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You know what’s a scary flippin’ movie? Coma. The movie came out in 1978, a year after Robin Cook’s book, when telephones had dials and nervous housewives took valium, and shortly after Roe vs. Wade went into law. Why is this relevant? Robin Cook wrote medical thrillers with big ideas (though I find the actual writing unbearable, the ideas are incredible) disguising even bigger ethical concerns. Whatever his stance on abortion, it was clear that he didn’t feel that men could play god with other people’s lives, or decide the relative values of one life over another. Enter Coma, directed by Michael Crichton. Crichton himself is a writer with big, ethical ideas, but once upon a time, before he settled on producing, he was a director too. Let’s hope he catches the bug again soon.

Coma stars Genevieve Bujold as a plucky doctor (women doctors still not taken all that seriously in the 1970’s either) who uncovers a rash of unexplained comas in her hospital, and we follow in her espadrilled footsteps on her detective work to uncover the truth. Her boyfriend, a very young Michael Douglas, coddles and condescends to her, amping up her frustration and her paranoia. Is she paranoid, or is something sinister afoot? Is a Charleton Heston-esque Rip Torn (yeah, I said it) behind all this? Conspiracies never get old, especially ones that seem to be taking place in a world meant to be one of safety, rest, and healing.

Jerry Goldsmith, composer of both of The Omen movies’ music, gives us another unbearably tense score, which ratchets up the mood. It’s really quite a scary little movie; we forget how well the older movies can scare us when they are directed well and written well. I wouldn’t read one more Robin Cook novel for less than $100 – maybe $200, now that I think about it, but I wish more movies like this were made from his marvelous ideas. Crichton wrote the screenplay, and as we know, this guy knows how to write for the big screen (some accuse him of only being able to do so) – the result is a taut medical thriller with surprises even when it seems obvious.

Thrill to the spectacle of a room full of cadavers! Chill to the iconic sight of the coma patients’ final resting ground! Giggle as you wish Rip Torn would bust out into his trademark profanity! Renew all your hospital phobias in a single whoosh of air as patients undergoing routine procedures end up brain dead! Even the extreme ’70s time of the film doesn’t date it; beyond a few blouses, clunky machines, and unavoidable technological dinosaurs, the movie was designed well enough to feel very timeless and relevant, even as it is a pure product of the concerns and fears of its era.

It’s a good story, told well, and worth hunting down on cable or renting if you can.

MPAA Rating R – language, nudity, adult themes, some violence
Release date 1978
Time in minutes 113
Director Michael Crichton
Studio Warner Brothers