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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Halloween 2013: September 24

Carrie (1976)

The influence of “Carrie” can’t be overstated. The film transformed Stephen King from a minor bestseller to an international success. Brian De Palma, known before for absurdest satires, was changed into the predominant thriller filmmaker of his age. It launched the careers of Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travoltra and, most importantly, Sissy Spacek. The movie’s box office success and critical praise was acknowledged with two Academy Award nominations, unheard for a horror film. Finally, the film introduced the final jump scare into the horror movie cliché library, something most every major shock film of the next two decades would rip off.

“Carrie” is a simple story, befitting a film adapted from a slender, 250-page novel. Meek, poor and telekinetic Carrie White suffers abuse at school from classmates and at home from her religious fanatic mother. Sue Snell, Tommy Ross, and Miss Collins attempt to help poor Carrie, to save her. Vindictive Chris Hargensen and her doofus boyfriend plan petty revenge for mostly imagined wrongs. The plot is engineered to build towards the climatic prom sequence, each storyline coming together. The whole story takes place over no more then a few days. The structure is precise, elegant, and functional.

It's also a coming of age story. The film begins and ends with blood in bath water, representing different losses of innocence. The emergence of Carrie’s powers is tied directly with her first menstrual cycle. Her character arc is ultimately framed as a struggle against her mother’s authority. Her psychic abilities give her the strength to fight back, to strike out on her own. Dowdy and plain at first, Carrie goes through a “Beautiful All Along” transformation, charming Tommy at prom, suggesting that, had this not been a Stephen King story, she could have gotten away from her mother, had a normal life. King’s original book was a epistolary novel, showing the events from the outside looking in. The film refocuses on Carrie, showing her world, her side of the story.

For a fact, whenever the movie shifts away from Carrie, it suffers. De Palma’s past as a cult filmmaker occasionally pokes through. A long sequence of the girls in gym detention is odd, with upbeat music and comical angles, adding little to the story. How about the scene of Tommy and friends trying on tuxes, which features bizarre fast motion and also adds nothing? Carrie’s Mother isn’t the most complex character in the film. She’s little more then a raving, religious lunatic cliché. Only near the end, when explaining Carrie’s conception, does the character seem to be more. Piper Laurie plays the part as operatic theater, driving her intensity to absurdest heights, most evident during her orgasmic death scene, writhing in religious agony. Chris is similarly cartoonist, a sadistic, evil queen bitch. It’s no fault of Nancy Allen, who plays the part to its fullest, simply an example of thin writing. (I blame Stephen King for this, not screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen. King’s villains are usually two dimensional.) William Katt, several years away from his light comedy hero roles, is nearly flat as Tommy. Katt tries, occasionally showing some depth under those golden locks, but frequently comes off as a brainless jock.

Spacek owns the film and, when the focus is on her, “Carrie” shines. Her big blue eyes and freckled face conveys such a strong vulnerability, a deep sadness. You feel for the character, want to protect her. As the prom night goes on, as you see her smile and come into her own, a deep melancholy comes over the film that almost brings me to tears every time. Because you know her happiness is going to be short-lived. Despite occasional misinterpretations, “Carrie” isn’t a revenge story. Carrie’s psychic wrath at the prom isn’t righteous nor is the audience meant to enjoy it. Instead, it’s high tragedy. You’re watching her fragile world shatter apart and the terrible fall-out from it. “Carrie” is ultimately an incredibly sad film. You forget that between showings, only remembering De Palma’s stylistic flourishes or the intense effect scenes.

De Palma’s highly stylish direction occasionally verges on melodramatic. The multiple quick-cut close-ups on Carrie’s glaring face or Margret chopping a carrot drawls too much attention. The infamous De Palma split-screen nicely show the effect of Carrie’s powers but are an exercise in style, not story. The last supper between Carrie and her mother, though beautifully shot in deep shadows, puts too fine a point on it when lightening strikes after Margret’s dialogue. Ultimately though, De Palma’s direction works for the film. His repeated use of double focus, different items in the foreground and the background, provide depth to the frame, supporting the themes of the film. The turn-table shot of Carrie and Tommy at the prom probably goes on too long but beautifully illustrates both her heavenly feeling while subtly suggesting that things are about to go out of control. No sequence is better constructed then the lead-up to the prom massacre. Another one of De Palma’s trademarks, a long, single shot, revolving around the room, setting each puzzle piece in place brilliantly. The flames erupting behind Carrie are mythic, blazing demonic wings sprouting behind her.

Pino Donaggio’s score is also hugely important to the film’s success. The score is beautiful, dreamy and romantic when it needs to be. Carrie and her mother each have a leitmotif, a mournful oboe for Carrie and pounding, psychotic piano steps for Mom. During the prom, Donaggio’s score fluctuates from silent to foreboding, slowly building tension. While the actual massacre is happening, the score is almost non-existent, treating the violence starkly, honestly. Unlike De Palma’s direction, the score is always honest, building and supporting the story’s emotions… Except for the shrieking, Hermann-esque “Psycho” strings that play whenever Carrie employs her powers. This was no doubt De Palma’s idea, the Hitchcock humping bastard.

Though infamous, I almost feel like that final jump scare is unnecessary. It’s an exploitation movie move in a film that is anything but. However, that final image, of Sue’s mother cradling her on the bed, the room womb-like, a warm parental relationship, the kind Carrie never had, recalls the story’s whole point. “Carrie” is a devastatingly sad, powerful horror picture, showing that the genre can explore emotions far deeper then fear or revulsion. [9/10]

Flesh and Fantasy (1943)

Another Universal release, this isn’t quite horror but comes surprisingly close. It fits comfortably under the “dark fantasy” label. An anthology, the framing device revolves around a man suffering from troubling dreams. His friend tries to take his mind off the issue by regaling him with stories of the supernatural, all of which explores fate and the influence magic has over people’s lives.

The first story is the weakest. It opens with the striking image of winged demons stepping over a dead man. Louisiana and Marti Gras are revealed as the setting, the demons only people in costumes. The direction shifts to a young woman who considers herself so ugly that no one could ever love her. (Betty Field under bumpy make-up.) After stumbling into a mask shop, the mysterious owner gives her a mask which will gift her with beauty for a few hours. While it has a strong start, this one quickly develops into sap. There isn’t any ironic twist. This is an obvious story of inner beauty. The voice-over gets heavy handed at times and the ending is too on the nose. Either way, Field gives a good performance and is quite lovely.

The second tale is the best, featuring a strong performance from Edward G. Robison. At a party, a fortune teller accurately predicts the future of everyone present. After reading Robison’s palm, the medium predicts that he will commit murder. At first dismissing this as nonsense, Robison is quickly taunted by an inner voice, convincing him to kill. This segment has moody direction and Robison’s inner voice, usually shown as his own reflection, leads to some nice moments. My favorite is when his shadow begins to speak. The story builds to an effective ending with some nicely atmospheric black and white shadows. There’s dark humor here and the murderous protagonist is what pushes the film into horror. I quite liked it.

The third segment is the lightest on fantasy and the most blatantly romantic. A tight-rope walker, whose gimmick involves getting drunk before walking the wire, keeps having a dream that he’ll fall to his death. The dream also features a woman he’s never met before. While on a boat ride across the ocean, he meets her. The two naturally fall in love. However, it quickly becomes apparent that she is hiding a secret. Charles Boyer and Barbara Stanwyck have decent chemistry together. Though maybe the least interesting story on paper, it proves compelling in execution.

The film has a history. Originally, a fourth segment about a murderer hiding out with a family and falling in love with their blind daughter opened the film. Each story was supposed to flow into the next, as the second and third do. However, the first sequence was built into a stand alone film called “Destiny” and the comedic framing device added. “Flesh and Fantasy” probably won’t interest most horror fans beyond Universal completest like myself. It makes decent Halloween viewing either way because of its shadowy mood. [7/10]

Tales from the Crypt: 
Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone

Early Crypt Keeper continues to be darker. He opens this episode with a brief monologue about the nature of death. I know this is a horror show but gee, that’s dark. With the slower, raspier delivery, even the shitty one-liners come off as a lot meaner.

“Dig That Cat… He’s Real Gone” is another early episode anchored by its lead actor. Joey Pantoliano has made a career out of playing sleazy jerks. Ulric the Undying proves an especially sleazy jerk, a homeless bum granted a cat’s nine lives by a mad scientist. That premise is absurd, of course, and the episode uses it mostly as a set-up for increasingly elaborate deaths for Ulric. As in most “Tales from the Crypt” scenario, the episode is also a moral story. Ulric murders the mad scientist, who is also his stage manager. Ulric’s showgirl girlfriend turns on him before he finally decides to screw over the carnival barker he works for. As is always the case, our villain protagonist is punished for his greedy ways with a nicely ironic ending.

Episode 3 is way goofier then the first. Richard Donner’s direction is comical and exaggerated, using dutch angles, overbaked quick cats, and even cartoonish scene transitions. (Did somebody say star wipe?) The characters are cartoonish too, from Robert Wuhl’s foul-mouthed carnival barker to Kathleen York’s squeaky voiced showgirl. Joey Pants holds it together though, making for another entertaining half-hour. [7/10]

(Oh, and if you wonder why I skipped the famous second episode, “And All Through the House…” Come on, man, it’s still September. Way too early for Christmas horror.)

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