Friday, October 25, 2013


Stephen King published his first novel, Carrie, in 1974, and by 1975 it seemed like everyone in my high school had a tattered copy of the paperback tucked in amongst the schoolbooks they carried from class to class. That’s when I finally picked it up, averse as I was to the possibility that anything that many people were all enthused about could be any good at all. But I, like everyone else I suppose, was captivated by the book’s simple premise— Carrie White, a 16-year-old misfit from an oppressively religious household where she lives with her fanatical mother, gets her first period in the gym shower and then gets another sort of shower—of abuse—when she reacts in ignorant horror over the bleeding. The incident leads to punishments, self-righteous anger, an increasing self-awareness of Carrie’s awakening telekinetic powers and a particularly nasty humiliation at the prom, where Carrie’s pent-up rage is unleashed on her victimizers, innocent bystanders, and eventually the entire town.

The story’s clever melding of straightforward, chronologically futuristic narrative (it’s set five years after the book’s date of publication, in 1979) with excerpts from newspaper accounts, first-person remembrances and sober, scholarly book-length summations, all drawing conclusions (and goosing that straightforward narrative) from a perspective even further down the temporal line, gave the read a strong sense of ghastly inevitability that kept me absorbed. But I remember thinking the conclusion, with Carrie walking home and consequently laying waste to the Maine town where she and so many others will live for only a short while longer, was excessive, and the fates King cooked up for her and her mother, the psychotic zealot Margaret White, were dramatically unsatisfying.

Brian De Palma’s 1976 movie, with Sissy Spacek  in the starring role in a screenplay adaptation by Lawrence D. Cohen (Ghost Story, It), necessarily jettisoned the novel’s specifically literary conceits and worked miracles with the emotional effectiveness of the ending that, at least in my eyes, eluded King. Carrie’s destructive charge is restricted to the havoc wreaked inside that fiery gymnasium—and the hell she raises for chief tormentor Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) and her slobbering boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta)—setting the stage for the real apocalypse, played out on the battlefield between freshly destroyed daughter and a mother who seeks to finish the job with a butcher knife in the name of Jesus. (In the book, Carrie uses her powers to stop Margaret’s heart; De Palma and Cohen cook up something altogether more outrageous, satisfying and, ultimately, devastating.)

My friends and I made a 200-mile round-trip pilgrimage to a nearby town to see Carrie back in the waning days of my senior year of high school in 1977, when the movie finally made it to our neck of the Southeastern Oregon desert. (It had already been scarring the general public for seven months by the time we got our chance to be traumatized.) I hadn’t yet gotten my whack at such seminal horror movies of my generation as The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, so the movie seemed unlike anything I had yet seen in my young movie-going life—De Palma’s marvelous, iconoclastic technique, coupled with the movie’s social humor, sharp satire of religious mania (in which De Palma mixes Catholic imagery and Pentecostal fever with gleeful abandon) and extraordinary sense of both sympathy-- for Carrie-- and empathy-- for those around her, like Sue Snell and the doomed Tommy Ross, who try to do right by her-- made the film seem so startling and vivid as to be hyperreal, yet heightened and conducted like a sinister symphony with the most breathtaking gothic instrumentation.

The movie is nearly 37 years old, yet its shadow remains long and formidable. In 1988, with no actual movie sequel likely to carry on its filmed legacy (Carrie and her mom were dead at the end after all), Cohen adapted his own script into a notoriously short-lived Broadway musical. But even that disaster couldn’t snuff out interest in Carrie. De Palma’s movie finally got its official sequel in 1999-- The Rage: Carrie 2, which recycled Carrie’s basic revenge motifs (and a lot of footage from the original movie) into a generic story of date rape, harassment and revenge which was quickly, mercifully forgotten. The footsteps of the original movie were recycled into a 2002 TV-movie remake/series pilot which, fortunately, never caught on. And last year, there was even an off-Broadway revival of the ill-fated 1988 musical, which was granted a five-week run, considerably longer than the original’s infamous three-day collapse, before closing in the face of considerable cultural indifference.

And this past weekend the original movie was recycled yet again, this time by director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), from whom it was hoped a relevant post-Columbine, feminist/feminine sensibility toward this distinctly female tale of horror, which had never been told by a woman before, might emerge. Alas, Peirce’s Carrie feels like the indifferently assembled Lifetime Channel version of King’s bloody tragedy, complete with a tacked-on anti-bullying message to complete the movie’s dead-spin into redundancy. The new movie works from a script credited to Cohen (a formality no doubt made necessary by the degree of heavy lifting the new movie does from De Palma’s original) and augmented by Glee/American Horror Story scribe Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, whose contribution seems primarily implemented to sass up the dialogue—Billy Nolan utters that formidable modern screenwriting clich√© "I got this!" not once, but twice—and bring the story kicking and screaming into the age of social networking by having Chris shoot video on her phone of Carrie’s menstrual breakdown and then posting it on YouTube, the natural legal consequences of which the movie simply shrugs off.

But the biggest shoes to fill turn out not to be Cohen’s or De Palma’s—Pierce and her writer go for King’s mass destruction but otherwise lift the entirety of the movie’s conclusion from De Palma, bereft of any of his customary wit, of course—but instead those occupied by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, the 1976 film’s daughter-mother one-two punch. Chloe Moretz is miscast and struggles mightily to scrunch up her face and act with her nostrils to convey humiliation and, eventually, homicidal aggression, but she has no access to the wells of feeling Spacek conjures with such ease.

And where Piper Laurie’s Margaret was a grand opera classic of deep-chested, scripture-spouting domination masquerading as parental love, the self-hatred Julianne Moore brings to Margaret is much more on the surface. Margaret White v. 2013 is, among other things, a cutter slashing at her own thighs when things get especially tough, and much more of a garden-variety manipulator and pathetic, mewling head case than the character ever seemed on the page or in the 1976 incarnation. As Moore plays her, she seems more cowed than belligerent in the face of what Margaret sees as the demonic influences clutching for her daughter’s soul, and Peirce’s attempts to emphasize, despite her horrendous actions, that Margaret deep down really loves her daughter just come off as mealy and unconvincing attempts to "feminize" the character for the audience, to try and make it easier to endure the spiritual battery she inflicts on Carrie.

But enough about all that. In honor of the upcoming 40th anniversary of the release of the book, and to capitalize on the renewed interest generated by the tepid new version, the Horror Dads—TCM’s Richard Harland Smith, along with writer-director Nicholas McCarthy (The Pact) and writers Paul Gaita, Jeff Allard, Greg Ferrara and myself-- have reconvened after a long absence (since last Halloween?) in order to throw some light and love on the 1976 version of Carrie. The conversation-- "We Were Kids-- The Horror Dads revisit Carrie (1976)"-- was so much fun and went to so many interesting and illuminating places that Richard, our esteemed editor, has split it into tantalizing halves. Part One posted today and will do lots to whet your appetite vis-√†-vis revisiting the Brian De Palma movie, and Part Two will drop on November 1, All Saints’ Day, the perfect reading material for shaking off spooks and dealing with an intense session of high fructose corn syrup recovery.

It’s all Carrie all day today and the day after Halloween at TCM’S Movie Morlocks. Be sure to read it all too, because if you don’t, well, they’re all gonna laugh at you—laugh at you—laugh at you—


1 comment:

Adam Zanzie said...

Yeah, I figured the remake looked like something that's best to wait for the DVD. Doesn't sound like Moretz and Moore have the sort of chemistry that Spacek and Laurie had: the kind that Spacek gushes about on the original film's DVD, where she says something to the effect if, "I loved to do battle with Piper."

I read King's book twice in high school, but, like you, I think De Palma bettered the story. I stopped reading King a long time ago once I realized that he's an interesting storyteller but no great shakes as a writer. The movies are often different from the books, but usually for the better, since all the pointless romantic subplots get cut out. Plus, it means fewer references to his home state: Maine!