COMA (1978 United States)

comabluToday, a plot like this would seem quite commonplace but for the late 1970s this was reasonably new and original. Hollywood had, in years past, generally portrayed the medical profession in a good light, so the idea that doctors and nurses could be murderous villains rather than selfless, idealistic healers was no doubt shocking.

Michael Crichton put his medical background at Harvard to good use in directing one of the most disturbing, thought-provoking and unsettling novels by medical man turned author, Robin Cook. The plot revolves around Dr Susan Wheeler, a young and promising resident surgeon at the acclaimed Boston Memorial Hospital. Following her close friend’s abortion ending fatally, our heroine begins to investigate the unusually high number of spontaneous comatose cases. During the past year alone, more than ten totally healthy young patients fell into a coma after seemingly routine surgical procedures.

Dr Wheeler suspects a conspiracy, especially when it turns out all the patients were treated in the same OR and transported to the mysterious Jefferson Institute afterwards, but the entire medical staff – including her ambitious fellow surgeon and lover Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas) – stifle any of her attempts to prove it.  Is she clutching at straws, or is there a deadly conspiracy at work ? It does what so few thrillers do; it gets the balance of characterization and authenticity and action and suspense exactly right. The first half is an absorbing, completely believable depiction of hospital life.

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The cast seem more like medics than actors – this is a delirious, nerve-wracking fantasy of assassins, murderous chases, futuristic cryogenics and political cover ups, and the shift from one to the other is seamless. Genevieve Bujold is convincingly out of her depth but determined to uncover the truth, and Michael Douglas is the ultimate don’t-rock-the-boat corporate climber, forced to make fundamental decisions about who to believe. I find Douglas to be overly assertive though. He is too aggressive, displaying little finesse. There is better support in the acting department by Richard Widmark and Rip Torn as the heavies. Even a young Tom Selleck pops up briefly, only to lose his kidneys – ouch!

There’s also a great blaring un-melodic score by Jerry Goldsmith that twists the knife, plus the very spooky photography.  I find it disappointing that Crichton didn’t make more films, because although he was a popular writer it’s his directorial style that really scores – his grasp of visual grammar, suspense and eye for spaces in the frame. Most movies made by writers-turned-directors show little visual flair,  by contrast Crichton’s films are full of imaginative effects (see Westworld and Runaway particularly). Coma has a big set-piece chase sequence through the deserted hospital which is spectacularly creepy and unsettling, and the Jefferson Institute scenes are just breathtaking.

Kudos to Lance LeGault, who plays the brutal blonde assassin Vince. He is coldly repelling and is a big scary dude. Genevieve Bujold is emotionally compelling, and it is very easy for the viewer to identify with her. She questions everything going on in her life during the story, from her relationship with her boyfriend to her very sanity, all without losing her femininity. The hospital interiors are realistically depressing but later on there is a vacation sequence which is totally at odds with the rest of the piece, its too soft focus and you are aware of how fake it is. Of course the pace is slow and quietly dry from a 21 st century perspective, but it taps into everything that has ever unnerved you about doctors and hospitals.

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Comments

  1. I’m going to try and find a copy and watch this! I love horror movies!

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  2. I hope you love it. I assumed it might be boring because of the medical setting, but was I wrong!

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  3. I am giving away my age but I saw this in the movie theater when it came out. It was thrilling at the time.

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  4. Way back in my idealistic youth when this film was new, I worked in a geriatric hospital and one of my jobs was renting films (on reels to be shown through projectors back in those far-off days!) for the old people to watch on Saturday nights. I remember arguing with my boss who felt this would be a great one to rent, whereas I really felt not! He won, and sure enough the patients seemed to thoroughly enjoy it… 😉

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