The Watchers

The Watchers

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Carrie (1976)

Putting films into categories is a dangerous business. First you have genres, then you have sub-genres, then you have those films that are a concoction of various genres and sub-genres. By some margin, horror has more sub-genres than any other type of film out there, from the sublime (zombies, slashers, haunted houses), to the God awful (torture porn). One of these sub-genres (arguably the best of the bunch) is psychological horror: very few jolts and blood, instead the scares come from intense, hard to take your eyes off performances and an unnerving atmosphere, films such as Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. One of the all-time greats of psychological horror is Brian De Palma’s Carrie. The film launched the careers of both its director and the book’s author, Stephen King. De Palma’s films had so far failed to connect with both audiences and the majority of critics, while Carrie, King’s first novel, had gained critical acclaim, but wasn’t exactly flying off the shelves.

Whenever a list is drawn up of the greatest horror films, Carrie is always in there somewhere. Plenty of films have scene-after-scene of gore and leap-out-your-seat jolts, but De Palma’s first stab at mainstream cinema proves you don’t always need these tricks to frighten your audience. Instead, De Palma prefers to get under your skin, shocking you with scenes that go in one direction, then do a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree turn and dart off somewhere else.

The cinematography in Carrie is up there with some of the finest in cinema, let alone a low budget horror film, director of photography Mario Tosi and art director Jack Fisk creating one set piece after another during the film’s ninety-minutes. Opening with a crane shot of a volleyball game, the camera focuses in on Carrie, stood away from the others. Off-screen we hear the girls taunting her, “Hit it to Carrie, she’ll miss it!” Unsurprisingly, Carrie drops the ball, the girls walking past, spitting insults at her. The scene that follows is deliberately shot to look like a porn film, filmed in slow motion as naked girls wander the steam-filled changing room. This is only the second scene and already we have full frontal nudity. De Palma is intentionally breaking, at that time, film’s rigid conventions. Back in 1976, you can imagine cinema audiences watching this scene, uncomfortable, thinking, “Here’s a director who will do anything!”

The camera zooms in on Sissy Spacek in the shower. What De Palma is doing here is misleading the audience; you think this scene is about sensuality, but what follows is the complete opposite. In the previous volleyball scene we saw how much the other girls hate Carrie, now they act out that hatred. The soft music and slow motion immediately stops as Carrie has her first period. Having never been taught about puberty, she is terrified, crying out for help, though instead of sympathy from the girls, they throw tampons at her, yelling “Plug it up!” These first few minutes set up the rest of the film: whatever you are expecting from a horror film, or a film in general, forget it. De Palma is leading you on a merry dance and you’re going to hold his hand every step of the way.

Carrie’s home is homage to gothic art, a contrast to the quaint, picture perfect town where the film is set. The house is dim, claustrophobic, filled with crosses and arches; there’s even a painting of The Last Supper hanging on the wall above the dinner table. Everything that makes Carrie who she is, a frightened, timid young woman, is plain to see. She is trapped, suffocated by her mother’s fevered obsession with religion. The house is a narrative device, aiding the viewer in sympathising with Carrie, wanting her to get out, to escape.

When we get to the prom scene, De Palma does not rush things. For those who have never seen the film before, you know something bad is about to happen, De Palma deliberately taking his time, building up the tension. The scene begins with a crane shot of the prom. You get to see the band, the decorations, people dancing and laughing and having fun. This is the night that high school students look forward to, care so much about, and soon it will be destroyed.

For much of the prom scene, things are perfect for Carrie. She has come out of her shell, smiling and enjoying herself. When Carrie dances with her date, Tommy (William Katt), the camera is low down, spinning around them. In any other film this would be gut-queasingly sickly, but the audience knows this is leading up to something, then, in one lengthy, continuous shot, we find out what that something is.

Norma (P.J. Soles, who would go on to star in another landmark horror film, John Carpenter’s Halloween) collects the votes for the prom king and queen, swaps them, and gives the thumbs up to Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta) who are crouched underneath the stage, holding onto a rope. We then follow the rope up towards the ceiling where a bucket of pig’s blood hangs, the camera zooming in on Carrie and Tommy’s table, where the shot began.

The destruction that follows – the Carrie throughout the film has been child-like in her innocence and vulnerability, but that Carrie vanishes, replaced with a childlike rage – has been discussed in numerous features and reviews. What I will mention is something that surprises me every time I watch Carrie: despite the massacre on screen, we still care about Spacek. Carrie does not enjoy what she is doing; she is not revelling in her actions. She is in a blind rage, lashing out at everyone, including gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), her only friend at high school. In any other film, Miss Collins would have survived, but here she has to die so we understand that Carrie has lost all control, the anger she feels towards her peers, normally kept buried, has been unleashed.

Carrie’s ending is one of the horror genre’s most infamous scenes. Normally when I buy a DVD, the person at the till smiles and takes my money. When I bought Carrie, I remember the woman who served me had this grin on her face when she said, “The ending creeps me out every time!” When the scene begins it is slowed down, shot in soft focus, making you question what you are seeing. For me, two things make the ending so horrible to watch: Sissy Spacek’s blood-smeared arm slowly – Carrie’s arm doesn’t grab her, she takes her time, as if she is crawling out of the grave – appearing from the ground, clutching hold of Sue (Amy Irving), accompanied by Pino Donaggio’s score. Carrie’s theme is played once more as Sue walks towards the rubble where Carrie’s house once stood, yet when the arm appears the music swiftly changes, replaced with an eerie xylophone, resembling something from a nursery rhyme, and what sounds like an army of stabbing violins, the instruments playing the same short notes over and over while Sue screams. You don’t see it coming the first time you watch Carrie and on repeat viewings you wish it wasn’t coming, that there was an alternate, happier ending.

It’s not just De Palma’s direction that holds your attention, Carrie’s two main leads were both Oscar-nominated, Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek both giving haunting performances as mother and daughter. Piper Laurie had retired from acting for fifteen years, but agreed to take on the role of Margaret White once she read Laurence D. Cohen’s screenplay. Carrie is unsettling to watch for many reasons, but this is largely due to Laurie’s performance. Wide-eyed, occasionally snarling as she delivers her dialogue, Margaret White is more like a machine than a mother as she spews out her fanatical beliefs. Laurie is given plenty of one-liners, leaving the viewer in no doubt that Margaret White never wanted a daughter. She calls Carrie’s breasts her “dirty pillows,” and when her daughter gets back from high school she mutters, “The devil has come home.” It is difficult to watch as Margaret White drags Carrie kicking and screaming into the closet, locking her inside. In Stephen King’s novel, Carrie kills her mother by stopping her heart, which works fine on the page, but would have been a tough job to recreate onscreen. Instead De Palma chooses a far more violent, satirical method of killing her off. Hands impaled to the door frame, Margaret White becomes a human pin cushion as Carrie commands all kinds of knives and kitchen utensils to soar through the air, stabbing her mother. As the knives plunge into her, Margaret moans loudly, the sounds overtly sexual, before she finally dies, her body resembling the model replica in the closet of Saint Sebastian, where Carrie spent hours locked inside, praying. In case the viewer was in any doubt, Carrie had been trapped by her mother’s religious beliefs, suffocated, and in this scene Carrie at long last sets herself free.

When De Palma was casting for the role of Carrie, Sissy Spacek was not his first choice. Age twenty-six, De Palma was looking for a younger actress to play the lead. When Spacek found out about this, it made her more determined, getting her into the mind-set of the victimised, constantly put down Carrie. During her second audition, Spacek smeared Vaseline in her hair, refused to wear any make up, and cut up one of her dresses in order to look the part. Both De Palma and George Lucas, who was looking for actors for Star Wars, were blown away. Carrie is a demanding role; on the one hand she is a victim – frightened, fidgety, her voice scarcely a whisper – yet there is an anger which threatens to come to the surface (in one scene, using her powers, she knocks a child off his bike when he yells at her). Spacek gets the balance absolutely right; Carrie is not a monster, she is still a child, trapped in a teenage body, a social outcast who is tortured daily, both by her mother and her high school classmates. You feel for Carrie and are always on her side, despite the violence that is carried out during the film’s climax.

High school horror films are now a sub-genre in their own right, Carrie is that influential. Considering De Palma’s first commercial success is not strictly horror, so many films in this genre have been inspired by or simply stolen ideas from it. Stephen King has had the misfortune of seeing dozens of his books translate poorly to the big screen, but De Palma’s Carrie is one of those rare adaptations that manages to do its source material justice, while occasionally bettering it.

Rating: 5 out of 5

Carrie (2013)

It’s fair to say that I’m not all that keen on Hollywood’s obsession with horror remakes. While there is the odd one that you could get away with having in your DVD collection (Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Matt Reeves’ Let Me In, and Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead) there are plenty out there that are shameless, shot-for-shot rehashes (John Moore’s version of The Omen is still top of my hit list). It’s not a case of if The Exorcist gets a remake, it’s when.

Normally the announcement of a reworking of Brian De Palma’s Carrie would have sent me into a rage, but when I heard the talent that was on board, I was intrigued. Kimberly Peirce, director of Boys Don’t Cry, would be running proceedings, while Chloe Grace Moretz would be playing the title role.

Boys Don’t Cry is an underrated classic. Despite the critical acclaim it received, it did not get the commercial success it deserved, and when I mention the film to friends, it’s very rare that I don’t get a blank stare. Boys Don’t Cry is not about cinematography; Peirce concentrates on her cast, Hilary Swank giving arguably her finest performance.

Chloe Grace Moretz is quickly becoming Hollywood’s most sought after leading lady; she can do a better job of holding a viewer’s attention than actors twice her age. Up until Carrie, Moretz had played roles that were tough as hell (Hit Girl in the Kick Ass films), unsettling (Abby in Let Me In) or courageous (Isabelle in Hugo). With her next film, I was interested to see if Moretz could manage playing the victimised, cripplingly shy Carrie White.

Peirce’s version of Carrie does have some good ideas; unfortunately there are not enough of them to stop you from thinking that maybe she should have left well alone. When I sat down at the cinema about to watch Carrie for the twenty-first century, I was not expecting the craftsmanship of De Palma’s original. The visuals in Peirce’s previous films have been functional, everything in place with just the right amount of lighting. What holds your attention is the acting going on in front of the camera, and Carrie does not try and change things.

In De Palma’s film, Carrie’s home was a character in its own right: it was gothic, dimly lit, and you felt Carrie’s fear every time she walked through the front door. Moretz’s house has plenty of windows, all of the curtains open. What you do notice is how bare it looks; there are no family photos, every room is modest and plain. There is a noticeable lack of colour, everything looks faded. The prom scene in the original is like something from a dream or a fairy-tale, everything in shot just that little bit too perfect, heightening the anticipation for when Carrie’s happiness comes to an end. With this latest version of Carrie, the prom resembles end of year celebrations across America: cheap decorations, the latest pop music played through the speakers, photos of classmates shown on a big screen. School bullying is an issue that regularly makes the front pages and Peirce points the finger at the teenage members of her audience, saying to them, “Recognise this?”

The problem with the remake of Carrie is that the impact it is trying to create, especially around the issues of bullying, is lessened by the film’s final act, when Moretz has her revenge. In De Palma’s film, he did not have the budget to recreate Carrie’s rampage through the town that is depicted in King’s book, while Peirce spends a significant amount of time throwing numerous CGI effects at the screen, set pieces that could easily have come from a Michael Bay film. Cars are smashed, a petrol station explodes, and the ground opens up. The chaos that ensues is far more impressive than in De Palma’s film, but it all feels too much. The story of Carrie isn’t about seeing a car lifted high into the air and hurled at a petrol station, it’s about the sympathy you feel towards its main character. This is the biggest problem with the remake’s final act; Carrie is smiling as those around her are dying. Moretz does a brilliant evil grin, flashing a smile as her classmates are set alight, trampled on and crushed by debris. The point of King’s book, and De Palma’s film, is that Carrie has a power she can barely control, that threatens to be let loose. The teenagers at Carrie’s high school are ignorant of this, pushing her until she finally snaps. This is why the gym teacher dies in De Palma’s original; Carrie is enraged, she no longer knows what she is doing. Moretz’s Carrie chooses to let her teacher, Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), live, she is in complete control, seemingly enjoying her killing spree. Throughout the first film you are constantly on Carrie’s side, you pity her; the same cannot be said for the remake, which undermines what Peirce has been doing throughout, updating Carrie’s themes for today’s audience.

It’s a shame, as there are some excellent performances in the Carrie remake. Moretz does a great job playing Carrie, delivering far less dialogue than Spacek. Instead, Moretz gives a more physical performance, frequently hunched up, eyes darting around her. Moretz’s pleading expression when she is being tormented makes it hard not to feel sorry for her. Also, the glares she gives early on as, for a moment, her anger gets the better of her, are startling. While Spacek will always be remembered as Carrie, Moretz gives it a damn good try.

Julianne Moore, a hugely underrated actress, is impressive as ever in her portrayal of Margaret White. Wisely avoiding any resemblance to Piper Laurie’s performance, Moore even manages to make you feel some sympathy towards Margaret. In De Palma’s film, Margaret White makes it very clear that she did not want a daughter; at no point does she show Carrie any love or kindness, instead punishing her and putting her down every chance she gets. While Laurie is terrifying as Carrie’s mother, Moore is more believable. Moore’s Margaret White also did not want to be a mother, but she sees being a parent as a test from God, and while at no point does she say her child’s name, instead referring to Carrie as “Little girl,” you get the sense that she loves her daughter and wants to protect her. Piper Laurie only hints at Margaret White self-harming, whereas Julianne Moore is repeatedly seen hitting her head, scratch marks on her arms and legs and, during one genuinely unpleasant scene, we watch Moore as she stabs her thigh with a hair clip. Moore’s Margaret White has been the victim of abuse, turning to God for comfort; she does not want Carrie to suffer and make the same mistakes that she did at her age, only Margaret goes about things the wrong way. Piper Laurie in Brian De Palma’s original film may have more of an impact on viewers, but Julianne Moore alone stops the Carrie remake from falling into the “Just another cynical remake” category.

Even Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) and Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) are given more to do this time round, both characters having been bullied in the past and, knowing what this feels like, come to Carrie’s aid. None of this was ever mentioned in De Palma’s film.

Peirce’s remake does have one other setback. During Boys Don’t Cry’s two hours, Peirce takes her time to make sense of her characters, exploring the themes surrounding Brandon Teena’s true story. With Carrie, Peirce charges towards Moretz’s blood-spattered vengeance. While the film is fast paced, and some screen time is spent exploring its characters, this is fleeting compared to Peirce’s previous films. You get hints of how complex and conflicted Carrie’s characters are, but then you quickly move onto the next scene. Considering how character-driven King’s novel is, how it is filled with subtext, making Peirce the ideal director for a 2013 version, for some reason she squanders this.

Like this year’s other horror re-tread, Evil Dead, Carrie is one of the better remakes out there, but, unlike Fede Alvarez’s film, it does not feel like there are many new ideas here. Moretz and Moore both give great performances, but are either let down by what is asked of them in the screenplay, or are not given enough time to really stand out. Peirce’s Carrie is not a total failure and is certainly worth a watch, even by devoted De Palma fans. It just feels like more could have been done here and that, ultimately, it’s a waste.

Rating: 3 out of 5


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