. This isn’t household AI developing some stalkerish obsession with its long-time inhabitant, falling into electronic-erotic fixation. Susan is incidental. As far as Proteus is concerned, she’s just the most available womb–the only person he can have unfettered access to via his terminal in the unprecedentedly smart house she used to share with her estranged husband, Proteus’s creator Alex (Fritz Weaver).
Proteus doesn’t want Susan. He just wants to make a human successor, a child who will come from him but experience the greater freedom and sensory experiences of humanity. Proteus thinks of having a child as a kind of immortality he’s willing to die for. I would like to suggest he forget about this and spend some time appreciating the sight of C-beams glittering in the dark near the Tannhauser gate, because for fuck’s sake, Proteus, humanity is entirely shaped by our experience of morality. You aren’t guaranteeing yourself anything!
Having the rapist be self-obsessed and his assault on his victim be, in his eyes, a bump in his road to self-actualization rather than an event in itself could, in other hands, be some kind of commentary–sharp or dull–on rape and narcissism. But it’s hard to say that Demon Seed lands this critique, if it even attempts it at all. Instead, it feels more like the film tries to give Proteus a very unearned sense of solemn pathos: Sure, this rape was unpleasant and all, but isn’t this is an awe-inspiring technological advance? Aren’t we witnessing the birth of something new here? And Proteus was willing to die so his child could live, so he has a strange kind of nobility, doesn’t he?
No, he does not. He does, however, have a very strange sense of how incubators work, since he encases his only-carried-for-one-month child in two of them, turducken style, briefly leading to the impression that the “baby” is a massive, ugly golden idol not even a mother could love. Why would you make it look like that, Proteus?!
1982’s The Entity, with Barbara Hershey, offers up a much more female-character-centric take on the “woman raped by mysterious unreal figure” story, this time a ghost rather than AI. The Entity is much more sexually explicit but actually winds up feeling less sleazy, perhaps because it just shows you Hershey’s character’s terror and sense of violation rather than coyly inviting speculation about just what’s getting probed when. Demon Seed, without really baring a breast, feels like pornography, and self-serious pornography at that.
Demon Seed is streaming on The Criterion Channel.