Thursday, January 3, 2013

Review: Carrie (1976)

Bad news: the remake of Carrie, a film that I've been looking forward to for the past couple of months, has been pushed back by several months, from March 15 to October 18. Good news: that means that the makers of the film must have quite a bit of faith in this movie doing well, given that the new release date is just two weeks before Halloween, i.e. prime horror movie season, and so far the only competition is the next installment in that aging dinosaur known as the Paranormal Activity series.
(EDIT: Just realized that it also has to compete with the remake of Oldboy. So that makes three horror films opening this October.)
('NUTHER EDIT: According to the director, the Carrie remake was delayed because of the Sandy Hook shooting. Even though I don't buy into the garbage that claims violent media causes killing sprees, I do get that a film with this kind of subject matter, just three months later, might bring back bad memories for those who had been in the school at the time.)
Even better news: this has given me reason to write my long-overdue review of the original version of Carrie...
Carrie (1976)

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Carrie stands as one of my favorite films of all time. While limited in budget and special effects, it more than makes up for that with a chilling story that resonates even more today than it did in the '70s, excellent performances from a cast led by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, and some remarkably stylish direction by Brian De Palma. Carrie is not just a horror film (though it is certainly that too), but also a study of bullying, fanaticism, and bad parenting that has stood the test of time far better than the fashions in the film.

I will confess that this film does hold a lot of personal value for me, and that this fact has probably skewed my perceptions of it. I first saw it when I was in middle school, a time when I was, to put it bluntly, not the most popular kid in my class. I was bullied a good deal, to the point where my mother at one point used the threat of getting a restraining order against one of my tormentors (something that she knew would've made every paper in New Jersey, and probably the New York Post as well) to get the school to step in. To me and countless other bullied teens, Carrie White was an idol of sorts, a girl who went out with a bang and made sure that everybody who was responsible for her sorry life got caught in the blast radius. I'm not surprised why the original novel is one of the most challenged books in school libraries. Things got a lot better in high school and college, but to this day, I still love both this film and the book, which just so happened to have gotten me interested in the work of Stephen King.

But watching the film as a grown adult, how does it hold up on its own merits? The answer is "amazingly". To start, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie are responsible for most of what makes this film work, since their drama makes up so most of the story. (This was a big problem with the 2002 remake -- while Angela Bettis was a good replacement for Spacek, Patricia Clarkson wasn't able to match up to Laurie, and the film suffered for it.) There is a reason why the two were nominated for the Oscars for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, rare honors for a horror film -- they were just that good. Spacek manages to play dowdy, gorgeous, and monstrous at various points in the film, remaining utterly convincing throughout, in a role that rightly made her career. Laurie, meanwhile, had me consistently terrified that she would come banging down my door to preach her fire and brimstone. She was nuts, and the film was all the scarier for it.

The rest of the cast, while clearly outshined by Spacek and Laurie, pull their weight well. Nancy Allen captures the queen bee Chris' callous evil perfectly. Amy Irving as Sue, the repentant lackey of Chris' who is the closest thing the film has to a hero, does quite well, even if her character is substantially reduced from the book. The sole weak link in the cast is, ironically, the one who went on to the biggest career afterwards -- John Travolta as Chris' delinquent boyfriend Billy, who didn't come off as anywhere near as menacing as his on-screen girlfriend. The scenes where Billy slaps Chris around come off as staged; Travolta was afraid of hurting Allen, and the light taps on the cheek he gives her (with obviously overdubbed sound effects) look more playful than abusive. Between that and the scene with the cop and the beer (one scene that did work), he makes Billy seem like a more comic character than he should be. Even then, Billy is a comparatively minor character, and Travolta leaves the film little worse for wear, especially with Allen picking up the slack in his scenes.

The direction is also top-notch. Brian De Palma is known as a master film stylist, and this is a perfect example of why. His staging of the prom scene stands as one of the great moments of horror cinema, a masterful example of a slow buildup that makes the rousing climax all the more engaging. It's hardly spoiling it to say that she snaps and people die, so much like in a Hitchcock film, rather than framing the moment as a twist, the film builds up to the characters realizing that something is wrong. He's no slouch in the rest of the film, either, mixing moments of levity (the boys picking out tuxedos, the girls at the hairdresser, the detention) with darker moments (the shower scene, every scene with Margaret, the ending) into a cohesive whole rather than having them clash with each other. The characters all feel nicely fleshed-out, having clear motivations no matter how petty they may be. Helping De Palma along was Pino Donaggio's score, which borrows heavily from the Psycho theme but still stands on its own, greatly helping to build up the tension in critical moments.

As for the film's famous ending... unfortunately, I had it spoiled for me beforehand, so I didn't get the full impact of it, but my grandmother (the one who spoiled it for me -- thanks) told me that it was the scariest thing she'd ever seen, so there's that. Something tells me that, after forty years of countless horror movies ending on shocking notes, it likely won't have that same impact for modern viewers. Still, it's a pretty minor part of the film, so whatever is lost as a result of time isn't that much.
Score: 5 out of 5

Pretty much the greatest "teen" horror movie ever made. Carrie is a masterpiece, its few flaws barely noticeable against the rest of the film's wonderfully horrific display. Make this part of your collection now.

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