Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Movie Review: "Carrie" (1976) by David Pretty

Is there any wonder why horror film producers love remakes? Take Carrie for example. With a constant parade of cyber-bullying stories in the news lately, it seems like the perfect time to revisit this concept. Somehow I doubt that this "re-imagining" was green-lit for so noble a reason. Most likely it exists merely because the execs didn't want to come up with a new idea and the concept already has a built-in familiarity for audiences who crave such things.

For me, what it really boils down to is whether or not the original film warrants a remake. In certain situations, like the first Nightmare on Elm Street, there can actually be some room for improvement. So, the question then becomes, how well does the 1976 version of Carrie stand up?

Sissy Spacek plays the titular character, a mousy, pathetic shlub who seems to have been born with a permanent "Kick Me!" sign on her back. The film begins with an innocuous-looking volleyball game at Bates (!) High School during which Carrie's team-mates chide her for blowing the game. In case we haven't picked up on the film's premise thus far, we're about to be bludgeoned by it.

Next up is a gauzy, dreamy-looking shower scene in which teenage girls flounce around in slow-motion in various states of undress. Accompanied by schmaltzy, florid music, the audience might mistake what they're watching for some sort of 80's sex romp or a European soft-core porn flick. Especially when we see Carrie diligently scrubbing away between her legs with a bar of soap.

Just as we're beginning to feel vaguely titillated, director Brian DePalma clobbers us with a right hook of pure, unadulterated trauma. Carrie starts bleeding profusely but has no idea that she's menstruating. So naturally she freaks out, begs her peers for help and gets nothing in return except revulsion and scorn. Led by the creatively-vicious Chris (Nancy Allen), the rest of the girls start chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up!" and pelt her with tampons and pads until she's curled up naked in a fetal position in the shower. It's one of the most jarring scenes of teenage cruelty ever committed to film.

Our beleaguered heroine still has a few guardians, including her gym teacher Miss Collins, played by Betty Buckley. She rescues Carrie from this indignation, punishes her attackers and then does everything in her power to inspire confidence in the girl. Also, Sue (Amy Irving) has a crisis of conscience over her roll in the incident. Eventually she persuades her artsy / jocky / pinball wizardy boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the Prom in an effort to make amends.

Carrie's allies have their work cut out for them. Her home life is totally hellish, what with mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) keeping her sealed up in a vacuum of self-hatred, abuse, repression, fundamentalism and guilt. Also, Carrie has no idea that Chris and her male bimbo boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) are working diligently on a revenge scheme that makes the plot of your average E.C. horror comic book look like an episode of My Little Pony.

But then Carrie discovers that she's not so helpless after all. With the onset of her belated period, odd things start to happen. During the locker room assault a light fixture overhead suddenly explodes. When the Principal calls her "Cassie" one to many times, his ashtray (?) flips off his desk. A kid takes a header off his bike when he makes the mistake of shouting "Creepy Carrie! Creepy Carrie!" at her.

Although the quality of writing in Stephen King's original novel is questionable at best, he certainly came up with a gut-wrenching scenario. In fact, the story of Carrie is downright Shakespearean. After our girl uses her powers to pacify her mom, she ventures out to the Prom and experiences an almost dream-like moment of bliss. Unfortunately, because of the actions of one insecure, spoiled, jealous little bitch, Margaret's paranoid prediction that "They're all going to laugh at you!" is tragically fulfilled.

And that's when all hell breaks loose. Carrie snaps, unleashing the full extent of her telekinetic powers on friend and foe alike. It's a powerful sequence that gets even more intense when our traumatized protagonist drifts home in a daze.

So, did this version need to be remade? Some may argue "yes" merely because Carrie often looks hideously dated. Notwithstanding the stereotypically-hilarious 70's-era hair styles and fashions, there are plenty of other things on display here that will have probably have viewers under the age of thirty shaking their heads with incredulity.

For example, the "good" gym teacher, Miss Collins, slaps Carrie in order to snap her out of her hysteria and then belts Chris right in the sass-hole when she mouths off. Perfectly acceptable back then, but nowadays, she'd be dragged away by the cops. As if she hasn't suffered enough, Carrie inhales a lungful of second hand smoke while she's sitting in the Principal's office. Kids are permitted to climb twenty or thirty feet into the rafters of the High School gym in order to hang Prom decorations. 

So, does this really warrant a remake? Um, no. Especially when you consider how awesome everything else is.

Although Brian DePalma has been accused of stealing techniques made famous by other film-makers, he certainly can't be accused of making a boring flick. Film buffs will notice the use of Bernard Hermann's musical stings from Hitchcock's Psycho whenever Carrie uses her mental powers. Also the neon-soaked cruising scene featuring Nancy Allen and John Travolta evokes shades of pal George Lucas's American Graffiti from three years earlier.

In much the same way that Stephen King used a lot of gimmicky diary entries and newspaper clippings in his original novel, DePalma goes a bit nuts showcasing his own virtuosity. Indeed, the film has some pretty bizarre tonal shifts. Not long after the repugnant shower scene we get an odd montage showing Betty Buckley meting out detention period calisthenics to Carrie's attackers like a drill sergeant, all to tune of what sounds like "Baby Elephant Walk".

Even stranger visions await. Later on in the movie, DePalma inter-cuts scenes of Carrie tentatively trying on lipstick with footage of Tommy and company ad-libbing about tuxedos. Then he really fucks around with us by cranking up the film speed for a few seconds, making it sound as if we're listening to the banter of a pack of chipmunks. The first time I saw this I felt compelled to check the tracking on my VCR.    

The really weird thing is that these odd moments actually kinda work. The tonal shifts are so strangely jarring that the audience gets lulled into a false sense of security. Some of these sequences are so light-hearted it's difficult to reconcile them with the brutality that follows. At times I feel like shouting "Hey, you can't have a disco tuxedo montage in the same movie as an attempted child murder!"

For the most part, DePalma's tactics work very, very well. When the camera starts to spin around Carrie and Tommy during their slow dance we experience her dizzying feelings of being caught in a magical whirlwind. I'm also a big fan of the high P.O.V.'s, notably the continuous crane shot which slowly follows the rope up to the ceiling where we see the precariously-balanced bucket and the oblivious but still happy couple off in the distance. This same shot is revisited later when Sue sneaks into the dance, uncovers Chris's scheme but is powerless to intervene. The use of slow-motion here is downright agonizing.

Around that time, DePalma was regrettably enamored with split-screen and I still maintain that this technique damages the illusion instead of propagates it. Sorry but splitting Carrie's rampage up between two separate screens might have been fine in theaters but on home video it lessens the scope and the visual impact. In spite of this, when Carrie finally snaps it's pretty powerful stuff. The music goes dead, the entire screen become awash in blood-red lighting, the back of the stage catches on fire and Carrie, now wide-eyed, gaunt and drenched in gore, slowly and methodically drifts down the stairs into a nightmare of her own design. The effect is supremely chilling.

The picture is made even better by its two stellar leads. At the beginning of the film, Sissy Spacek is so clueless and meek that you almost feel like slapping her yourself. But then, when you meet Piper Laurie as Carrie's batshit-crazy, socially-retarded mom everything starts to makes sense and you immediately start to feel terrible for her. Frankly, both of these women deserved more then Academy Award nominations, they deserved to win. Chalk that injustice up to anti-horror film prejudice, I suppose. 

At first we're not entirely sure if Sue is being sincere in her reparations, but Amy Irving pulls off contrition and genuine sympathy. So much so that you begin to feel protective of her as Tommy starts fall for Carrie in spite of himself. Speaking of William Katt, beyond looking like the love child of Dee Snider and Leif Garrett, his mutable feelings for Carrie come across as totally convincing.

The film is rounded out by some miraculous minor casting. As Chris Hargensen, Nancy Allen exudes bitch-on-wheels menace, but with a complex hint of vulnerability and self-consciousness. In his first screen role, John Travolta is perfect as Chris's meat-heated, easily-manipulated boyfriend. Even though she's a tad slap-happy, Betty Buckley is both matronly and perhaps a tad bi-curious as Carrie's guardian angel Miss Collins. Finally, minor scream-queen P.J. Soles delivers the first of many vacant, annoying, wing-nut characters, which she'd eventually perfect in John Carpenter's Halloween.          

Above and beyond the film's dated aesthetics and a few odd stylistic choices, Carrie is one of the best plotted and acted horror films ever made. As such I implore you studio execs to please, please, please keep your greasy mitts off of good movies like this.

C'mon, there's gotta be some obscure horror films out there that had good ideas but a lousy execution? Why dontcha re-make those instead, ya vultures?

         Tilt: up.

1 comment:

  1. The actors - and acting - was marvelous, but I think the movie STANK. I was too much of a fan of Stephen King's novel to accept the Hollywood-ization of King's story and the cheap 'n cheezy drive-in spectacle that DePalma made out of it. If you want to see an excellent rendition of King's novel, see CARRIE 2002 starring Angela Bettis!