Monday, April 6, 2015

CARRIE vs CARRIE (feat. Stephen King)

(Please note: This is one of several posts that I'll be importing over, in the event that the articles I wrote for the Focus Film website are no longer functional.  This may be a redundancy, but it's my writing, I'll be keeping it where it should be.)

Carrie 1976 vs Carrie 2013 Chloe Moretz
(Obligatory SPOILERS warning... we mean it, you've been warned!)

Welcome to 'Remake Risk', where, just as with the board game of Risk being about world domination and who will take over, this post (and occasional series) will be about remakes and how they hold up to the originals.  Will they 'top' them?  Can the new movie even match up?  The original could be simply too present in our minds, even in the sense of a collective consciousness (let's say, for argument, a remake of The Godfather happened, how many of those scenes would we be able to get out of our minds if we've seen it once, twice, a hundred times as happens with Godfather viewers).

Every film is different, and as director John Carpenter (who's done his own remake/re-imaginings with Assault on Precinct 13 via Rio Bravo and The Thing, and has had his films remade many times), once said, "Remake or original, making a movie still comes down to old-fashioned hard work. If it's based on another film, well, so be it."  Yes, even the remake of Psycho is different than the Hitchcock Psycho by nature of the casting, color film, and uncomfortable bits added in to "update" it (ever wondered if Norman Bates masturbates to Marion Crane through the peep-hole?  Well, he does).
Sissy Spacek
Back to the topic at hand - Carrie.  This is a slightly different animal of a remake to look at - from Brian De Palma's 1976 film, which has become something of a modern horror classic over time (nominated for two Oscars at the time for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie for separate acting prizes, listed at #46 on AFI's 100 Years, 100 Thrills list, and numerous other lists), to the new Kimberly Peirce film - as there is another source to consider, which is Stephen King's debut novel that came out in 1973.
At the time it was looked at as unique; outside of the X-Men comics, where else had telepaths been shown, at least in some three-dimensional characteristics, in popular culture?  It became such a topic of interest that just a couple years late De Palma made his follow-up, The Fury, as a story of another telepath (this time a thriller, and ironically with Amy Irving, Carrie's Sue Snell, as the telepath, but we'll get to that in a little bit).
I read the book very recently, and was struck by a number of different things, in relation to the De Palma film, the Peirce film, and itself.  And in thinking about all three projects, almost as a kind of torrid threesome so to speak, it should be said that no one of them is perfect.  The King book has a key flaw, at least for me early on, with the structure as King cuts back and forth non-linearly between the main narrative of Carrie's story in high school and excerpts from books, interviews, and court transcripts and other news items from after the "Prom Horror" that occurred.

Everything is mentioned in kind of oblique terms in the first third or even first half in these pieces, as if to hide what 'really' happens at the prom, while amping up the dread and terror.  It doesn't really click outside of being melodrama until the rest of the narrative in the second half gets into its own build up.  In fact the entire book, following the locker room incident is a mostly masterful exercise in build up and character, showing this girl, Carrie, her mother, and the other girls and some townspeople around them.

As for the films, let's get this out of the way: De Palma's film, if dated in the respect that it is very much a high school movie from the mid 1970's (what's with their clothes, you shallow people might be asking), and it doesn't transcend it's period, is the better of the two films.  By a long-shot.  And a key thing that tipped me of to this, early on, was that Peirce didn't take all of the period into account (no pun intended).

When a story is set in 1973, or even 1976, where the kick-off/hook  is that a teenage girl has a freak out in a high-scool girl's locker-room at a first menstruation due to being completely ignorant and terrified of what it *is*, there is some suspension of disbelief that has to be taken, but not too much. If a girl is not educated at home about such 'Big Girl' deals, as is the case with Carrie via Mrs. White, then getting the education at school is the next thing.

Carrie was not home-schooled and then suddenly appeared in high school - it's mentioned in both films and the book that she's been in public school her whole life (and as a nice touch, King made Carrie's mom a working woman, a kind of poor Bible-thumper that wouldn't have the time or inclination for actual education, only fear and resentment) - and in the 1970's, though sex ed was better than in the past, it could be believable that a girl would not have all the information about the menstrual cycle (again, still a stretch in the mid 70's, but we can buy it, or at least I could).
Fun fact: Amy Irving was De Palma's original choice for Carrie before Spacek came in to audition
Not in 2013.  Not forty years later.  I don't know about you, but it seems highly unlikely that ANY girl, going to a seemingly normal school in America (albeit the new Peirce film was shot in Toronto, Canada, still same point), it took me out of the movie.  It's strange that such a touch like that would be in a film that elsewhere tries its damndest to "update" things via new technology: speaking of the locker-room horror, not only do the girls throw tampons now at the delirious Carrietta (played by Chloe Grace Moretz), she is now caught on Chris Hargison's camera-phone, and this video gets uploaded on YouTube.

This seemed a fairly obvious tactic to take, and the ultimate pay-off is half-way clever, half-way annoying as the video plays on screens at the prom immediately following the blood-bath (why this wasn't deleted off the YouTube account after Chris is hauled in to the principal's office, under threat from Chris' lawyer dad - one of the few carry-overs, sort of, from the book, which isn't unappreciated by the way), and the humilation comes fuller circle.

A YouTube video just doesn't stack up against blood, but enough of that for now.  How about the characters themselves?  Carrie White is one of those literary creations, like the protagonist Ignatious J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, who is a decidedly un-glamorous, un-kempt, just not-good-looking as a person.  In King's story, Carrie has a belly, has pimples, her hair is a mess, she's just not a great looking-gal, and it's something that, while on the surface, contributes to her being an outcast and ostracized.

The De Palma film straddled an intriguing line for an actor: Sissy Spacek is not an ugly girl, at least not exactly (ironically, in real life Spacek was the homecoming queen at her high school), but could *act* the mentally screwed up but well-intentioned and seeking-peace girl who is tormented by almost everyone around her - and when she finally "does" the prom covered in blood, with her wide eyes and her head motions, she has a terrifying, cold expression to her that works.
"Just a moment, Carrietta White, you have some Satan in your left ear.."

 Chloe Grace Moretz still in her mid teens (she was around 14 or 15 at the time of filming as it was originally due for release last year), but I can safely say that she is, if not beautiful, a pretty girl for her age.  There is nothing about her in terms of looks that is much different than the other teenage girls around her - subjectively, she may be more attractive than Portia Doubleday, who plays Chris - and it just comes off as a big "why?" for the sake of this casting.

Moretz is not a bad actress, but that's not the point; this is one of the most miscast major roles since (um, coincidence?) Brian De Palma's own Bonfire of the Vanities with Morgan Freeman and Bruce Willis' roles).  It's not simply the case of looks either, there is the glaring fact that, Moretz, God Bless her, doesn't really connect with the character, doesn't have that freaky sense of 'Holy S***! Look at her go!' Nor does she really find the awkward timidity that made Spacek so absorbing.  She tries, but can't find an in, so her entire act is 'Look kinda-sorta awkward, and look kinda Happy with a capital H when taking apart the Prom at the end.

The one actress who really finds a way to create a character from the inside out - and arguably the one possible, if not improvement, the one captivating aspect to set Peirce's effort apart from her predecessors - is Julianne Moore.  Her Mrs. White is a mentally wounded animal, deep down to the bone and brain-stem and other intimate areas, probably from some own trauma in her youth.  She is really, far more than Carrie, the character that really sparks off the screen, and it's because Moore not only commits to the hysteria, the abusive personality, and serious nature of being a Holy Terror, that the performance and character work.

You may miss some of what Piper Laurie did in De Palma's film, and in that sense there's a kind of dark humor that is missing from what Laurie brought to the table (and Laurie was quoted as saying she thought Carrie *was* a horror comedy during shooting).  But Moore's Margaret White is, at least until near the end, the real "villain" of the film, and another interesting touch comes with the very beginning of this story where the hapless mother is writhing on her bed, giving birth on her own, calling what is between her legs a "cancer" and is about to kill the thing until it looks up at her.

Whether this exactly took place in the book I can't recall, but it sets up a key dynamic that, if the rest of the film had followed up on better, could at least have worked on its own terms.  A strong showing of the relationship between mother and daughter, perhaps showing the bit that *both* films left out from the book when Carrie, as a five/six year old, shows off her first telekinetic ability with boulders falling on a house, could have helped a great deal.  Instead, Peirce in her gravest error, doesn't go back enough to King's original text so much as going back to De Palma's film.  Another adaptation, with some more succinct updates to modern times, could have been really challenging, especially is, dare I say it, the filmmakers took on the controversial subject of high school bullying and violence as it's happening right now in America.

The ultimate sins here with this new film, between the lackluster (or just barely THERE) performances from the supporting players (Doubleday, Gabriella Wilde as Sue Snell, bland Alex Russell as Billy Nolan, Ansel Elgort as Tommy Ross - contrast this with such a cast as Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, William Katt, and John Travolta, who all ooze personality, charm, and do a lot in quick scenes such as Allen and Travolta having a funny-serious abuse-and-necking bit in a car), the shoddy technical aspects in the finale (ALL of the telekinetic action looks fake, and this is vs. the 1976 film where effects were accompanied by the guilty pleasure of Bernard Herrmann Psycho shower knife thrust sounds, not to mention the CGI blood which is downright awful), and the miscast of Moretz, are that the film is just not that much fun; any real laughs are a few unintended, based on a moment or line that falls flat, and there is no real authorial 'voice' to the proceedings, which leads to a film without teeth.
Mid-splatter. Also,as Scream taught us, that's corn syrup.
I have to wonder if Peirce, who has made not many films before (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss) but films that had strong messages, a distinct style, and some guts to take on topics that are hard to take for some - transvestitism, Iraq war trauma for soldiers - was screwed over during some part of the production, had wanted to do more, but was told only to go SO far.

Neither film took on the grandiose, "epic" qualities of King's climax - it's not just the prom, but the entire town that Carrie takes on, from gas stations to stores left and right - but that's not a hindrance to either.  What De Palma did, and what I couldn't sense in Peirce's effort, was a sense that these characters were very much alive (except sometimes Carrie and her Mom), and a way to elevate King's material into entertainment.

The new Carrie may appeal to younger teens that haven't been exposed to many horror films and may relate somewhat to Carrie's outsider status, but nothing really BIG feels at stake, and the motions keep moving along, even as a perfunctory horror film.  Where De Palma embraced satire, Peirce embraces, um, iphones?  And where suspense builds from very carefully, even masterfully, timed slow-motion and 'telling' in the lead-up to the bucket drop in 76, in 2013 we get a straightforward relay of the events.  It's too easy to say 'been there, done that', but that's almost the case here (oh, but this time there's the internet, so modern!)

In other words, one of these films, dated as it may be in smaller aspects of dress and design and scope (De Palma was also working with a million dollar budget, as opposed to a few million more for the remake), but I can guess with some certainty it's the one that more young people will go back to than weak, distilled mix of this new film.  Aside from Moore's performance, there's no reason to go back to it, or to check it out if you are familiar with the new film.


As films unto themselves, one is an artistic, daring sort of feat with innovative craftsmanship (hey split-screen!) and a memorable Pino Dionaggio music score.  The other is a rote examination of the same things, teenage alienation and fear and neglect that has been explored umpteenth times since 1976 (think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or X-Men comics, etc) and as with many other remakes as of late (2011's The Thing, Amityville Horror, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the list goes on), the sneaking suspicion of being another cash tie-in creeps in all the more after it ends.

And it's not a suspicion I like to have or even think about, it's not fair or sustainable as a movie-goer to be cynical or even skeptical.  Ultimately, after all is said in done with Peirce's film, what was the point?  Where is the emotional, horrific or logical reason to go back to the well?  Hard work aside, I have trouble seeing a fresh point of view, or anything artistically exciting, electrifying, death-defying, et all - or just a little something different from the book in a greater context.

And meanwhile, King is probably off to the sidelines, seeing what could have been taken, discarded, or not, and lightly shaking his head.

PS: I know I have neglected to mention *another* adaptation, a 2002 TV movie, or The Rage: Carrie 2.  Well... didn't see em, so for now they're out of this discussion.

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