A mugger in every alley, a hijacker on every plane, conspiracies in every corner, taps on our phones and ripoffs at the cash registers.
Our anxieties are easy pickings, our phobias fed by headlines, tickled by TV, pickled by the Paul Harveys. Fear demands its daily fix, and no one knows how bankable it is better than Hollywood.
The green scent of fear was certainly heavy in the air as United Artists snapped up the film rights to the medical/mystery thriller "Coma," the recent best-seller written by Robin Cook, a physician. But before director-screenwriter Michael Crichton heated the novel into a gast-paced potboiler, it was said that Cook carefully took the public pulse, felt the paranoia's throb and then sat down to write a medical thriller for the marketplace.
All the good doctor had to do was look around at theater patrons snapping up tickets to scary films. And asking, as they came out, questions like: Will my toes become a shark's Tootsie Roll? ("Jaws") Am I possessed by foul demons? ("The Exorcist") Who's got me on their enemies' list? ("All the President's Men") Will I frag home some violent crazy from the neighborhood singles hangout? ("Looking for Mr. Goodbar") Is my phone tapped? ("The Conversation") Isn't it going to hurt when the dentist drills? ("Marathon Man") Will I get trapped if this building catches fire? ("Towering Inferno") Is my ship going to sink? ("The Poseidon Adventure") Will anyone ever really love me? ("The Goodbye Girl") Aren't UFOs out there watching us? ("Close Encounters")
And now, everyone who has ever gagged at the notion of going into the hospital will find their worst fears fueled by "Coma," where patients mysteriously lapse into coma after minor surgery in fictitious Boston Memorial Hospital. How appropriate that a physician should confirm our sneaking suspicion that no one gets better, only worse, in hospitals. But what kindles that fear -- and makes "Coma" so believable -- are the true hospital horror stories making the rounds.
In real life, we go to the hospital to visit an ailing grandmother and, on the door, find her name misspelled. What's worse, the wrong chart rests at the foot of her bed. We have come to expect such things; we have read the headlines: a doctor poisons his patients with curare; a chest X-ray is switched and a healthy patient told she has but months to live; a car-crash victim suffers only minor injuries, but, left unstrapped on a stretcher with the guard rail down, falls off, head first, and becomes paralyzed. Such things really do happen.
Among the hospitalized patients who get worse in "Coma" is the best friend of Dr. Susan Wheeler (Genevieve Bujold), the steely heroine who sets out to solve this fingernail-biting whodunit held together by Hitchcockian suspense. "Coma" builds slowly, but once it's off and running, you're behind it like the greyhound after the rabbit.
The distinguished cast of doctors who figure Wheeler for a nattering nabob include Rip Torn as the chief of anesthesiology and Richard Widmark as chief surgeon. But Michael Douglas, as Dr. Mark Bellows, a yound Kildare on the rise, takes her paranoia seriously. Which is understandable, as he's got a romantic prescription that goes beyond the black bag.
To prove Wheeler's skills as a physician and her theory on why patients are popping into comas, she has to hurdle all the usual stereotypes women face in medicine's very male world. Some critics may say that Bujold enhances the professional image of women in a role Redford might have enjoyed, or , "Right on, another good shot for a sister in Hollywood's Year of the Woman," etc. But movieland isn't doing feminism any favors. We get women because people are paying to see them in Amazon roles. In "Coma," a woman who is a doctor just happens to work nicely. Unfortunately, the sprinkle of gratuitous feminist lines, presumabley for NOW's sake, is the least effective part of the film, turning the "cause" into near caricature.
Yet, "Coma" doesn't drag you by the hair to view it as a film with a message. The only attempt of confront the ethical and moral considerations of the Karen Ann Quinlans are scenes with actress Elizabeth Ashley. As a conniving superintendant nurse, she runs a giant concrete beehive designed to maintain, monitor and suspend the comatose like so many puppets, and do it cheaply. A childing Orwellian prospect.
For readers who felt "Coma" was less than literary dynamite as a novel, the mystery on film at least pays its respects to the genre. Crichton has milked the tale well with fast-paced editing that twists tight the tourniquet of suspense. We not only get to wonder who done it, but if -- and how -- the heroine will get out of it. "Coma" reignites our worst fears. Where is Marcus Welby now hen we need him?