Dr. Susan Wheeler (Geneviève Bujold) is a surgical resident at Boston Memorial Hospital and though this sort of thing should be discouraged because office romances are always complicated (if Chicago Med is any indication), she’s dating the chief resident in surgery, Dr. Mark Bellows (Michael Douglas). A longtime friend and college chum of Wheeler’s, Nancy Greenly (Lois Chiles), is nervous about a dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure she’s scheduled to undergo at BMH though Susan assures her it’s routine. Nancy’s surgery is anything but, however; post-op, she’s unresponsive coming out of the anesthesia and is pronounced brain-dead shortly thereafter.
Mark tries to assuage Susan’s concerns about an unusually large number of patients who have wound up comatose by explaining that in a big outfit like Boston Memorial, there’s nothing particularly hinky where hospital size and coma statistics are concerned. In fact, Wheeler’s investigation into Nancy’s death starts to ruffle feathers among the higher-ups—particularly BMH’s chief of anesthesiology (Rip Torn). The chief of surgery and Susan’s mentor, Dr. Harris (Richard Widmark), is also troubled and suggests she make an appointment with the hospital’s psychiatrist, Dr. Morelind (Hari Rhodes—billed as “Harry”). The talk with Morelind seems to have done Susan good…until another young, healthy patient winds up in the same rowboat as Nancy.
There’s something definitely not kosher going on at Boston Memorial, and this is confirmed for Susan when a maintenance man (Frank Downing) who’s offering information crucial to her investigation is murdered by a mysterious hit man (Lance LeGault)…who then makes Susan his next target. Then there’s the Jefferson Institute—a facility that houses comatose patients and is overseen by the most sinister attendant (Elizabeth Ashley) since Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
I’ve long had a sentimental soft spot for Coma (1978), the Michael Crichton-directed suspense thriller based on his friend Robin Cook’s best-selling novel (published in 1977). Coma was the first PG film that I ever saw in a theatre without, as the rating’s initials indicate, “parental guidance” suggested. A Catholic youth group that I belonged to in the days before my slide into heretical godless heathenism took a field trip to the state capital (Charleston, WV) and we had a choice between two motion pictures playing at the theatre multiplex that marked our final destination: Coma and The Other Side of the Mountain, Part 2 (1978). (I do not regret my decision forty years later.)
I saw Coma scheduled on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ a week or so back and since I’ve been assigned the unenviable task of entertaining my mother in the evenings (and I use the word “unenviable” because no matter what I unspool she’s usually fast asleep within 20 minutes after the opening credits) I thought it would be a worthy candidate for a re-watch. I’m sure I won’t be spoiling anything by revealing that Mom rode off towards Dreamland about halfway through, leaving me to complete the movie. It holds up quite well, and I’d even go as far to say that of Crichton’s directorial oeuvre (which includes worthy candidates like Westworld  and The Great Train Robbery ) it’s probably my favorite. I look upon it with the same fondness that my Mom has for 1953’s House of Wax (it was the first movie she watched in a theatre) because it marked the time that I was first in the dark on my own (save for two of my Catechism chums) watching a PG movie, baby. (No Walt Disney for this kid…no sirree, boy.)
It’s a white-knuckle, edge-of-your-seat thriller that at the time of its release frightened the shit out of audiences in the same manner that Jaws (1975) made people reconsider that idyllic summer vacation sojourn to the beach. (At the risk of giving a bit of the plot away—shortly after Coma’s release, a Tampa, FL hospital reportedly removed the number “8” from one of their O.R. rooms after a few squeamish folks complained.) Coma has memorably suspenseful set pieces (both Wheeler’s escape from goons at the Jefferson Institute and her initial discovery of BMH’s unsettling secret will lodge themselves in your memory banks), with the hospital featured prominently in the film’s plot giving off a foreboding vibe that will make nosocomephobes (Google it) cover their eyes at a number of unsettling moments.
Coma was also responsible for my lifelong crushes on actress Geneviève Bujold, which was later fortified by viewings of King of Hearts (1966) and Murder by Decree (1979), and actress Elizabeth Ashley—aces here as the sinister Nurse Emerson. While I was no stranger to Richard Widmark (Mom watched his TV show Madigan, inspired by the 1968 film) Coma was the movie that familiarized me with how delectable a rat bastard he could be (Rip Torn’s character is also a guy you suspect isn’t on the up-and-up). I’m even willing to tolerate Michael Douglas in this even though he’s never been one of my favorites (outside The China Syndrome ).
Coma marked the feature film debut of Ed Harris, who plays one of two pathology residents all-too-eager to answer Susan’s hypothetical query as to whether or not one could deliberately put a patient in a coma (Ed has considerably more hair in this), and you also might recognize the thespian emoting as “Sean Murphy,” the poor sod whose scheduled knee surgery sends him to Slumberville (he’s TV icon Tom Selleck). (Selleck worked again with director Crichton in a 1984 film called Runaway, which I also watched when it originally made the rounds in theatres…and a movie that I must sadly confess I do not have the same fondness for as Coma. To quote a famous animated film critic: “It stinks!”) You’ll also glimpse Charles Siebert, who continued to practice medicine (as the lovably pompous Dr. Stanley Riverside) on TV’s Trapper John, MD…and for Jack Benny fans, the old man on the hospital gurney who has a chinwag with Douglas in one scene is the incomparable Benny Rubin (“I dunno!”).