Sleeping Sickness


Coma - 1978
Written & Directed by Michael Crichton
from the Book by Robin Cook

Coma is more often classified as a thriller, but I would propose that it's just as much a horror movie as any slasher.  The implied body count in Coma is higher than its contemporary, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and just because the killers wear tailored suits doesn't make them any less remorseless sociopaths.  If anything, it should make Coma more terrifying.  After all, people who dispassionately kill for profit are a more present threat to our real lives than random axe murderers.

Michael Douglas tends to be the big name on the marquee for Coma, but he's really little more than a supporting character.  The film rests predominantly on the shoulders of Genevieve Bujold.  Bujold and Douglas are young doctors and lovers, Susan and Mark.  When Susan's friend comes into the hospital for an abortion, she winds up in a coma  Susan refuses to let the case be swept under the rug, while Mark's professional ambition has him buying the party line.  Susan finds a disquieting pattern of "freak" comas among healthy young patients (including one mighty healthy young Tom Selleck) and haphazardly steps on ever single toe between her questions and the administration's answers.

Coma is as steeped in the paranoia of the 1970s as the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, and arguably less ham-handed about it.  First of all, there's that newly legal abortion; source of much cultural anxiety.  As a result of exercising her legal right to choose the procedure, Susan's friend Nancy is subjected to 1) a room full of strangers (med students) looking up her lady-biz, 2) doctors sharing meaningful glances about the type of woman who exercises her legal right to the procedure, including a surgeon who makes a point of mentioning that he doesn't judge, 3) Whoops! Coma!  4) death and 5) the possibility of organ theft.  So what say you just think about that choice with a little more terror involved, little lady?  There are several other moments where the movie plays on the concept of medicine moving too fast for people to keep up, and doctors declaring themselves the new gods of society.  Honestly, the Republican National Convention could just show Coma and follow it up with an emphatic "SEE???" to save themselves a considerable amount of huffing and puffing.

Despite Susan being the one who pursues the matter potentially all the way up to the literal bitter end and Mark being a political suck-up, it's suddenly Mark who rescues her and saves the day at the last minute.  While there are themes in Coma, like medical ethics and the privilege of wealth, that are just as relevant today if not more so, there are some dated attitudes toward gender that will not have aged well for all viewers.  Then again, that's still frighteningly cutting-edge for some parts of this country.  I hate to be "that guy" but I'd really be interested in seeing a remake of Coma that dares to deal with the subject matter in a more current and courageous fashion, casting a light on our current culture of paranoia.

It's a tense little film.  It blends the paranoia of conspiracy with some taut cat-and-mouse interplay and some truly creepy set-pieces.  I would gladly trade a few minutes of men telling Susan what she can and can not do for a few minutes of cat-and-mouse.  For as much style as is uses, it looks much less dated than you'd expect.  I think it might seem a little quaint now, with its semi-satiric atmosphere of paranoia that has since been outstripped by our actual living world.

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