Total Recall: Malice and Medicine

Exploring the mal of medical practice.

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Imagine what it might be like if you needed surgery.  You're more than a little nervous about the whole idea.  In fact when you think about it, you'll admit you're frankly terrified by the whole idea.  What if something goes wrong?  What if the doctors make a mistake?  And what if you don't wake up after the surgery?   Or worse yet, what if you wake up during the procedure?

One of the scarier stories about medical mishaps in the last few years is about a phenomenon called "anesthetic awareness." Patients talk about actually being awake and aware throughout an entire procedure and feeling every sensation that the anesthetic is supposed to suppress, while being completely unable to move or communicate with the doctors.  That's the basic premise of this week's Awake, starring Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba.  A man with a heart problem (Christensen) goes in for a transplant, but wakes up during the procedure, yet totally unable to move.  And as if that wasn't bad enough, he hears his own doctor discussing plans to kill him.  Talk about adding insult to injury.

Considering the level of trust that we as a society put in healthcare professionals, the concept of putting a doctor in a malicious light can be a very effective tool for a thriller.  Some folks are pretty squeamish about needles and scalpels anyway, and when those tools are used to intentionally inflict pain, it can be horrific. Some filmmakers have gone for the easy scare with throwaway slashers like Dr. Giggles (17 percent) and The Dentist (0 percent), while even the Saws have some scary medical overtones.  And then there's that horrific scene in Marathon Man (77 percent), which did for dentists what Jaws did for trips to the beach. 

But some films, like Coma, Dirty Pretty Things, and The Constant Gardener take the very concept of health care, pick it apart, and play with our feelings of trust and hope.  That can be just as disturbing as anything you'll see in the goriest slasher films.

1978's Coma (75 percent) is one of Michael Crichton's earliest directing efforts.  Fresh off the success of Westworld, Crichton used his own experience as a doctor to adapt Robin Cook's novel about a dark conspiracy in a Boston hospital.  Genevieve Bujold stars as a young resident who gets a little too curious about why so many patients are coming out of surgery in comas.  Unfortunately, it looks like every other doctor on staff (Michael Douglas, Richard Widmark, and Rip Torn) may be in on the plot, and the film gets increasingly more paranoid as time goes by.  Bujold eventually discovers that the hospital is in the business of harvesting organs from certain patients, and she narrowly avoids losing her own.

Michael Crichton's Coma