Carrie VS Carrie VS Carrie

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I have to confess to being quite excited about this new version of Carrie. Although a massive fan of the original, and of Brian De Palma in general, even I can admit that it must have dated a fair amount with all the spilt screen/super slo mo/floating fire hose/big, big hair shenanigans. Plus the story is still one of Stephen King’s best with the central core of the tale, a bullied outsider with special powers, still being a strong and resonant one. What’s more, the talented Kimberly Peirce is directing this, so we have a strong female voice directing a story consisting almost entirely of female characters. What could go wrong? Well… nothing. Nothing went wrong, Carrie in 2013 is perfectly fine, not great; just fine. But let us also not forget that this isn’t the second time Carrie has been filmed, no it’s the third. A TV movie was made in 2002, but we’ll get to that in a bit…

Chloe Grace Mortez leads the way as Carrie in this 2013 version and a fine job she does, catching the balance between sweet and really rather weird, although she’s never actually creepy. We are very much on her side as she is humiliated when she has her first period in the school showers and the other girls throw tampons at her yelling “Plug it up!” In the other two versions Carrie really is a disconnected, freaky woman-child who, while you sympathise with her, isn’t that easy to like. Here, whether it’s on purpose or just because of Mortez’s natural charm, Carrie really is just an oddball striving to be accepted and normal, and if the odds weren’t so stacked against her, you feel like maybe she could make it.

Unfortunately two women stand in her way to happiness, and thanks to King’s prose, they are two of the most evil women in fiction. Julianne Moore plays Carrie’s mum, Margaret, with horrific malice. One minute she’s throwing her daughter in a cupboard, the next cuddling her goodnight. She also does a fair amount of self mutilation and head banging. How are you meant to cope with a mother like that? No child should have to deal with this behaviour, least of all one with telekinesis. You can always rely on Moore to put her all into a role, and this is no exception.

Also, the hilariously named Portia Doubleday is excellent as the school bitch Chris. While the character is technically a one-note bully, Doubleday invests such a sense of spoilt entitlement into her performance that you can almost understand where she comes from, although let’s face it no one is going to be on her side. I mean, getting revenge on a girl you tormented when she got her first period by pouring a bucket of pig’s blood on her and in front of the whole school at the prom at of all places, is a hideous and genius thing to do. Chris really is an absolute monster. As such I’ve always thought that the one thing De Palma’s original missed out on was (MASSIVE SPOILER) her death being rather quick and over and done with in flash, and a little bit unsatisfying because of that. Not this time round though, she meets a suitably grisly and protracted death, with an ironic image of her ugly ruined face, a reflection her ugliness on the inside. (END OF MASSIVE SPOILER)

But despite this and the suitably modern effects heavy climax, I feel that the film makers missed a trick here. They could have added an extra layer of commentary as we are essentially dealing with the quiet student who kills half her class mates. This, sadly, has become an all too familiar occurrence in the States, and I feel they could have acknowledged this somehow; but maybe it’s still too difficult a subject for mainstream cinema. Still, Carrie in 2013 is diverting enough, you could do worse… …

For example the 2002 TV movie of Carrie. It’s a little unfair as we are comparing a low budget TV version to a fair size cinema release, and a 70s classic. But they made it, so we are doing it, so tough. Okay: So it isn’t very well shot, the music is relentless and AWFUL, and a lot of the girls’ performances are unfocused and weak. It does add a fair amount of background stuff missing from the other versions, but this only serves to slow things down to a mind numbing 132 minutes. Also some of the stuff like the meteor shower (don’t ask) and the whole town on fire at the end are done on the cheap, so don’t really help proceedings.

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Also I have problems with the two evil women. The usually excellent Patricia Clarkson as Margaret White underplays the role so much that she looses a lot of that character’s bite. I presume this was a reaction to Piper Laurie’s performance in the original which was so wild and crazy; it must have felt like the natural thing to do was go the other way. But that’s not what Carrie’s mum should be about. She is mad, so she needs to be played that way.

Then there is Emilie de Ravin as Chris. I love de Ravin in Lost and The Hills Have Eyes, and maybe it’s my own fault because I associate her as always sweet, if a bit moody, but here she’s just too gaddam likable to convince as a class A bitch.

This seriously undermines the drama of the story, that and the length, the never ending length. God. When it was shown on TV with adverts it would have been three hours long. I’m not surprised no one watched it. And that’s probably a good thing, as apparently this was meant to be a pilot for a TV series about the further antics of Carrie. That’s a dreadful idea. The book is short, the two cinema films are short, and we don’t want hours and hours of this TV dross version.

There is one redeeming feature here though and that’s Carrie herself. Angela Bettis made a film the year before this called May, where she plays a seriously unhinged loner with an unhealthy interest in weird dolls and men’s hands. Here she channels more of that madness into Carrie White but spends a lot of the time almost in a state of ecstasy, lost in a bizarre world of rolling eyeballs and hunchbacked insanity. It’s a really intense performance which must have been exhausting for Bettis. When she tells her mum she just wants to be normal, you really, really believe it. But she really, really is not normal in any way, shape or form. Shame the rest of the film doesn’t go as off the rails as much as she does, it might have been more fun.

And that’s really what worked about De Palma’s original. He really takes the medium of cinema and goes wild with it, descending into filmic madness, with his crazy camera work, nuts editing and excruciating slow mo, in the same way Carrie loses her mind to her to the insanity of her telekinesis. After watching the other two versions in a row and thinking that it must have dated, plus taking into account the fact that I’ve not seen it for at least twenty years, I thought I had better dig De Palma’s up from its grave and see how the original stands up.

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It’s magnificent. Right from the off with the camera floating down onto the school, girls playing volleyball, you can tell it’s on a different level. Sissy Spacek is incredible, really tragic but adorable at the same time. Rake thin and nervous as hell, there is something disturbing about her, but you totally want her to escape this living hell of school and bad parenting. Other than Carrie and her mum, De Palma pushes most of the other characters into the background. But what a mother she is. In the book a neighbour describes Margaret White as literally drooling mad on one occasion. Piper Laurie, while not actually foaming at the mouth, is, absolutely bat-shit crazy. Like all properly insane people, her performance (if you can call it that) is scarily unpredictable. She is firm and in control one minute, the next weeping and pulling her hair out.

Then there is the incredible climax at the prom. Did I say that the slo mo was dated? No way. It builds the tension up so much before the bucket of blood drops that I was actually screaming on the sofa. Rarely has there been such a perfect blend of camera work, sound and editing. There are loads of other great moments but you really should go out and rediscover them for yourselves.

Not that it’s all perfect. There’s some very goofy music here and there, and of course the haircuts. William Katt (as sweet but simple Tommy Ross) has blonde curls that seem to have a life of their own. Even in 1976 his hair must have been a distraction for audiences. Why does it defy gravity like that? How is it SO golden? Just… What the fuck? Also, most of the cast look far too old to be at school. I swear at some point I saw one “kid” who was balding. The only one who does indeed look the sixteen/seventeen she’s meant to be is Spacek, and she was 26 when she made this.

Anyway, who cares about all that? It’s still a hands-down classic. A lot of people questioned the need for a remake of Carrie, but like I said, I wasn’t one of them. However watching Brian De Palma’s one again, it really does beg the question, why bother? You ain’t going to make it better than that.

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