Saturday, October 11, 2014

Prom Night

Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie (2013)

There's a legend about Stephen King's first published novel, Carrie, in which Doubleday editor Bill Thompson was convinced to buy and publish the book because the secretaries were found to be passing the manuscript around the office, completely horrified and utterly mesmerized by its first scene. You know the one? In which poor Carrie White has her first period and her classmates pelt her with tampons while chanting "Plug it up! Plug it up!" That scene and, indeed, the book itself suggest a story that ought to be examined with a female gaze. It's categorically a book about women in which men are barely present as active characters with agency. While I'm not going to grouse about Brian De Palma's film version on the whole--it's one of the landmarks of the 1970s horror film--De Palma's filming of the opening scene has always struck me as mildly exploitative. It's certainly filmed from a male gaze. This is corrected by Kimberly Pierce's 2013 remake, a film that's not nearly as heartless as De Palma's film. In theory, Pierce's version of Carrie is a more faithful adaptation of King's novel, but as has happened in the past with "more faithful" versions of King, something gets lost.

The story should be familiar by now after three movie versions and a stage play: teenage outcast Carrie White, daughter of a psychotically religious mother, gets her first period. With it, she also discovers that she's a telekinetic. She's persecuted by her classmates--particularly the spoiled and sociopathic Chris Hargensen. Meanwhile, Sue Snell feels deep remorse for the humiliation she and her classmates inflicted on Carrie during that fateful shower and contrives to make it up to her by getting her boyfriend, Tommy Ross, to ask her to the prom. Hargensen, meanwhile, sees her own plans completely derailed by the punishment meted out by Mrs. DeJardin, the girls' gym teacher. She vows revenge, and with her boyfriend, Billy, she arranges to have Carrie elected prom queen where the two dump a bucket of pig's blood her. The rest is catastrophe, as Carrie lashes out with her newfound telekinetic powers, burning the school to the ground and destroying everything in her path as she walks home to her waiting mother, who is convinced that her daughter is a witch...

Chloe Grace Moretz and Janet Greer in Carrie (2013)

This film announces its differences from the original film at the outset. We don't begin with Carrie in the shower. Instead, we begin with Carrie's mom, Margaret, writhing on a bed convinced that she's dying and praying fervently to her god to save her. She is, instead, giving birth. Her first instinct when she sees her daughter? To stab her with a pair of scissors. She stops just short. This scene immediately places its concerns with the problems of women. When we first see Carrie as a teenager, she's withdrawn into herself as she gets into a swimming pool for gym class. She's completely marginalized by her peers, and has no interest in playing water volleyball with them. This is a scene that plays on the viewer's expectations, because in a couple of shots below the water, we expect a red cloud to appear around Carrie. It withholds this, perhaps wisely. Then we get the shower scene. All of this seizes the film away from the male gaze. It's not a film for men, per se.

Julianne Moore in Carrie (2013)

This isn't a lot different from the other versions of the story, though some of its differences are striking. The most important of these is the cast. Julianne Moore is a terrific choice to play Margaret White. I mean, she's not going to make you forget Piper Laurie, but neither is she going to remind you of her. Her version of Margaret White is uniquely her own: quieter, maybe, but perhaps scarier. A scene that really made my skin crawl depicts Margaret White's madness while she's at work, delivering a prom dress to Sue Snell's mother. That's some serious creepiness of a sort that De Palma's film never even attempted. Chloe Grace Moretz is a less ideal choice for Carrie herself. Moretz is the first actress in the role who, at 16, is the right age for the part (Sissy Spacek was 26, Angela Bettis was 28), and she's certainly gifted enough to play it. Its difficult for the filmmakers to hide the fact that Moretz is gorgeous, though, even when they dress her down in Carrie's homemade clothing and even when Moretz uses her posture and body shape to withdraw into herself. I get the necessity of having an actress that's able to work the prom queen transformation at the end of the movie, but it creates a cognitive disconnect early in the film. None of this is Chloe Moretz's fault, of course, and she's done a terrific job with what she's given. This is her film after all.

Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore in Carrie (2013)

The differences when they come are striking, though. This version of Carrie updates the story forty years on for an age with cell phones and YouTube. This lets Chris Hargensen--played with reptilian sociopathy by Portia Doubleday--twist the knife when she takes her revenge. She films Carrie's torment in the shower at the beginning of the movie, and then compounds this violation by arranging to have it play behind her once she's covered in pig blood. The film telegraphs this plot point, but in some ways, that makes it even worse. We know it's coming. It's like watching a dog about to be hit by a truck. The film also makes it clear that Chris and Billy have actually killed Tommy Ross with the bucket. The whole scenario has been made worse and worse by these additions, thus rendering Carrie's rage and murderous reprisal all the more comprehensible. If the end of this film were as utterly heartless as the end of De Palma's film? Well, that would be fully justified by the wrongs done to her.

Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie (2013)

But it's not as heartless, and that creates a problem at the end. The first hint that this is a kinder, gentler Carrie is when she chooses not to kill Mrs. Dejardin (in De Palma's film, she's cut in half). Carrie doesn't trap her victims in the gymnasium, either. There are escapees. The film recovers its rage in the longish sequence in which Carrie toys with Billy Nolan's car. This sequence is more explicitly cathartic than the almost accidental deaths of Chris and Billy in the original film. Carrie's revenge is deliberate and ghastly. The trailer for the film suggests that the filmmakers planned to adapt Carrie's destructive walk home as found in the book, but that turns out to be a tease, unfortunately.

Carrie's confrontation with her mother at the end of the film remains largely the same, too, and this version of the film incorporates the falling rocks described in the epistolary snippets from King's novel (without explanation, it should be mentioned; it's one of the more impenetrable elements of the film). It also ends more hopefully: Sue Snell confronts Carrie shortly before Carrie dies, and Carrie forgives her. Sue, it's hinted and then made explicitly clear, is pregnant, thus bringing the film full circle. It does blunt the force of the film, though, which is unfortunate. The very end of the film references, but does not repeat, the end of De Palma's film, which is probably for the best. That ending is one of the greatest cheap shots in movies, but it's also unrepeatable. The surprise necessary for it to work is gone. As a result, this film isn't quite the unforgettable gut punch that the original was. In a horror film, that's a flaw, I suppose. On the other hand, it chooses not to view Carrie White as a monster. Maybe there's something to that.

(Note: I also watched Troll Hunter, which I wrote about a couple of years ago).

Current Challenge tally:

Total Viewings: 7

First Time Viewings: 5

Around the Web:

Jose at Riding the Nightmare delves into the cinematic weirdness that is Daughter of Horror.

Eric at Expelled Grey Matter goes on the hunt with Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter.

Scott at Blasphemous Tomes also does the daughter thing, with Universal's proto-lesbian vampire film, Dracula's Daughter.

Tim at The Other Side finds that the new Dracula Untold is 300 with fangs, but likes it just the same.

Kevin at For It Is Man's Number looks at The Night of the Big Heat, which sounds like it should be a hard boiled crime film, but isn't.

Stacia at She Blogged by Night isn't doing the challenge, but I thought I'd link to her post on the new cyber-dystopia, Automata, because I like her writing and I think you should all pay her a visit.

Finally, Bob Turnbull at Eternal Sunshine of the Logical Mind has started his annual October posting here and here. He watches a lot of films and I'm usually jealous of his access to new stuff.

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