Saturday, September 8, 2012

COMA 1978

Like counting the rings of a tree, there will likely come a day when a person’s age can be calculated by the number of films released in that individual’s lifetime that have fallen prey to the dreaded remake. Of course, such calculations would be mathematically calibrated to allow for the increased percentage numbers afforded genre films (Carrie, The Shining, The Stepford Wives, Psycho, et.al,) obviously Hollywood’s favored source for idea-harvesting.
This iconic image of coma patients eerily suspended by wires was used extensively in the promotion of the 1978 film. Today what I find most shocking about this photo is how fit all the patients are. Perhaps the 2012 remake allows for the new plus-size American physique and employs heavy-duty suspension cables.

Coma, one of my favorite '70s thrillers, has recently been given the TV miniseries treatment. And while I wish it luck (ever the bullheaded traditionalist, I didn’t watch it and don’t plan to), seriously…can any remake ever hope to replicate in any dramatically meaningful way, that transcendent feminist moment in American cinema when heroine Geneviève Bujold doffed her wedged espadrilles and pantyhose before crawling through the bowels of Boston Memorial Hospital in search of the cause of all those suspicious coma cases? After years of women in thrillers and horror films falling victim to their feminine finery (running in heels and twisting an ankle being the genre standard) this small act of practicality was such a revolutionary repudiation of a sexist genre cliché that on the opening day of Coma back in 1978, the audience I saw it with actually broke into applause!
Genevieve Bujold as Dr. Susan Wheeler
Michael Douglas as Dr. Mark Bellows
Richard Widmark as Dr. Harris - Chief of Surgery
Elizabeth Ashley as Mrs. Emerson
Rip Torn as Dr. George
Lois Chiles as Nancy Greenly
Tom Selleck as Sean Murphy
Ed Harris as Pathology Resident #2 (film debut!)
The plot of Coma, like many a good thriller, is marvelously simple: at prestigious Boston Memorial Hospital a higher-than-normal percentage of routine surgery patients are ending up in irreparable comas. Resident surgeon Dr. Susan Wheeler (Bujold) grows suspicious after her best friend and a recently admitted healthy male patient both slip into comas following relatively simple surgeries, yet no one at the hospital seems to share her concern. What follows is a paranoid suspense thriller that plays on our basic fears of hospitals and our vulnerability in the face of a sometimes callously impersonal medical profession.

The post-Watergate years may have been depressing as hell, but all that resultant disillusionment and cynicism was a bonanza for the suspense thriller genre. The pervading sense of skepticism and uncertainty that was the cultural by-product of such a large-scale political betrayal fueled and found catharsis in a great many fascinating films of the '70s. We had thrillers about conspiracy theories  –  The Parallax View (1974); morally confused private eyes – Night Moves (1975); and personal privacy paranoia  – The Conversation (1974). Coma remains one of my personal favorites because it ratchets up the tension of the conspiracy theory thriller by combining it with the combative feminist-era sexual politics of The Stepford Wives.
Dr. Wheeler's run-ins with the hospital's patronizing male staff can be viewed as a larger commentary on society's vulnerability to patriarchal institutions which would assume to know what's better for us than we do ourselves 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, and Klute rank high on my list of unforgettable thrillers because each is a genre film (horror film, suspense thriller, crime mystery) that seizes upon an element of the cultural zeitgeist to create something marvelously new and chilling out the rote and familiar. The medical thriller at the center of Coma is intriguing enough (are patients deliberately being put into comas, and if so, why?), but the paranoia is amplified by having the usual disbelieved protagonist be a woman doctor in the male-dominated field of medicine.
The Men's Club
Coma uses institutionalized sexism as fodder for a marvelously engrossing paranoid thriller

The day-to-day condescension Geneviève Bujold’s Dr. Wheeler faces from her male co-workers takes on an increasingly ominous air when her growing anxiety and rational concern that something nefarious is afoot at Boston Memorial is met with “Don’t bother your pretty little head about it” disregard from her superiors. Especially the creepily paternal Chief of Surgery (Richard Widmark) who treats a serious professional discussion with Dr. Wheeler as if he's Andy Hardy's father asked to give a heart-to-heart.
It’s established early on in the scenes between Dr. Wheeler and her professionally ambitious boyfriend, Dr. Mark Bellows (Douglas) that she is hypersensitive to issues of respect and acts of subtle sexism - a perfectly natural response to working daily in the semi-hostile, all-male environment of professional medicine (the in-hospital dialogue is full of men making casually demeaning comments to or about women), all the while simultaneously trying to navigate a personal relationship (Douglas to Bujold: “You don’t want a lover, you want a goddam wife!”).
If Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives gave us a paranoid thriller born of male anxiety about feminism, Coma takes the female perspective and devises a thriller in which female alienation from a male-dominated world inspires self-reliance and resourcefulness.

Much like Rosemary’s pregnancy was targeted as being the source of paranoia about her neighbors in Rosemary's Baby; Dr. Wheeler’s feminism and relationship troubles are viewed as being part of her percieved-as-hysterical suspicions about the male staff at her hospital. As her frustration mounts from not being able to convince anyone at the hospital that there is something to be concerned about, reactions from the male staff (she seems to be the only female doctor there) range from flat out dismissals to bristling at the audacity of a woman daring to challenge the knowledge and authority of men. It's a wonderful add-on device that lends to Coma a subtext that fuels paranoia with extra layers of frustration that comes from not being taken seriously.
The best paranoid thrillers have a way of making the ordinary look really creepy

PERFORMANCES
I had the grave misfortune of having my first-ever exposure to Geneviève Bujold occur with the movie Earthquake (1975); a film whose most terrifying image was that of the lovely French-Canadian actress canoodling with the Skeletor-like countenance of Charlton Heston. In the ensuing years I’ve enjoyed her performances in many wonderful films (1988's Dead Ringers is a must-see), but I guess I have a special place in my heart for Coma. As her first real starring solo venture, I thought it was to be the film that launched her to stardom. As I’ve said in a previous post, Bujold represented to me the direction I thought films were going to take in terms of motion picture leading ladies in the '70s. She was quirky, radiated intelligence, and embodied a non-traditional beauty coupled with remarkable acting skill. As the '80s fate of Debra Winger attested, Hollywood still preferred their leading ladies vapid and pliable, so the promise of Bujold was never realized (at least to my satisfaction).
In a nice reversal of the "supportive partner" role usually allocated to women in motion picture thrillers, Michael Douglas, fresh off of several years on the TV series The Streets of San Francisco, plays Bujold's allocated-to-the-sidelines boyfriend. 

Still, Bujold is terrific here, spunky and sharp with that great throaty voice of hers and those dark, inquisitive eyes. She adds so much dimension to her role that she keeps character and motivation at the forefront, preventing Coma from becoming mired in its medical thriller plot. Unlike the kind of actress usually cast in roles like this (I call your attention to Lesley-Anne Downs’ implausible Egyptologist in Sphinx, another film based on a Robin Cook novel) Bujold is actually believable as a physician.
Fans will recognize the short-haired brunette at the front of Bujold's embarrassingly cheesy dance exercise class as Kay Cole, the original "Maggie" in the Broadway production of A Chorus Line. The motion picture version of which Coma co-star Michael Douglas would help ruin in 1985.

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Unable to convince anyone of her suspicions, Dr. Wheeler's quest takes her to the architecturally severe and foreboding Jefferson Institute. The scenes taking place at this futuristic chronic care facility (whose actual purpose I won't reveal here) are Coma's big set-pieces, and they really don't disappoint. A concrete and steel variation on the typical thriller haunted house, the Jefferson Institute scenes are notable not only for the poetic-nightmare images of roomfuls of bodies suspended in techno limbo, but also for the unforgettably bizarre performance of Elizabeth Ashley as Mrs. Emerson, the Institute's equivalent of a gargoyle at the gate. By Coma's midpoint, when everything is just about sunk by an interminable "romantic weekend" montage, Ms. Ashley appears and boots the film back into high gear. Her introductory scene with Bujold is a classic! As the unblinking and inscrutable head of the Institute, Ashley carves an indelible impression and is one of my favorite characters in the film.
The Jefferson Instiute
Coma knows that in real life, a large, impersonal medical building beats a haunted house hands down in the terror department
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
No matter how clever the plot, a suspense thriller has to have thrills. Coma mines the already fertile creep-out atmosphere of hospitals for all its worth. It does so by allowing us to witness (to great effect, I might say) the day-to-day casualness doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists treat that which is unnervingly life-and-death and terrifying to us. If there is a level at which Coma scores its biggest points as a thriller, its in giving the audience the impression that hospitals regard us patients as a mechanic would a car on a lift; just a bunch of billable parts that can or cannot be fixed.
"You'll be getting a bill from each of us in the mail."
And then of course, Coma has plenty of the good, old-fashioned kind of thrills too.
Remakes get a bad rap, but for every totally pointless rehash of a classic (Straw Dogs) there is a film like 1978s marvelous Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a retread that's really a re-imagining. I'm not sure what the remake of Coma will seize upon as a justification for its existence (the feminist subtext - which to my way of thinking is more relevant than ever - might be perceived as being dated), but unless it devotes itself to correcting some of this film's flaws (a few loose narrative threads, that mysterious hired killer), I think I'll stick to this imperfect but ever-so-satisfying relic from a time when even genre films felt that it was important to comment on the world we live in.


AUTOGRAPH FILES
In 1982 I had the opportunity to see Elizabeth Ashley co-star on Broadway with Geraldine Page and Carrie Fisher in the play,  Agnes of God. As one might imagine, the exxperience was electrifying. Although very faded, Ashley's signature is on the bottom of the Playbill above.

To read more about Coma:
Another informative and fun post on "Coma" at Poseidon's Underworld
There's a great post about the "Coma" DVD here at Joe's View

Copyright © Ken Anderson

22 comments:

  1. So wonderful to read this. I continue to learn about films, even ones that have long been favorites and viewed again and again, when I come here. I love the assessment of Bujold removing her hosiery before ascending into the ducts of the hospital.

    You know, a friend and I drove all the way to Washington DC to see Elizabeth Ashley in a play and I was determined to meet her and discuss her part in Coman, but, to my complete horror and distress, she had determined not to exit via the stage door for the run of the production. (There's a post on my site about her and this visit to DC.) I'm always starstruck anyway, but the chance to meet Mrs. Emerson would have rocked my world. The drive home was not pretty. LOL

    Thanks for the shout-out and for creating yet another cpativating post!

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    1. Hi Poseidon. Thank you very much. You are always so kind in your comments, really. I appreciate it so much. I always hope that my posts contain even a scintilla of something interesting for the well-read film fan, and you always make me feel that I occasionally achieve my goal.
      I just finished reading your Elizabeth Ashley post (and she is indeed so good in "Coma"...if you've never seen it in a theater, I tell you, the audience simply howled when she started giving Bujold those robotic answers to her questions without blinking. I was a high point of the film and you could tell the audience was all keyed up for the film to go into some weird, "Stepford" area. I always wondered if it was her characterization or Crichton's direction). Anyhow, your post was very informative in that I had no idea of all the trials and tribulations she went through! I'm sorry that you never got to meet her. One time in New York I saw her in a production of "Agnes of God" with Geraldine Page and Amanda Plummer (what a cast!) and got her autograph after. To this day I'm pissed that I never asked her about "Coma"!
      Thanks, Poseidon!

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  2. I just had to watch this one again after reading your review. They played this on television when I was a kid, and all those hanging bodies were disconcerting to say the least. There's a reason why all those bodies look as if they've been plucked straight from the 1976 US Olympic team: only the best will do for the Jefferson Institute.

    Ken, are you certain the audience wasn't applauding for an entirely different reason when Genevieve Bujold removed her shoes and pantyhose? The shot of her climbing the ladder is one of the more blatantly voyeuristic that I've seen in a film. Also, her discarded pantyhose become an important part of the plot later in the movie.

    Mad Magazine did a parody of "Coma" and had some fun with the role reversal relationship between Susan Wheeler and Mark Bellows. The film isn't often discussed these days, which does strike me as rather strange. Genevieve Bujold reminds me a lot of Brooke Adams from "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", also released in 1978, and there are several similarities between the two movies. For one, the scene where Bujold is moving around from up on high and looking down on the bodies suspended from the wires reminds me of the scene with Donald Sutherland inside the pod nursery. Also, in both films, falling asleep is seen as fatal. Of course, if you enjoy "Coma", then it's likely that you'll also get plenty of value from other Michael Crichton films such as "Westworld" and "Looker". Plus, you can't go past "The Hospital".

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    1. Hi Mark
      Glad my post inspired you to rewatch the film! It does make a great paranoia double bill with "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and indeed Brooke Adams and Bujold share a similar quality I hadn't taken notice of until now.

      And you bring up a good point about the scene in the hospital vents. There's no telling how the pantyhose/shoe removal scene plays to audiences now. The film's intent was fairly obvious back in the 70s when it was possible for exposure of the female body in film to be non-erotic and matter-of-fact. It was clear that the audience was applauding for the feminist heroism of the Dr. Wheeler character doing something so lacking in feminine vanity. Unlike the blatantly voyeuristic scene in "The Poseidon Adventure" when we are asked to share the male gaze staring up at Stella Stevens' panties as she climbs that ladder, "Coma" literally throws Dr. Wheeler's pantyhose in the face of any viewer who would make of an act of heroic practicality, something erotic. In these post-feminist times, the point may be lost, but in 1978, we "got it."

      Here are a couple of critical quotes about "Coma" from 1978 on the subject:

      “Instead, she confronts all the menacing hirelings of a high-level medical conspiracy single-handedly. She climbs steep ladders that would afflict me with vertigo 10 times over, and, in the process, she very symbolically removes her pantyhose to facilitate her progress. As the discarded pantyhose drift downward one senses that a new feminist spirit is rising upward in compensation. No more female frippery for an unencumbered creature who can hold her own in pluck, ingenuity, and ruthlessness with the most vicious villains, even in the icy confines of a morgue.” Andrew Sarris, The village Voice 1978

      "Bujold must be the first lead in a thriller who has to dispose of pantyhose before moving into action. She may put off insecure men, but vocal women at a preview audience took her to their hears: 'She's like Nancy Drew grown up,' said one.” Michael Sragow, The Boston Phoenix

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  3. Another winner Ken. I love your assessment of COMA and the very, very underrated Genevieve Bujold (Anne of the Thousand Days, anyone?)....oh and this film was blesses with one of the best cast of supporting actors ever assembled!

    Great script + Great cast + Great direction = Great movie. COMA is in this class.

    Oh FYI: I have a soft spot for Miss Lois Chiles. God she is beautiful!

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    1. Hi CAL
      Thanks very much! I have been on a kick of watching "Anne of the Thousand Days" lately and it sparked my revisit of "Coma." Bujold is so good in this, and yes, a really interesting and surprising supporting cast.
      And I had a thing for Lois Chiles too. So gorgeous in "The great Gatsby." Thank you for reading so many of my posts!

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    2. You're welcome. I'm a DREAMS ARE WHAT LE CINEMA IS FOR JUNKIE. I spent one insomnia-fueled night just reading and reading and reading! I may just be your #1 fan! LOL!

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    3. I remember that! I think I wrote that I wished I gave out some kind of medal for heroism for such an act, but I was mostly just terribly flattered. As someone who just started this blog to catalog my impressions of some of the influential films in my life, I hope you know how much of what you say is appreciated.

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  4. Thanks for the link, Ken.
    Genevieve Bujold was one of several late 1970s/early 1980s actresses who proved they could handle leading roles but were inexplicably discarded by Hollywood.
    A personal favorite, Brooke Adams, was terrific in "Body Snatchers" and also had the female lead in "Days of Heaven" that same year, but was barely heard from again.
    I would put Margot Kidder and Karen Allen in the same sad grouping.
    You have to wonder if these women backed away from the movie industry because of what they were offered in the 1980s or if other personal matters came up.

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    1. Hi Joe
      Here I go name-dropping again, but in the 90s Debra Winger used to take my class. She would never complain about wanting to work more, she would only speak of how she thought perhaps she was too much of a "grown-up" to be able to stand working in Hollywood. I often wonder if some of the more intelligent actresses disappear merely because they have no stomach for the industry games.

      It's our loss, of course, because Adams, Kidder (I'm glad you brought her up) and Bujold (if you don't count "Monsignor") really brought a lot to the table.

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  5. In 2001 I worked in a dvd store and one day Michael Chrichton came in. I had him sign my dvd of Coma and asked about Genevieve Bujold as she is my favorite actress. He told me that she didn't want to make any big Hollywood films anymore and instead concentrate on smaller films. Which she does to this day. I believe her last Hollywood film was either Tightrope with Clint Eastwood or Dead Ringers with Jeremy Irons.

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    1. Thanks so much for sharing that anecdote! I remember reading about her dodging a bullet on some Star Trek TV thing, and then after that haven't seen much of her. Alas, Bujold's sanity is definitely Hollywood's loss. She was amazing in "Dead Ringers"
      By the way, a signed copy of "Coma"! Seriously jealous, here.

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  6. Great review! You named all the facets that make it a good (medical) thriller. Coma is one of my favorite movies. The exterior of The Jefferson Instiute keep me from sleeping, even 35 years later. Bujold is amazing. Maybe I should go buy the DVD. (Sorry for the bad Englisch, I'm from the Netherlands).
    Okay, I'm now reading The Birds and then on to Showgirls (from our own Dutch director Paul Verhoeven).
    Thanks for this interesting site!

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    1. Thanks very much, Charles!
      It pleases me to know that "Coma" still packs a punch for you some 35 years later! It is a terrific, underrated thriller that seems to have fallen through the cracks, but many who saw it in the 70s remember how chilling it was.
      So happy that you are checking out the blog, and please forgive anything i might have said untoward about fellow countryman Paul Verhoeven. I loved "Spetters", but...well, "Showgirls"....
      Thanks!

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  7. Another one of my all-time favorite films and a treasured part of my collection. Bujold was a trailblazer—a woman headlining a sci fi thriller was then unheard of, and paved the way for actresses like Sigourney Weaver to carry on.

    When I attended Northwestern University in the 1980s, the new buildings they had constructed alongside the existing structures from 1851 ALL looked exactly like the Jefferson Institute.

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    1. Glad to hear you like this movie, and indeed you make a good point about Bujold's casting at the time being far for of a breakthrough than it seems now.
      It's funny what you say about the Northwestern University buildings...the college i attended in the 70s had a "new" building that looked a lot like the Jefferson institute, too! Scary and spartan architecture...give me the chills. Thanks!

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  8. Hi Ken,

    While I won't say this film is a favorite of mine in the sense that I watch it frequently it is one that I enjoyed the times I have seen it. Most of that is due to the quality of the cast plus Crichton's direction which is paced well. I had to smile when you referred to the tendency of the women in jep films of having the female protagonist be a total professional until they are threatened at which point they acted like idiots and it is so refreshing that the lead character doesn't do that here.

    I was more fortunate than you in having my first exposure to Geneviève Bujold be in Anne of the Thousand Days where she is magnificent. Bujold is an intriguing actress who wasn't properly cast. I don't know if was poor judgement on her part, a dearth of suitable material offered or a disinclination to work constantly, in her peak years she averaged only one film a year and some of them were dillies. For example Earthquake which my clearest memory of other than it being a piece of crap is the appalling afro on Victoria Principal's head. But in this film her intelligence shines through and she provides a sharp focus as the viewer's advocate.

    As for the rest of the cast, Michael Douglas' part is nothing much, it seems diminishing to say but it's a hair part. He doesn't have anything important to do but be a trifle dim and look attractive, he does both but the role certainly didn't stretch his acting ability.

    The real duel is between Genevieve and the phenomenal Richard Widmark, an actor who was always respected but never really got his due. From everything I ever read a total sweetheart in real life, fiercely liberal and fair minded he was one of the best villains ever, able to inject venality into a character with ease with a smile that menaced anyone it was turned on to chilling effect. The funny thing was when he was young and played the hero that same smile with some interior adjustment that he made was dazzlingly charming, open and sexy. He's a great favorite of mine. He's a perfect antagonist for Genevieve's Dr. Wheeler, seemingly benign and wise but with that unsettling edge which cloaks the wickedness underneath.

    As you said the other real standout performance comes from Elizabeth Ashley and she's awesome but I have to admit I was a little disappointed the first time I saw her in the film in a theatre. Because of a typo in the paper the cast list stated that it was Elizabeth Montgomery and not she in the film, of course this was before saturation advertising so that paper was all I had to rely on. I was so looking forward to seeing Samantha Stephens play a villainess that I couldn't fully appreciate Ashley's work on first view. However once I watched it again I realized how great she was in the role.

    I skipped the remake. Even with the impressive cast list the reviews I read were underwhelming. Remakes are tricky, unless they have a fresh perspective or idea say the musical version of A Star is Born or a truly talented director like John Huston with The Maltese Falcon the material is often best left alone. I'd rather not dilute the experience of the original by watching a pale shadow.

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    1. Ha! Your memories of "Earthquake" are spot on. It is a painful movie to watch in so many ways, but that every scene with Victoria Principal is enough to send one running up the aisles . And I agree about Bujold in film. Highly uneven output, the source of which is difficult to put a finger on. Her good films were excellent (like "Anne of the Thousand Days") but some choices are baffling.
      I enjoyed your take on the film and its performances. Especially the hat you tip to Richard Widmark.
      I especially loved the anecdote about expecting to see Elizabeth Montgomery and getting Elizabeth Ashley! As good as Ashley is, I would have been crestfallen had I been in your place (as you say, the chance to see Samantha Stevens as a villainess would have been something to look forward to).
      Thanks, Joel, for yet another terrific comment! Always a pleasure to read.

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  9. I hope I can get around to writing a reply for another excellent review!!! But I just read this and laughed out loud when you mentioned Elizabeth Ashley. Yeah....have to say.....she is so damn good....it becomes hilarious. and ironic that the scariest one in the movie is actually a woman who "acts" like a man, in a way. I think Ashley is so damn great and memorable is the same reason Anthony Hopkins was so great in Silence.....practically no motion at all, calm, no change in inflection, tone. and speech that has no bad grammar ....lol. hopefully I can reply soon. but a very true and funny review and happy that you acknowledged the true feminism and talent of Bujold.

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    1. Hello John
      Thank you very much. I never thought about it before, but your description of Elizabeth Ashley is on the nose: a woman acting like man in a way. An odd, robotic man. Like Hannibal Lecter.
      When the film came out, her appearance always got the audience giggling nervously. no one knew what she was about, and she made the entire Institute sequence all the more tense for it.
      I think "Coma" is a difficult film not to like, but that doesn't stop me from being glad that someone else appreciated the work of both Bujold and Ashley in it.
      I appreciate your visiting the site and thank you for talking the time to comment!

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  10. Another great analysis. I love the phrase, "Skeletor-like countenance of Charlton Heston". I made the mistake of watching (at least partially) the remake. In a word AWFUL.

    I too saw "Agnes of God" in 1982 but with Amanda Plummer. Terrific but chilling.

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    1. Thank you! I
      This film is a big fave, but there was still a chance for a remake to do something different. I tried watching the remake of "Coma" as well, and couldn't get past the first half hour. How did that get green lit? Awful is indeed the word. BOY!

      And Amanda Plummer had just left the production when Carrie Fisher came in. I understand Plummer was amazing.
      Thanks for continuing to stop by!

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