Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Thundarr the Barbarian (1980): "Treasure of the Moks" (November 1, 1980)



In “Treasure of the Moks,” Thundarr, Ookla and Ariel run afoul of Cordon, a notorious pirate who leads the gang known as “the River Rats.”

The River Rats and their leaders have been plundering every village on the river for weeks, and now a Mok village is imperiled.

To stop the pirates, Thundarr, Mok and Ariel must attack Cordon’s impressive pirate ship, a modified U.S. Naval aircraft carrier from the 20th century…



The fifth episode of Thundarr the Barbarian, “Treasure of the Moks,” like its predecessors, is noteworthy primarily for the imaginative visuals it crafts.

In this case, there’s a fantastic sea-going vessel on display.  It’s a pirate ship that is one part wooden pontoons and one part a contemporary aircraft carrier.  The vessel is huge, and the renderings of the pirate ship do a fantastic job of conveying size.  More than that, there is interesting detail on the ship.  Since the deck is flat, there are tents, castle-ramparts and other “future” structures atop it.  It’s like a sea-going village.

Also, Cordon has armed the aircraft carrier with catapults, instead modern-day turrets. 



At one point in the episode, Cordon takes the ship into the sea near an ancient Naval Base, and the episode features visuals of a vast, Sargasso Sea (another cult-television favorite theme…). 

Seeing vessels as imaginative as Cordon’s ship, I wish we had gotten a line of Thundarr the Barbarian action figures and vehicles back in 1980.  That would have been amazing.

In terms of series continuity, there are two major points to consider about “Treasure of the Moks.”  First, we meet Ookla’s people (including a female), but there is little or no discussion why Ookla began traveling with Thundarr.

Secondly, we learn in this episode that the sun sword is “locked” to Thundarr’s hand-signature.  Cordon steals it at one point, but it is useless…the blade doesn’t extend or ignite.  This raises the question: was the weapon built for Thundarr?  Or does he merely know the secret of what, I assume, is a 20th century device.

Next week: “Attack of the Amazon Women.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1992): "Life's a Beach" (October 10, 1992)


In “Life’s a Beach,” the Porters, Christa, Tasha and Stink evade Scarface and spend a day at the beach.

After Kevin is attacked in the surf by an angry sea monster, Christa begins to recall long-buried memories from her childhood...memories of her missing family.

Meanwhile, a strange Merrman watches the Porters from the rocks, and seems obsessed with Christa. Is it possible he knows her somehow, or what happened to her family all those years ago?



Bolstered by a fresh setting -- a picturesque beach with brontosaurs in the surf -- “Life’s a Beach” is another painless and entertaining episode of the 1990s remake of Land of the Lost.  Between this episode, “The Gladiators” and “Dreammaker,” the second season is shaping up to be better than the first.

Leaving that matter of long-term quality aside for the moment, “Life’s a Beach” is a Christa-centric story that features flashbacks of the “wild girl” as a child. We see Christa as a little girl, running on the beach, and learn more about her background here.

In short, the Merman turns out to be a friend from her childhood, one who helped Christa’s family attempt to escape the land of the lost by sea.  Christa wasn’t abandoned by her family: she fell overboard and was presumed lost. 

To prove his good intentions, the Merman produces a box filled with photographs of the family.   So in other words, the Merman was to Christa’s family much as Stink or Tasha is to the Porters: an indigenous friend of the family.  I find this a little tragic.  He still remembers them after all these years, and still is all alone.  Is this what would happen to Stink, or Tasha, in the absence of the Porters?

“Life’s a Beach” also provides some nice background information about the Porter family, actually. Christa (and the audience…) learns from Annie that Mrs. Porter (Jenny Drugan) died in a car accident two years earlier.  This fate mirrors that of Mrs. Marshall in the original Land of the Lost.  She also died before the family’s ill-fated vacation to the Grand Canyon. In one episode, “Album,” the Sleestak attempted to use her image to lure Will and Holly into a trap.

“Life’s a Beach” also features an uncharacteristically tense monster attack in the surf.  Kevin is attacked (on his surf board) by a sea monster with snapping jaws, and Christa -- armed with a knife -- and Mr. Porter, armed with a baseball bat -- rush to his rescue.  The attack is filmed well at water level and looks convincingly dangerous.



I wrote last week that Christa is my favorite character on the remake of Land of the Lost.  It’s not just because she looks good in a bathing suit, as this episode proves, either.  I like Christa because she seems to be the character most clearly grappling with her past.  She has accepted her life in the Land of the Lost, but is also lonely.  We learn here that she fears her family abandoned her.   The other characters -- the Porters -- have each other, but Christa is very much alone, even when she is with them. 

I also appreciate the fact that Christa is highly capable, and when trouble rears its head, she is the first into battle. Christa is not your typical damsel in distress, and her presence (and Shannon Day’s performances) successfully elevate many of the stories.

Next Week: "Future Boy." 

Friday, February 14, 2014

The Bermuda Depths (1978): "Jennie"

Cult-TV Movie Review: The Bermuda Depths (1978)


You had to be there.

You just simply had to be there.

It’s a cliché, but that’s about the best way a viewer today can begin to understand the dreamy-slowly-veering-into-nightmare vibe of The Bermuda Depths (1978) and its strange (but widely described) impact on those viewers who happened to catch it on TV during its original broadcast.

Today, gazing at the film with a cold clinical eye, this Rankin-Bass Production from the disco decade features painfully dated special visual effects from Tsubaraya Studios, and plays as meandering and, well, downright weird.

But in terms of comprehending fully a work of art, context is everything, and so perhaps the best way to understand this TV-movie is to consider The Bermuda Depths the unholy love child of the 1970s’ fascination with The Bermuda Triangle, and the Jaws Mania that swept the nation after the success of Steven Spielberg’s shark story in 1976.  

This was also the era of Jacque Cousteau’s TV program and Man from Atlantis so clearly, there was something in the water, or about the water that fascinated the mainstream American audience.

Stir all those pop culture ingredients together and you end up with this not-for-all-tastes delicacy: a made-for-TV about a giant prehistoric turtle called a “cryptodira” that attacks ships in the Devil’s Triangle.

Plus you get the aforementioned dreamy vibe, and, for good measure, an oddly haunting love story between a young man named Magnus (Leigh McCloskey) and the gorgeous siren of the sea, Jennie Haniver (Connie Sellecca).

And did I mention the subplot?  It concerns a scientist, played by Burl Ives, who is studying gigantism in local sea life with his colleague, Eric (Carl Weathers).

And poor Eric, meanwhile, happens to be a modern-day Captain Ahab figure, obsessed not with the white whale, but with the colossal turtle instead. He gives his life to capture it, and like Ahab before him, spends eternity in a watery grave, attached to the creature by harpoon.


I might also note that the lovely Jennie is in thrall to the “god below,” who gifted her with eternal life, but also cursed her to live in the sea forever more as the realm’s defender.

In 1977, Rankin-Bass also produced one of my favorite TV movies of the era, The Last Dinosaur

That movie cleverly tricks audiences into believing that the title refers to a Tyrannosaurus Rex discovered alive in an Arctic lost world, when in fact the “last dinosaur” is the lead character played by Richard Boone: a big game hunter and male chauvinist pig.

It may sound ridiculous, but The Last Dinosaur boasts true artistic merit, and actually weaves an artful comparison between the two last-of-their-breed characters.  Neither one can survive in the modern world.

By comparison, The Bermuda Depths is a bit more foggy-headed and far less direct in nature. It is over-girded with half-explored concepts and characters, and yet -- despite this deficit -- the production spins a remarkable web of ethereal melancholy. 

Honestly, I found the film more appealing as nostalgia than as a satisfying work of art upon this 2014 screening, but I absolutely and unapologetically acknowledge that The Bermuda Depth has got…something.

You can’t just get your feet wet to quantify that something, either.  

You have to dive in and let the oddness kind of wash over you. It’s easier to do that, incidentally, if you watch The Bermuda Depths late at night and with no lights on. 

With those environmental assists, the TV-movie’s unconventional and trippy beauty has the greatest impact, and you don’t feel like you’ve wasted ninety minutes. Instead, you feel like you’ve just awoken from a long, strange, oddly beautiful and hypnotic dream.

This is a weird one, and could have only been produced in the 1970s.



“Some see her as a little girl, others as a young woman, and even those who say they’ve seen her swim like a serpent.”

Even in the space age, the sea is not fully explored The Bermuda Depths reminds its audience.

That fact introduces, after a fashion, the story’s narrative terrain. Here, a lonely man of modernity, Magnus, interfaces with ageless beings of fantasy and horror in a realm of mystery, the sea.

Of all the subplots in the TV-movie, the most affecting one is undeniably the love story between Jennie and Magnus. He is a boy who was orphaned very young, and has therefore always been alone.

She is a woman who never wanted to connect with anyone until she was lost at sea and became servant to the God Below. Now she just wants to connect with Magnus, even though she isn’t fully alive. Some of the compositions in the film nicely highlight Jennie's entrapment.  Early on, for instance, she is seen surrounded on all sides (and virtually silhouetted...) by a rocky outcropping on the beach.  The image suggests she is boxed in.


Accordingly, Jennie and Magnus remind each other of what they have never had, and never can have.

These star-crossed lovers -- one of land, one of sea -- can never find happiness, and their tragic story is re-told in the movie’s heavy-hearted ballad, “Jennie.” 

Those who remember this movie from the 1970s will remember this song as plain as day. The composition by Maury Laws expresses the haunting and longing of the characters perfectly, though is -- like the film itself -- a product of its time.  Today we would call the song and its lyrics cheesy, but in 1978 “Jennie” perfectly expressed a kind of pensive, lugubrious sadness.

Some aspects of The Bermuda Depths aren’t easily comprehensible, a fact which only adds to the surreal nature of the whole affair. I understand that Jennie gave herself to the sea (and the Sea God…or Devil), and so now she must protect the Bermuda Triangle and its sea life from evil men and so forth, but what did the turtle do to deserve the same fate? 

We see late in the film, for example, that both Jennie and the turtle have glowing, evil eyes, and the will to use force against Eric and his ship.

The turtle is just an enlarged sea creature however, unless the film is trying to enunciate the idea that the quality of gigantism displayed by sea animals in the region is actually caused by the Devil/God/Poseidon, and not by science.



Outside of some confusing and under-explored connections like that, The Bermuda Depths thrives today almost entirely as a mood piece, as a slow-moving evocation of a love affair that can never be but will always be remembered. One of the film’s closing shots -- Jennie and Magnus’s initials scratched onto the shell of the giant turtle -- suggests that their “legend” will be told and remembered for years to come.

Since this film has achieved cult popularity that may indeed be the case.Those who saw The Bermuda Depths on TV in 1978 may not have fully understood it on an intellectual basis because of its muddled story-line, but they understood the emotions of the piece. 

In short (and appropriately, since today is Valentine's Day), this could be the strangest love story ever told.


So my final take on The Bermuda Depths mirrors Magnus’s reaction upon seeing Jennie’s undersea lair for the first time. 

It’s beautiful here.  It’s unreal.”

Cult-TV Movie Spot: The Bermuda Depths (1978)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Well, that didn't take long...The Purge 2 Teaser Trailer

Cult-Movie Review: Carrie (1976)


Although he had directed many fine feature films before this 1976 thriller (including the exquisite Sisters [1973] and Phantom of the Paradise [1974]), it was Carrie that truly landed Brian De Palma on the cinematic A list.

The director's critically and financially successful adaptation of the Stephen King novel not only assured De Palma a long and storied career in Hollywood, it also set off a virtual blizzard of celluloid King adaptations vetted by high-profile film directors (Tobe Hooper and Salem's Lot [1978], Stanley Kubrick and The Shining [1980], David Cronenberg and The Dead Zone [1981], George Romero and Creepshow [1982], John Carpenter and Christine [1983], Rob Reiner and Misery, etc.). This is a horror trend that endured well into the 1990s, and even to into this decade, though to perhaps a less-significant degree.


Carrie proved so resonant as a horror genre initiative, in fact, that it spawned a fad, a significant  number of B movie imitations. These were films about wronged, lonely teens seeking bloody vengeance against their cruel school mates. These films had titles such as Ruby (1977), Jennifer (1978), Laserblast (1978) and Evilspeak (1981)

With his keen and accomplished visual sense, De Palma creates an intimate portrait in Carrie of this aforementioned adolescent, high-school cruelty. It's Lord of the Flies in a locker room...only with mean girls instead of wild boys. In her review of the film for New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael noted that prior to De Palma's film, "no one else has ever caught the thrill that teenagers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture," terming Carrie a "terrifyingly lyrical thriller."

Most critics strongly agreed with the assessment that King's novel found perfect expression in De Palma's capable hands. Film Quarterly, Volume XXI (page 32) in 1977 noted that "De Palma develops his familiar motifs of exploitation, guilt and sexual repression with a sure hand, so that his visual fireworks for the first time do not seem themselves obsessional and out of control."

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of January 1, 1976 that: Brian De Palma's Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that's the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It's also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn't another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she's a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who's a lot like kids we once knew."

Today, no less than three major sequences in Carrie have entered the pop-culture lexicon (and endured there for over thirty years.) These three sequences are so well-directed, so brilliantly-staged that they jump immediately to mind when considering the film. More importantly, they visually support the film's narrative: forging an understanding of Carrie's world and what it means, in some cases, to "grow up." Those scenes are set in a girl's locker room, at the senior prom, and finally, (ominously...) grave side.



We're All Very Sorry For This Incident: The Curse of Blood

In part, Carrie works so splendidly, because of the universality of the high school experience. Sometimes it feels like high school is a realm where cruelty -- along with apathy -- has become institutionalized.

Teenagers often seem to boast a sixth sense (or is it a killer instinct?) about those students who are less well-adjusted, who come from bad homes, or who are just more sensitive...and therefore vulnerable. And then those kids are ridiculed, teased, shunned and mocked sometimes, to the point of sadism.

Probably nothing could expose this milieu more clearly (or more artfully) than the locker room scene that opens Carrie. After a game of volleyball (shot from a high angle, as if to clue in the audience to the fact that something terrible is soon to occur...), De Palma cuts to the gym locker room. The steam from the showers softens the image on screen, providing the impression of a lulling dream, or even a sexual fantasy. Immediately, we start to understand how high school represents a time of sexual awakening.

As the camera pans right, accompanied by the romantic strains of Pino Donaggio's score, the audience sees gorgeous young women frolicking, nude or half-nude after their exertions on the court. As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s, this is an "erotic image of wood nymphs at play," one intended to arouse, titillate and stimulate. But as the camera moves past this fanciful action in a forward motion, we soon spy Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) alone in a shower. It's a strangely solitary, personal and erotic moment too. The young woman caresses herself in slow-motion. Glistening water drops decorate her euphoric face. A phallic-shaped shower-head sprays water down upon her.

Carrie's hands wander innocently down to her stomach, then her legs -- and, as curious viewers -- we wonder how far this scene is going to go. As Carrie's hands continue to spiral downwards to her legs, scarlet blood suddenly stains her skin, mixing with the pounding water. It's menstrual blood. On her fingers, on her legs. On the floor.

This is a typical De Palma bait-and-switch, a deliberate reversal or undoing of expectations. Those males in the audience aroused by the sight of female nudity are no doubt -- much like the disturbed school principal featured in the next scene -- not at all aroused by the visual of a high school girl getting her period. A sexy fantasy has given way to common reality

The dream-like nature of this sequence dissipates quickly now, giving way to abject horror. Carrie does not know or understanding what is happening to her. She believes she is dying. From a subjective point-of-view shot, we now see harsh reality: the other high school girls categorically reject Carries' entreaties for help and the "misty" look of the scene has evaporated. With startling cruelty, the girls even toss tampons at the desperate Carrie. We get close-ups of taunting, ugly faces, and hear the girls' mean chants. Those beautiful bodies in the slow-motion dream have given way to the cruel reality of high school. Mocking, teasing, the mob mentality. Like pack animals, the teen girls can smell the weak number in their pack...and go in for the kill.

This scene serves a few important narrative functions. First, the visual obsession on young, sexy bodies (and Carrie's body, in particular...) serve to note the full extent of this character's burgeoning womanhood. Though shy and awkward, Carrie is also beautiful in an innocent way...stepping into the realm of sexual maturity with awkwardness.

Secondly, the hurling of the tampons and the close-ups of twisted, evil faces mocking Carrie help to dramatize what a delicate, uncomfortable, embarrassing time this can be for those undergoing puberty. Through the cruelty of the girls in the locker room, we comes to sympathize for Carrie's feelings of isolation and separation. In addition to her sexual maturation, this scene charts Carrie's first steps into "psychic" maturity as well. Her outrage at the cruel treatment causes a telekinetic burst: the shattering of a lamp bulb over the shower enclosure. This is clear foreshadowing...

Another scene -- less showy and far less notorious than the locker room sequence -- also reveals much about Carrie's school life and builds on our compassion. The only bright light in Carrie White's world is her quiet, heretofore secret affection for classmate Tommy Ross (William Katt). De Palma finds a unique way to connect these characters visually the first time that they share a scene. In English Class, Tommy is highlighted in the foreground of one shot, in an extreme close-up. Meanwhile, Carrie is depicted as diminutive and tiny, in the background of the self-same shot. Interpreting what our eyes see, he is thus paramount -- a towering paragon -- and she is literally almost a midget, an after-thought in distant orbit of his "star." Yet importantly, the characters share the same frame. De Palma's choice of shots here expresses Carrie's own (insecure) view of self. To her, Tommy is "big" and "shiny," at center stage, while she is "small" and far from attention. Almost unseen.

In Horror and Science Fiction Films II (Scarecrow Press, 1982, page 52), critic Donald C Willis noted that "it's debatable who's meaner to Carrie - her fellow students or her director, who draws out their elaborate prank for 90 minutes, then lovingly shoots its penultimate moments...in slow motion."

I understand his point, but, as always, we should ask the question "why?" I submit that that De Palma makes much of the film a torturous build-up to Carrie's moment of explosive rage not so we can mock her; but so we sympathize with her. The film spends much time on Carrie's home life with her stark-raving-crazy mother (Piper Laurie), a zealous, Christian, fundamentalist freak. Between these harrowing home sequences and those set in high school, the audience rightly wonders how much this poor girl can endure Then, De Palma grants us that gleaming moment of hope as Tommy and Carrie appear to develop a meaningful relationship. De Palma again pulls a bait-and-switch (with his lying camera, dammit!), letting the hope linger in our minds that perhaps, just perhaps, Carrie has found the very kindred spirit who will allow her to join the rest of the world and vanquish her intense loneliness and awkwardness. Of course, this is not to be...



Split-Screen Prom Queen

De Palma is renowned for the cleverness of his climactic set-pieces, and Carrie gives us one of his most terrifying, and his most accomplished. His camera prowls the prom as Carrie and Tommy attend the dance and Carrie -- for the first time in the movie -- is all smiles. She is still tender, vulnerable, but her hopes have been raised (as have ours). The gym coach, Mrs. Collins (Buckley) even shares a tender story with Carrie about her own prom.

This is the brand of personal, human story another horror film might not pause to record with such meticulous attention, but again, De Palma pulls the rug right out from under us (and his characters). Mrs. Collins' anecdote -- like the dream-like moment in the shower, or like the hope of a relationship with Tommy -- encourages us in the hope that Carrie is going to have a beautiful experience too. To that end, De Palma's camera dizzily revolves around the happy couple (Carrie and Tommy) as they dance together.

At first, these camera revolutions are euphoric and romantic, an intoxicating moment of hope realized, dreams come true. But then the rotating accelerates, out of control, faster and faster. Because of the off-kilter, fast-moving camera, we just know things are not going to go well. When De Palma's camera then tracks one of the mean girls, P.J. Soles, onto the stage, and the camera determinedly banks up to the rafters, to a shaky pail filled with pig's blood, our hearts sink.

The trap is set.

And again, De Palma gives us a happy moment. Carrie and Tommy are crowned king and queen of the prom, and this revelation is shot using triumphant slow-motion photography. Only this time, we don't feel dreamy or intoxicated...or even triumphant. On the contrary, we're agonized. We know what is coming now, and the slow-motion victory lap drags out our tight-throated feelings of anticipation and dread to an almost unbearable degree. We see what is going to happen but we can't stop it. Now the film marches inexorably towards terror, and the explosion of Carrie's monstrous rage; the force of her anger.

When Carrie is finally "crowned" in pig's blood on stage, the horrifying moment is a specific reflection of the locker-room/shower debacle at the beginning of the film, wherein Carrie first confronted the flowing of her vaginal blood; her messy, confusing entrance into adulthood. Her mother has told her that blood represents sin ("First comes the blood, then comes the sin,") so imagine poor Carrie's terror at being covered in such blood in public; worse -- on stage. By loving Tommy, she must fear, she has again brought the flowing of blood.

Carrie's climactic psychic outburst is depicted utilizing one of De Palma's favorite techniques: the split screen. In this case, the split-screen connotes the instantaneous, light speed transmission of telekinesis; the cause-and-effect relationship of the psychic power. Visualized in one side of the frame, Carrie turns her head, widens her eyes, and casts her gaze upon a specific tormentor. In the other side of the frame, we see the simultaneous psychic effect of the murderous gaze. Someone falls down, someone catches fire, or there is an explosion.

The prom apocalypse also flashily reflects the film's themes. Adults in Carrie are depicted in various shades of negativity. They are colored as uncaring (the principal, who can't remember Carrie's name), utterly mad (Mrs. White), sedated and drunk (Mrs. Snell), or heartless and bitter (Carrie's mocking English teacher). At their very best, the adults might come off as capricious, like Mrs. Collins, whose draconian punishment of the mean girls spawns the revenge against Carrie.

But now that Carrie is an adult -- covered in blood -- we can therefore no longer sympathize with her. Accordingly, she goes beyond the bounds of the "sane" during her incredible telekinetic attack, killing friends (Mrs. Collins) and foes without distinguishing between them. The innocent and the guilty both fall to her wrath and in the end, that's what makes Carrie a monster here...an adult monster like all those around her. De Palma has proven successful at making Carrie sympathetic until this point, until Carrie's "real" entrance into adulthood. The world has taught Carrie to be cruel, and at the Prom, she learns that lesson too well.



Carrie White Burns in Hell. Or, Did You Ever Stop to think that Carrie White Has Feelings?

The third "famous" moment in Carrie arrives at film's end. It's possibly the best sting-in-the-tail/tale ending ever captured on film. It's certainly the most-imitated. Shot in misty slow-motion (again like the locker room sequence preamble...), Sue Snell (Amy Irving) lovingly deposits flowers on Carrie's grave. Her intentions had been good; and despite all the horror Carrie wrought, Sue still has some residual feelings of compassion for the girl who everybody teased. But then, without warning, Sue is pulled down into the grave by Carrie's groping, burned claw. The message: even the innocent must fear Carrie, because she has lost control of her hate.

Sue awakens from the nightmare, traumatized and terrified, and the movie ends with heart-pumping, breathless intensity. We understand that Sue will never be the same; will never view the world the same way. If Carrie has moved into adulthood in the film; so has Sue. She has learned that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Carrie is a terrifying film dominated by the three memorable scenes I have outlined in this review (the locker room opening; the prom set-piece, and the terrifying coda). But it is more than that too.

Again, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s, what you ultimately take away from Brian De Palma's adaptation is a sense of growing frustration with a world that allows good people to be tormented and then turned into monsters themselves. Carrie was so harried, so abused by everyone in her life that she finally retaliated with the very force of hatred she despised so much in others. In charting this story, Stephen King and Brian De Palma chart a cycle of violence. They remind us how children turn to us -- adults -- for guidance and compassion. How they turn to us as role models, and how they sometimes fall through the cracks and find themselves lost, rudderless..emulating only the worst angels of human nature.

De Palma executes Carrie like a perfectly-realized cruel practical joke indeed; but not to debauch us; not to make us gawk or laugh at lonely Carrie White. On the contrary, De Palma victimizes the audience, much as Carrie is herself victimized throughout this harrowing film. He reminds us that in youth (and indeed, adulthood) we've all had to contend with our own Chris Hargensons and Billly Nolans: people who are cruel simply for the sake of cruelty. With his dream visions shattered by harsh reality, with his dazzling split screens, even with his anticipatory, anxiety-provoking slow-motion photography, De Palma reminds us to stop and remember that other people have feelings too.

Carrie White burned in Hell all right. But that Hell was called high school. And the real thing could hardly have been worse than gym class.

Movie Trailer: Carrie (1976)

Cult-Movie Review: Carrie (2013)


The 2013 version of Carrie -- based on the 1974 novel by Stephen King -- is a testament to the fact that many modern Hollywood movies have lost all sense of visual imagination, and become, essentially, imagery-illiterate.

By point of comparison, the 1976 Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma utilized split-screens, slow-motion photography, spinning cameras and other formalist techniques to vividly express the terror, excitement and horror of the titular teenager’s difficult and sometimes humiliating life in that terror factory known as high school. 

In strong contrast, the new Carrie, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry [1999]) boasts all the visual distinction and style of a 1990s Lifetime TV movie.

It is completely understandable that Peirce would choose not to ape De Palma’s memorable, and by now famous, visual compositions.

But damningly, the director finds no meaningful visual alternatives or substitutes that can better -- or adequately, for that matter -- transmit the essence of King’s tragic and resonant tale.

This Carrie has no compelling visual schema, no perspective that supports and underlines the story, and that flaw makes this re-do unilaterally inferior to its cinematic predecessor. And since we know the story of Carrie quite well by now (it’s been a movie, a TV movie, and a Broadway show already…), this version really needed to distinguish itself in some -- any -- fashion.

Why else re-tell the story?  The younger generation can still read the book, or still watch the 1976 version on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

I’ve read some critics describe the new film as being more faithful to King’s novel, but that isn’t strictly accurate. This Carrie removes the action from the 1970s, and brings it forward to a 21st century of iPhones, YouTube, and so forth. Unfortunately, this translation to 2014 generates several problems in believability and motivation.

In the following review, I’ll attempt to explain where I believe this version of Carrie could have successfully broken away from the memory of the De Palma original and found some original and even dynamic footing on which to stand.

Finally, this afternoon I’ll repost my review of the 1976 film to help compare creative approaches.



“These are Godless Times.”

Margaret White (Julianne Moore), a religious zealot and self-mutilator, has raised her daughter Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) in isolation and ignorance even of her own nature as a female.

When a teenage Carrie is terrified after experiencing her first menstrual period after gym class and treated badly by her classmates, Margaret’s response to the incident is to punish Carrie for being a sinner.

With the onset of Carrie’s periods arrives something else too: telekinetic powers. While the young woman explores these new capabilities, one of her former tormentors, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) feels intense shame and regret over her mistreatment of Carrie. She asks her boyfriend, the popular Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom to make amends.

Another student, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), however, plans to turn the prom into another humiliation for the tender Carrie…


“Your girl looks good. She won’t for long.”

I should note right here that this review is not meant as some anti-remake screed, because my long-standing principle about remakes is that each one must be reckoned with on its own terms. 

After all, I’m the guy who championed Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes in 2007 and 2009 precisely because the director held a distinctive point-of-view about the subject matter.

Yeah, as a long-time fan of the Halloween franchise, I pretty-much hated that point-of-view, but Zombie nonetheless followed-through with his “take” on the material with gusto, and in (mad) genius fashion. If it was a choice between another Halloween Resurrection (202) and Zombie’s interpretation…give me Zombie’s take any day.

Furthermore, I tend to go easier on remakes that originate as literature, since there is a wealth of written information to fall back on, and to interpret in a new or inventive way. Since it began its life as a novel, Carrie clearly fits into this “club,” a group that also includes John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).

So I don’t have it out for Carrie, or for anyone involved in the film. I just legitimately feel that this remake is pretty...toothless. At this juncture, I should probably also state that the performers who play the lead roles in this cinematic version of Carrie do a creditable job of conveying the emotions of the characters. Chloe Grace Moretz is especially good, but the entire cast is uniformly strong.

Instead, the overriding and irresolvable problem is that these fine actors have been asked to do all the heavy lifting virtually alone, as if this project is but a kitchen-sink drama and not a horror film. They get no assist whatsoever in terms of visual style, and so the entire film transmits as flat, unsurprising, and lacking in authentic terror.  This is the generic version of Carrie, or Carrie-lite.

Some narrative elements of Stephen King’s novel have been resurrected for this version of Carrie, it is true, but none of these faithful touches very meaningfully or positively differentiate the remake from the 1976 film. 

But it is fair, nonetheless to note that Peirce’s Carrie revives Sue Snell’s pregnancy, gives Miss Desjardin her original name back, and also includes the notions of a “rock storm” landing on the White’s house.

Unlike the novel, however, the remake does not progress in an epistolary format (through reports and newspaper articles), does not feature the sequence at the Road House with Chris and Billy following the Black Prom, and is not set in the year 1979.  There is also no final notation in the remake either about society beginning to recognize the danger inherent in the lethal mixture of bullying and telekinesis.

Carrie’s update to 2014 technology is the real deal-breaker here in one important sense, because although YouTube videos can transform teenage embarrassments into international humiliation -- and thus enhance the story’s commentary on the nature and cruelty of bullying -- our current capacity to text or otherwise communicate instantaneously means that warnings can also be transmitted to those in jeopardy.

For example, late in the film, Sue receives a text during the prom that suggests Chris Hargensen is going to do something horrible to Carrie. “Your girl looks good. She won’t for long,” she texts.

Instead of immediately texting Tommy Ross, her boyfriend…who just texted her that all is well at the prom, Sue instead gets in her car, drives to prom, and struggles to get into the event. She never texts Tommy…or any of her other friends for that matter.  

How about a warning, Sue? How about texting Tommy back? Or how about texting Miss Desjardin about the thinly-veiled threat?                           
                             

It makes no sense whatsoever to update Carrie to today and introduce texting but then drop the technology right at the very moment a modern convenience would actually be helpful to the characters.

If I absolutely had to update this story to 2014, I would have added some notation (perhaps during Carrie’s 
Google research) that one side-effect of “telekinesis” is the temporary disruption of nearby electronic devices or fields. Therefore, at least maybe, we could have had the excuse that Carrie’s heightened emotional state at the prom was interfering with phone signals. 

Of course, if you used that explanation, Chris couldn’t text her warning from the prom, either.

But really: why would Chris text a warning to one of her “enemies” right before a stunt that her boyfriend has already warned could have legal repercussions if they are caught?

And why would she do so especially after she has already learned the hard way about the danger of leaving an “electronic” trail on her phone regarding her bullying activities? Early in the film, she is caught red-handed with the video of Carrie in the shower on her phone, and suspended because of it.

I guess she just doesn’t learn from her mistakes.

But the problems with this version of Carrie run much deeper than the inconsistent use of updated technology.

The movie never delves into any truly disturbing territory that would permit the forty year old material to garner some enhanced currency with viewers today. The remake doesn’t do anything to surprise us, or provoke us, in other words.

Take for example, the first scene of the film. It is a real missed opportunity. Here, Carrie is in a swimming pool, in her bathing suit, playing volleyball in gym class. 

Could you imagine how horrifying it would have been if she had gotten her first period right there, in the swimming pool….in front of the whole class, and in such a public arena?  There are even boys around…

But instead of progressing with that humiliating and legitimately upsetting scenario, the film immediately proceeds to the same old gym shower scene, and Carrie getting her period there.


The problem is this: after the very public nature of the swimming pool, the locker room, by comparison, feels like a place of relative safety and privacy, and that’s exactly the wrong feeling for this aspect of the narrative. Carries humiliation must be profound, and life shattering.  And at this juncture, today, it must shock the modern audience.

So right off the bat, the film makes a dramatic misstep. Why show Carrie in the swimming pool at all if nothing bad is going to happen there?

In this age of bullying-awareness, there was also an opportunity to update the story in a meaningful way, but that fresh path is also ignored. Why not make Carrie about two competing impulses in this tortured young woman: the impulse to create as well as to destroy. There are seeds of that idea here, but they are either unexpressed or half-formed.  

For instance -- and as opposed to the events in the first film -- Carrie sews her own prom dress here, an affirmative act of identity-building. At another juncture, she cracks a bathroom mirror in a high-school restroom, and for a split second, the mirror shards vibrate and shake. 

If, at that very moment, Carrie had demonstrated that this young psychic could move the shards back together -- rebuilding the mirror, essentially -- the viewer would have gotten the idea, again, that she was expressing her female nature to create, not destroy. 

This would have been a great and original twist on the King material, for certain, but it would have worked in the context of a 2014 remake. Why? Because we would have understood that fate pushed Carrie over the edge, when, if things had been different, it could have pushed her to greatness.

This Carrie could have then been about a girl with a great gift -- the gift to create -- but whose good nature was perverted by bullying and ritual humiliation.

In essence, the Carrie myth is really about a young woman reckoning with the gifts (and curses) of womanhood, and trying to secure her identity. We might have more strongly felt the tragedy in this case, if we had been given a taste of who Carrie could become, if only she didn’t suffer all the abuse at home and at school.

Instead of pinpointing ways to articulate this theme, the Carrie remake just treads along the old, familiar -- and safe -- lines that we have witnessed in several other versions, with no fresh touches, and no fresh way of visualizing the material.   Even the sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999) is a better film, because it at least tried to do something to contextualize its story in terms of the 1990s world by relating bullying and teenage behavior to such real life cases as the Spur Posse.


In the Carrie remake, mildly-effective CGI effects also take the place of a directorial point of view. De Palma’s split-screens conveyed the instantaneous cause/effect at the Black Prom, from Carrie’s “thought” to instant terrifying reality in sizzling split-second. The new version substitutes all brands of expensive pyrotechnics, but the effects simply aren’t as electric as De Palma’s dazzling use of the camera, and his editing selections.

How would I have improved the climactic scene here? Fast cross-cutting between extreme close-ups of Carrie’s eyes and the damage her mind creates might be a poor substitute for split-screens, but at least this approach would keep Carrie’s emotions -- her very person-hood -- at the forefront of the visuals. Here, she is often depicted in long-shot on the stage, covered in blood, gesticulating in a kind of melodramatic management of her powers. The moment plays like weird performance art, not telekinetic savagery.

Brian De Palma’s Carrie also featured one of the greatest “stay awake” endings in horror movie history. Carrie’s hand pulls Sue Snell down, into her grave, before the act is revealed as a nightmare.  The new Carrie forsakes that ending, again, no doubt to avoid direct and invidious comparisons. But it offers nothing of value as a replacement except a cracking gravestone, which in this case plays more like a sequel set-up than a final punch. It’s a whimper of an ending that says, basically…well, I’ve got nothing.

What else could have been done? Well, this version of Carrie opens with Mrs. White giving birth to Carrie. She takes scissors to the child’s head -- as the baby crests -- and then pauses before committing murder.  Accordingly, the film could have concluded with a book-end visual of Sue giving birth to her own child, a girl, naturally, and seeing the head crest in similar fashion. Then a light-bulb overhead could have popped with a jolt…cut to black.

A great ending?

No, probably not. But I submit it is more serviceable than the veritable non-ending, that gravestone whimper. At least my proposal calls back memories of the issues the movie raises (about birth and death), and suggests that as long as nothing changes, the fate of future Carries will be the same.


So does this remake of Carrie burn in Hell? 

Honestly, the problem is that it doesn’t even generate that much passion about it. The 2013 remake is a bare bones, lukewarm recitation of a story we all know and love. It is uninteresting more than it is overtly bad. This result is all the more disappointing given Peirce’s abundant talent, and her penchant for difficult material, like Boys Don’t Cry.

That film was so raw, gritty, unblinking, honest, and tough-minded. Yet here, every choice, every shot feels safe, and that feeling is not only anathema to a successful horror film, it’s a feeling that Carrie White herself never got to experience.

We already know Carrie's name. This movie gives us little reason to remember it.