Halloween (1978): The Horror of Framing, and Identification

A Frame is a single image of film or video. “Framing” consists of the composition of the subjects (people ,objects) within that image. Based on where the camera and the subjects have been placed,  we know where we are, as the audience, and that can make all the difference in a person views a film.

I have friends who dislike Horror movies. I know! Sacrilege, right? But I get it. I don’t pressure them to watch them, because I understand that such movies aren’t for everyone, but I often wonder what it is about such movies that they dislike, especially when they are unable to articulate this for me. I know for some of them, its the feelings of tension and anxiety that such films produce. But I also think at least part of that anxiety has to do with the nature of the visual media itself. The camera is often a stand-in for the audience. We see what the camera sees, and visual media is carefully composed to manipulate our emotions about what we see. Some people will find it very off putting, not just watching a scene, and being helpless to stop it, but based on how the images are framed, feel as if they are actually participating in the violence. 

I was watching the original 1978  Halloween, and comparing it to the new sequel that came out last year. I was thinking about why the new sequel is so effective, at being scary, whereas none of the other sequels and remakes, outside of  were scary for me, at all.

At least part of the reason the new sequel works is it successfully replicates the framing of the first film in ways that the others do not. This framing has the effect of making the audience a participant in the action. If you remember the opening scene from the original film, we see the suburban setting as if we, the audience, were operating the camera, as Michael stabs his sister to death. Afterwards, the camera switches the viewpoint to that of his parents, we pull back when his parents pull off his mask, as he stands on the front lawn. This is an example of the audience as not just onlookers, which is the viewpoint from which most films are told, but as participants in the actions onscreen. We are not meant to simply watch, but see through Michael’s eyes, as we participate in the killing. That we see the murder from Michael’s point of view can make some members of the audience feel complicit in the act.

After this opening, the camera neatly switches between Laurie Strode’s, and Michael’s, point of view. It is Laurie’s decisions that control the plot, but she and her friends are the ones being acted upon by Michael. The movie is framed in a classic Protagonist/Antagonist plot, of two (relatively) evenly matched adversaries, who play cat and mouse throughout the movie. Part of the movie’s tension is who is going to survive, and the camera shows this by switching between both their points of view. Switching between these two different points of view is a way to keep the audience off balance.

First, let’s have a discussion of camera techniques and film vocabulary, since I am operating under the assumption that a lot of my readers have never really given a whole lot of thought to the idea that what a camera is doing, doesn’t just tell the audience how to feel, or think, but often focuses the movie’s primary themes, and character dynamics.

It is the  composition of the characters, within the Frame, which tells the audience who is of primary importance in the story, and how the audience should feel about what is happening to them.The Director, and Cinematographer are the ones who decide where the camera is going to stand, what it’s going to be doing, and what that image looks like through the viewfinder (the colors, lighting, and depth of field). One of the things that makes horror movies so unsettling is that camera viewpoints can switch at any moment. The camera can be anyone at any time. One of the side effects is that the viewer is not given time to become complacent, or to feel comfortable.

Sometimes we see the world through Michael’s eyes, experiencing the emotionlessness of this character. The way the images are framed, give us a sense of Michael’s height and power, as the camera is often placed slightly above, or at head height during his scenes. When in Michael’s point of view, the camera is always a distant, and unemotional, observer, that moves slowly, and steadily, giving him a sense of relentless implacability. He is framed as a powerful machine, a thing  which cannot be stopped. This is the same camera effect that was used in James Cameron’s The Terminator, to convey that same sense of relentlessness, whenever we see the world through the Terminator’s eyes.

In other scenes, we see the events through Laurie Strode’s eyes, experiencing her terror, vulnerability, and bravery. The camera, from Laurie’s point of view, is handheld, and so it trembles in an uncertain manner, peering slowly around corners, and hedges, through doorways, and closets. In many of her scenes, the camera is below the eye-line, as it angles up towards a sound or image. She is framed as small, timid, and helpless in comparison to Michael.

In the newest Halloween, this is masterfully done by James Carpenter, the director of the original film. In  Michael’s scenes, the camera moves slowly and steadily, contrasted against busy, or frenetic settings, at head height. Laurie, whose mindset is now very different after the trauma of the first movie, doesn’t get a lot of viewpoint scenes, but when she does she is shown, unlike in the first film, as to be equally matched with him, as the camera is at head height for her, too, until the end of the film, when Michael, now in a vulnerable position, is placed below head height, looking upward, towards Laurie and her daughter. The two of them, having turned the tables on him, look down on him from their position of  power.

No discussion of framing would be complete without mention of the film in which it was made especially famous, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho, where we watch the death of the primary character, Marion Crane, from the point of view of her killer, in the infamous “shower scene”. Hitchcock is rightfully lauded for this particular camera technique, as it had never been done in that way before, and it rightfully shocked audiences. I think at least part of that shock is that Hitchcock makes the audience feel complicit in Marion Crane’s murder, as we see it from the point of view of her killer, Norman Bates. But that’s not what makes Psycho groundbreaking. It is the switch from Marion’s point of view, earlier in the film, to a sudden shift to the killer’s, that sets it apart. Marion goes from being the Subject, to being an Object, from the person who commits the acts that determine the plot, at the beginning of the film, and the person with whom we identify, to the person who is now being acted upon. At the beginning of the film, Marion is the Subject, from whose viewpoint we see the world, but while she is killed, she becomes the Object, and WE become her killer. For some people, the sudden shift from one protagonist to another, was simply too much.

What Hitchcock did in this scene is switch Framing. Based on the framing, the audience is meant to think, or feel, a certain way about, or towards, a character, and we, as the audience, had become comfortable with the idea of Marion Crane as the primary character. You’re meant to be as uncomfortable during the shower scene, as with Michael’s murder of his sister, as your eyes are forced to see your victim, and you cannot look away.

In Hitchcock’s scene the camera is initially placed inside the shower with Marion, as she looks outward and sees a shadow. We do not see Marion, in those instances, (she is “out of frame”), because we are seeing things from her point of view. Then the camera is turned, and placed outside the shower, facing Marion. We don’t see her killer now, because we are now in the killers viewpoint. This makes this scene much more intimate than if it was “framed” another way. For example, if the camera had been placed to see both subjects, at the same time, “Framing” both of them within the image, in such an enclosed space, it would have to be placed further away from them, which would have had the effect of placing us, the audience, at an emotional remove, and the scene would feel less immediate.

By placing the camera as the point of view of either character, and switching back and forth between them, we become a part of the scene in an unexpected way. We become each character, rather than an omnipotent third party, who are just watching a murder, as would have happened if the camera were placed at a distance. The moment becomes not just more intimate, but more visceral, than if the camera, or characters, had been placed elsewhere.

Most movies are framed in such a way as to make the audience a third but invisible onlooker, which is sometimes called the “god perspective”, or the “omnipresent watcher”. If the camera is close to the scene, such as when two people are having a conversation, and both of them are seen within the frame, (a medium shot) we feel like a third invisible observer, in the scene with them. If the camera is even further away (a wide shot) than we may feel like we are not part of that scene at all. We might feel like we are spying on the two subjects from afar. If the camera is placed within the scene, switching from the view of one character to another, (the medium closeup, the over the shoulder shot), than we become each character. Where the characters are placed in the scene is an  indication of the level of intimacy between them, and  between them and us.

For example, an extreme closeup of a woman, with the camera panning, (when the camera moves up and down, or from side to side), along her body, places us in the scene with her, as we look at her body. (This is what feminists are referring to when talking about “The Male Gaze”.) Sometimes the scene is meant to be sexually evocative, as the character is may act aware that we are there, and appears to be responding to our presence in the scene with her. But if the camera is across the room, while focusing on her body and legs, then we are no longer in the scene with her, but spying on her from a distance. The character doesn’t know we are there, and acts as if she is alone, which makes us voyeurs, in what appears to be a private moment, such as the scene when Marion Crane first gets into the shower. She is unaware of the camera, and she has not given consent to look at  her, and so, she is as unaware of our presence, as she is of the killer’s.

Contrast that scene, with the opening scene, from the 1976 version of Carrie. The camera is in the shower with Carrie, in extreme closeup. Closer than the Marion Crane scene in Psycho. This is framed as a deeply intimate moment, that we are intruding on, but not participating in. Carrie is supposed to be alone, as she does not react to the camera, and is unaware of its presence. But the scene isn’t without emotion, as shots of her legs, torso, and body, are interspersed with extreme closeups of her face, with its tranquil expression. She is separated from the other girls in the room, and we are intruding on Carrie’s private moment. She is one of the last girls still in the shower, because it is the only place she can find respite from her  bullying classmates. She is enjoying this quiet solitude, before she must re-enter a painful world. Here, we are voyeurs of a different sort, as we are meant to identify with Carrie in this scene. If we were not meant to identify with her, she would be objectified, by not having extreme close ups of her face, a perspective that emphasizes her emotions, and  humanizes her.

Framing can mean the difference between objectification, and identification for an audience.  In Carrie, we are meant to identify with her. It is her classmates, who appear at  a distance, framed as a raucous  mob of water nymphs, scantily clad, and in slow motion,  who are being objectified. In a sense, that is how Carries sees them, as happy, frolicking, young women, whose faces all blend together, and that’s something that will be shown explicitly, minutes later, during the tampon throwing scene, and during the Prom scene, when Carrie thinks they are all laughing at her. She does not differentiate them. They are all the same face to her, and the audience. Focusing the camera on Carrie’s solemn facial expression, during her shower scene, is in contrast to her classmates. We are shown her feelings, and her personhood. We are meant to be sympathetic to her, not her classmates, and for some people it may be difficult to watch a film where one is made to identify with the victim of bullying.

Let’s use another example of framing, in a different film. The 2011, It Follows. Halloween and It Follows, have the same basic plot, where young women are relentlessly stalked by silent creatures that want to kill them. Both movies frame the characters in such a way that we kow they are the protagonists, both films revolve around killing that involves sexual activity, and both involve the survival, at the end of the movie, of a Final Girl.

In It Follows, Jay is being pursued by a monster that can take the form of someone she knows, after she is infected by a virus that allows her to see it. In Halloween, we go where Michael goes, and see what he sees. We are the monster. In It Follows, we mostly don’t see the world from the monster’s viewpoint, except at the opening of the film. For the rest of the movie, we are almost always looking towards the monster, and seeing the world through either Jay’s eyes, or as third impersonal observer. We don’t spend the movie walking in the monster’s footsteps, so we are not meant to identify with It, and hence, the monster is the less important character. Unlike Halloween, in It Follows, Jay is constantly being watched by the other characters in the film, and also the audience, as we observe Jay during some of her most private moments, or we see the monster (always at a distance) from Jay’s viewpoint. Jay is the movie’s focus, and everything revolves around her. This is not like Halloween, where you have two separate, matching, adversaries. The monster has no identity of its own, and is given no point of view. Any identity we see, is given to it by Jay, and everything we see of it, is from Jay’s mind. 

Michael (who is often the audience stand-in) often watches Laurie and her friends from a distance. The camera’s distance from Michael’s victims creates a feeling of emotional detachment in the audience, while closeups indicate intimacy. We don’t get closeups of their faces, because Michael isn’t interested in them as people, only as objects, upon which he acts. We are not meant to identify with Laurie’s friends. However, as a third observer, we do get lots of closeups of Laurie’s face. We are meant to feel what she feels because, the closer a camera is to a character’s face, the more intimate the moment, and some audience members might have trouble with that level of both intimacy, and tension.

Such movies, which are framed from the point of view of the killers, as if the viewers were either ineffectual observers, or participants in the scenes, means the audience is meant to feel the tension and anxiety of the victim, or the excitement, or detachment, of the killer. I’ve never felt the latter, but there are those who watch such movies who find the physical power of such characters, thrilling. I’ve also heard people who don’t like horror movies, accuse those who do, of getting just such a thrill, and that was how I came to the conclusion that some of them were being affected by how  horror movies use framing.That they are uncomfortable with feeling so close.

Perhaps, especially for those who perceive themselves as “good” people, who would never harm anyone, horror movies might be especially stressful, in this regard. Seeing horror scenes from the killer’s relentless point of view is distressing, just as much as being a stand in for the helpless and vulnerable victim, or being an invisible voyeur to violent acts.

NOTE: This post has been heavily edited, to make more sense, than when I first wrote it.

Carrie Vs. Carrie (Part Two)

 

Image result for carrie vs carrie vs carrie

I re-read Stephen King’s 1974 book, and I want to compare the 1976 movie version, which stars Sissy Spacek, and the the 2013 version, starring Chloe Grace Moretz, to the book version, because there are some significant changes from book to film. I’m going to argue that the book version still has not really been filmed yet. All of the significant high points are in the movies but there is also much that is absent.

One thing I’m unclear on is if King was trying to write a feminist manifesto. He says he wasn’t, and I don’t think he was, despite that he was writing his novel during feminism’s early years. His women aren’t perfect, and that’s the point. They don’t seem to be just some guy’s idea of women. They’re intelligent and decisive women,and King has a good grasp of their characters.The weakest character is Margaret White, but King has always had trouble writing about religious women. The caricature of Margaret White would eventually find her way into his novella, The Mist, as Mrs. Carmody, another murderously insane woman who wears a mask of religious piety.

One of the changes between the book and the films, and its something which always seems to surprise readers who come to the book after watching them, is that the entire novel is told in flashback, in the form of newspaper articles, interviews, and book excerpts. Even more surprising are the few chapters where Carrie gets to speak for herself, and we’re privy to her thoughts and feelings about her life, how she feels about her mother, her abilities, and her plans for the future.

Neither of the movie versions interpret Carrie, (Carrietta), entirely the way she is in the book. I hadn’t read this book for many years and I was struck by her self-awareness, and how vengeful she is, compared to the movie versions,(although the Moretz version seems smarter than the Spacek version of her, and is more deliberate in her intent), and I think this was an attempt to make the movie versions more sympathetic. The book version of Carrie is a harder, more vengeful, and more spiteful version than seen in either of the two films, although the remake comes close.

In neither movie do we get a sense that Carrie believes the way her mother believes, so I was surprised to note that in the book she does share at least some of her mother’s beliefs about religion. She hates her mother , the students who have always bullied her, and is a lot less nice a character than I remembered. Part of what motivates her vengeance, and her destruction of the town of Chamberlain, is her justifiable anger at years of being bullied by her classmates, coupled with Margaret’s teachings of a vengeful god.

The opening scene remains as depicted in the book in both films, except there is the addition of modern technology to the remake, as Carrie’s humiliation is filmed on Chris’ phone. In the original, Chris Hargensen seemed to be trying to make a statement by dumping blood on Carrie, although as played by Nancy Allen, she doesn’t seem quite bright enough to come up with that idea. In the remake, Chris (played by Portia Doubleday), does seem smart enough to come up with the idea, and makes the point of linking the two events by airing the shower scene to the Prom goers, in the aftermath of the blood dump. The newer version of Chris has less personality than the original version, however, coming across as just another generic “mean girl”. The Allen version seems to have more of an interior life, while the new version just seems mean and spoiled. In King’s book, Chris does have an interior life, but not much depth, and she and her boyfriend, Billy, come across as especially dimwitted.

The book goes into some detail about how often, and in what ways Carrie was bullied, and how she tried to break free of her situation from time to time, echoing King’s introduction, in which he tells the story of a girl he knew in High School who, like Carrie, fell at the bottom of the pecking order, and how that girl made an attempt to get free of it, only to be put back in her place by her classmates when her attempt failed. That is the foundation of the book, as this is exactly what happens to Carrie. She jumps at an opportunity to move out of the damned place into which she’s been cast by her peers. The Prom is Carrie’s last attempt to break free of her mother’s influence, and as she says, live a normal life, only to be humiliated once again. King also goes into some detail about Carrie’s thoughts on the intensely restrictive, and infantilizing existence her mother wants for her. Carrie imagines living the rest of her life that way, slowly becoming as frightened and bitter as her mother.

In DePalma’s movie, Carrie briefly mentions this to her mother only to be abused. This is another issue that doesn’t get a lot of play in the movies, the sheer depth of the physical and emotional abuse heaped on Carrie by her mother, and just how deep her mother’s insanity goes, although the first film comes the closest. There are a couple of scenes in the movie where her mother slaps her, and one where she throws tea in her face, but the horrible physical abuse, where her mother kicks her, at one point grabbing her by the back of her neck and flinging her into the closet, has been toned down, and is almost absent from the remake.

In the remake, Peirce has elected to show a very loving version of Carrie and Margaret’s relationship. Julianne Moore’s Margaret isn’t crazy just to seem crazy, and seems to genuinely love and care for her daughter. Even when she’s trying to kill her there’s no sense of the mad glee with which Piper approached the role. Moore’s Margaret seems regretful that she didn’t kill Carrie earlier, and takes no joy in harming her daughter. The result is that Carrie is genuinely surprised that her mother is trying to kill her as her mother had given no indication that she was considering it. This is not the same Margaret in the book, or the first movie, where Carrie and Margaret rarely touched, or showed affection for each other. They didn’t have normal conversations. Margaret threatened, and made pronouncements, to which Carrie acquiesced. Margaret gave orders, and Carrie followed them.

Another thing that’s been toned down for the movies is the depth Margaret’s madness. King’s version sees nothing positive in the world, and is obsessed with the sin of sex, and anything related to it. Carrie argues to her that everything isn’t a sin, but to Piper’s Margaret, everything is a sin. For Margaret, life itself is a sin. Even having sex with her husband is a sin. In the remake, this attitude is interpreted by the director as proof that Margaret experienced some horrific sexual trauma as a child. In the original film no reason for it is even implied.

The details of Carrie’s physical abuse are important because of an event from the book that has never been captured in either of the movies. The idea that Carrie was born with her abilities, that she had been suppressing them until a stressor occurred, and that her mother knew about her powers, and was afraid of her. The fall of the stones is an event recounted twice in the books. Once from a neighbor’s point of view and the second from Carrie’s point of view.

The fall of stones is precipitated by four year old Carrie seeing the neighbor’s daughter sunbathing in her front yard. Margaret, who had been feuding with the neighbors about it, saw Carrie talking to the neighbor, and lost it. She grabbed Carrie, hauled her into the house, beat her mercilessly, and threatened the little girl with a knife. Carrie, in her terror, causes a rain of rocks and ice to fall only on their house. The event is recounted in the local newspaper, and later, Carrie recollects the event herself, including the moment when she threw the dining room table through one of the windows of the house. Carrie wonders if her mother remembers the events, thinks she might, and knows her mother is afraid of her. The remake has an extended scene of Carrie’s remembrance of this event. This was cut from the theatrical release, and the mood of it is very different from the book version, as Margaret White’s reaction is much less extreme, and she is fully aware that Carrie is responsible for the golf ball sized hailstones, as she pleads with her to stop.

Carrie’s mother “seems” to know about her powers before Carrie uses them on her, but this is unclear. (This would have been made more clear, in the remake, had the excised scene been kept.) In the original, Margaret mentions wanting to kill Carrie when she was a child, but why is also not made clear. In neither movie are we given any indication that Carrie has used her powers before “discovering” them, at the onset of her menses.

One scene that did not make it into Depalma ’s movie is the confrontation between Chris’ father, and the school principal, who has threatened to suspend Chris from school. I enjoyed that scene from the book, and I’m glad it made its way into the remake. It’s also indicative of how much sympathy in which Carrie was held by many of the adults around her, and about which, Carrie is unaware. Ms. Desjardin, the gym teacher, genuinely cares about her well being, and the principal shows real backbone in his fight with Chris father, in seeing that justice is done on Carrie’s behalf. There is a scene in the original film where one of Carrie’s teacher’s is an asshole to Carrie, for no apparent reason, and I thought that was a bit much, but that scene is there to show Tommy’s character. That same scene is present in the remake, but the actor who plays Tommy is such a non-entity, that there is no illumination of the character.

In the book, Billy is just some thug that Chris is dating, and he cares not one wit about her, although in both movie versions, we are given to believe that he and Chris are involved in some grand, Bonnie and Clyde style, love affair. This is meant to contrast the sweet respectfulness between Tommy and Sue Snell.

The book version of Margaret White gets more backstory. The remake adds the idea of some sort of sexual trauma, making her a much more sympathetic character, while the 1974 version is more of a caricature than a real person. In King’s version, Margaret White was always a religious fanatic, who was estranged from her mother and father, and was prone to hysterics.The 2013 version of her depicts Carrie’s birth scene, and Margaret’s indecision about killing her, while none of these things are mentioned in the first film. As I said in my review of the first movie, it is mostly spectacle with not much understanding of the why of the characters. This makes sense since it was written and directed by men. There’s a bit more emotional depth in the remake ,and I believe that’s, in part, because of its female director.

The book consists of excerpts from a book written by Sue Snell, called My Name is Sue Snell, interviews of several town folk who survived Carrie’s rampage through Chamberlain, by something called The White Commission, a body of professionals who were convened to determine what happened during what the nation called The Black Prom. Sue and Tommy’s motivations are called into question by The White Commission, and there is some argument that Tommy was involved in the plans to humiliate Carrie.The movies mention none of the aftermath of these events. They both end with Carrie’s death, and the seismic impact of what Carrie did, the sheer amount of death and destruction is not captured in either film, although the remake comes closest to the images from the book.

The depiction of Carrie’s powers, is a little more accurate in DePalma’s version. She does appear to be in a kind of fugue state, and the book goes into detail about how the use of her powers affects her physically. She is mostly aware of what she’s doing, but becomes increasingly unhinged the longer she uses her powers, until by the end she is mostly delirious, and only half aware of where she is, let alone what she’s doing. After Carrie kills her mother, her powers are simply functioning on automatic. In the first film, the house falls down around her, while she holds her mother’s body, and DePalma makes it unclear if Carrie is doing it , or if it’s God’s retribution. In the remake, Chloe’s Carrie is very deliberately using her abilities, and has complete control right up until the end. Its not until the end of the 2013 version that we see the rain of stones, and this moment would have had more impact, if that earlier scene of Carrie remembering that event, had not been cut.

Margaret’s death in the original is all spectacle as she, pinned to a wall by kitchen knives, loudly moans like she’s having an orgasm. The book is more subtle, as Carrie gently stops her mother’s heart. The remake is not without spectacle itself, but I found it more moving than all the hollering in the earlier film. The first film isn’t particularly interested in the emotional relationships between all these women. Margaret White is a terrifying, but ridiculous caricature, and receives the kind of death that befits such an over the top portrayal. Julianne Moore’s Margaret is more subtle. She’s almost too subtle, and I have to admit, I prefer the jovial batshittery of Piper’s version, to Moore’s quietly morose insanity, even if I was more emotionally moved by Moore’s version.

Peirce’s version is also true to the book, as there is a last confrontation between Carrie and Sue. In the book, Carrie’s thoughts and feelings are being broadcast to anyone in the town. Sue is able to follow Carrie’s meandering progress through the town by following Carrie’s thoughts. She finds Carrie, exhausted and delirious, lying next to a tree, and holds her hand as Carrie’s thoughts spiral down into death.

In the original film, Sue’s act of compassion is jettisoned in favor of that jump scare this movie is famous for. Once again, DePalma chooses spectacle over substance. He seems to prefer camera trickery, something especially apparent during the Prom, when he goes to a split screen during Carrie’s devastation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the camera work has the unintended side effect of distancing the viewer from the horror of the moment, something which Peirce took care to avoid.

Peirce wants the viewer to sit with their discomfort. Her camera doesn’t look away from what’s happening on the screen. In the remake, Sue finds Carrie just after Carrie has killed her mother. Carrie is distraught, and starts to attack Sue, who pleads with Carrie for her life. For me, this was a more moving moment than the jump scare at the end of the original. Note that Chris Hargensen also pleads with Carrie for her life, but because she has always tormented Carrie without mercy, she receives none in return. I think Sue’s one act of atonement is probably what saved her life, just as Ms. Desjardin’s compassion saved hers.

I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike the first movie because it really is one of my favorite King films. It’s a beautiful looking film with an iconic soundtrack by Pino Donaggio. The newer version has nothing like it, and is mostly unmemorable. I don’t even have a problem with the eroticism of the teenage girls in that movie. It was the 70’s and that was to be expected in filmmaking at that time. Also, that sort of thing was considered liberating for women at that time in American film, as everyone was just coming out of a repressive studio system that only allowed certain types of nudity. The DePalma version also has a superior cast. Spacek, Irving, Laurie and Allen were simply much better actors, who were capable of selling all that spectacle without looking ridiculous. The best actor in the remake is Julianne Moore. Grace-Moretz and the others are just too young, and do not have the acting chops of those powerhouses from the 70s, but I forgive them because Peirce’s movie has a different, more emotional, agenda, which remains true to the spirit of the source material.

Now, if we could only get a happy medium between these three sources, we’d have the perfect Carrie.

Carrie Vs. Carrie

I recently re watched the original Carrie from 1976, which was directed by Brian DePalma, a director that I have tremendous respect for. I have tremendous respect for this movie too, but here’s why I find the 2013 version to be a deeper, more satisfying  film. It’s a woman’s movie about women’s issues, directed by a woman. The 2013 version is directed by Kimberly Peirce and addresses and  emphasizes themes and issues  that were overlooked by all the men who were involved in the making of the original film.

Both movies cover the same territory. It’s the same plot, same lines of dialogue and all the same characters, but there are some subtle (and not so subtle), but very important differences.

For example, the remake has a lot less of the “male gaze” in it. The original movie, from its opening scene of nubile, naked, teenage girls, frolicking in slow motion, to DePalma’s  closeup of Carrie’s “dirty pillows” on the night of the Prom, to Margaret White’s orgasmic death scene, none of these things are approached, by Peirce from the puerile perspective of the original. The scene of Carrie getting her first period is suitably horrifying in the original,  (mostly because  Spacek  really sells it), but this is also never addressed again, for the rest of the film.

The remake begins with blood and blood is one of the major characters throughout the rest of it.

There are three major points of difference from the original to the remake. The first is the depiction of Margaret White. She’s a deeper and much more fascinating character in the remake, given the implication that there was some horrific, sexual trauma, in her past.

image

 

The opening scene in the showers,  is replaced by Carrie’s bloody home birth and we get to watch Margaret be shocked that there’s a baby, and then waffling about whether or not she should kill her. This leads to the first question about Margaret’s traumatic past and what could have happened to her that she could engage in the activity that produced Carrie, but not know that “baby” could be a result. It makes you wonder if Carrie is a product of rape, or if  Margaret’s sexual  trauma extends from some much earlier event, in her life?

image

 

The original Margaret, played to unforgettable effect by Piper Laurie, is a straightforward depiction of religious mania, which only compounds the problem of Stephen King’s depictions of religious people as just  “crazy”.  In the original, we don’t know why Margaret is the way she is. We can only guess and few clues are given to us. It’s just assumed  that Margaret’s always been that way.

In the remake, she’s  given much more depth and motivation,  because the implication  is that she retreats from relatively  normal behavior, into mania  and self harm, whenever she cannot approach sex or any sexually related topic, directly. The rest of the time she’s a  loving mother, who consoles her daughter, shows  emotional connection and is physically affection to her. In the original,  Carrie and her mother rarely spoke without fighting and almost never touched.

The current  Margaret infantilizes her daughter but not in an obviously controlling manner. It’s no different from the affection any parent would show their child but coupled with her religious mania and physical abuse, it becomes problematic.

One of the  most interesting differences between these two films is  Margaret’s conversation with Sue Snell’s mother, in the laundry where Margaret works. If her self harm, in that scene,  is brought about by the presence of Mrs. Snell or the subject of their discussion, it’s not made clear. It is given that Mrs. Snell has known Margaret for years. They went to school together and Margaret is a town fixture, so there is the possibility that she could have played a role in Margaret’s trauma. This is not the impression given in the first film. Mrs. Snell simply finds her a nuisance and tries to get her to go away.

image

The second most obvious change is the depiction of Carrie, by Chloe Grace Moretz, an actress I have a tremendous liking for.  She’s much less mousy than Spacek’s version. Chloe’s version appears hunched over and closed in on herself as if to protect herself from a blow that never comes. She’s also a lot brighter, I think. Spacek’s version seems kind of dull, shy, awkward and resigned to her fate. The only time we see her show any humor or sass is during the Prom.

Where Spacek’s character seemed thoroughly housebroken, the current version has a lot more fire in her. She catches on to having special abilities a lot sooner and also the implications of having those abilities. She’s a lot more defiant and argumentative with her mother and is willing to sling bible verses right back at her. This Carrie knows the good book as well as Margaret does, and is willing to use scripture to further her arguments. Spacek’s version, in keeping with a lot of films from the 70’s, mostly just screams a lot.

At one point, we see Chloe’s version, pleading with her mother to talk to her, implying that her mother has spoken to her before about important subjects. She seems to know or understand that her mother has experienced something horrific and that its sexually related, but doesn’t know what it is. She seems mostly saddened and exasperated by her mother’s inability to approach these topics, without resorting to religious gibberish.

image

 

She’s  openly affectionate to her mother. She holds her mothers hands or gently smiles, her eyes shining with love, when her mother calls her “baby girl”. There is love there, on both their parts,  which makes it all the more awful when Carrie kills her. When Sue walks in on her, holding her mother’s lifeless body, Carrie’s  first statement is that she wants her Mommy and that she’s scared. This scene is heart wrenching to watch. It’s  lacking the outrageous sexual spectacle of Margaret’s death in the original. That scene removes any  deeper emotional resonance, distancing the viewer from its real impact.

This film was directed by a woman, so  all of the emotional high points center around relationships, rather than actions we are unable to  grasp at motives for. For example:  Why does Tommy ask Carrie to the Prom? This is something never addressed in the original. In 2013 movie, it’s implied that, he’s a sweet dullard and that’s its Sue, who is in charge of that relationship. He does it  because she says so and  he loves her.

image

 

The same for Chris Hargensen’s relationship with Billy. Only where Tommy’s  dullness is mostly implied by the things he says, we’re  given to know, in no uncertain terms, that Billy is nothing more than a dumb thug, who follows Chris’ bidding without question. Any motivation for their behavior is answered by their depictions in the film and that’s all you need to understand about these boys.

In fact, all of the men are just second stringers. They are backdrops for this female drama. They occasionally have something to say but the real emphasis is all on the women. From the gym teacher, Ms Desjardin, to Carrie, her mother, and Chris, Sue and her mother, the emphasis is on them, their relationships to each other, and what they think and feel about all this, while keeping all of the plot and dialogue of the first movie largely intact, which is very deft filmmaking on Ms. Peirce’ s part.

image

 

Another major deviation, is the relationship between Sue and Chris.  After Sue refuses to support Chris  in her bid to get back into the prom, Chris goes on a long diatribe against Sue, in front of all their friends. Some motivation is given to Chris for why she hates Carrie. In the remake, it’s one of those inexplicable childhood things. They’ve all known each other since elementary school and picking on Carrie is just what everyone does.  It seems to be a school wide thing. No motivation for Chris’ hatred is given in the original film. She just hates her and thinks Carrie eats shit.

The  third major difference is the ending. Carries use of her abilities is very deliberate in the remake, whereas they seemed more of a reflex in the first. Spacek’s character seemed to be in a kind of fugue state, where she seemed not very aware of what she was doing and wasn’t deliberately killing people. In the books she only wanted to hurt them and that motivation is kept intact in the original movie. The burning of the gym, is an accident, made by a girl whose  control over her powers, is slipping.

image

 

In the remake, Carrie deliberately kills some people and saves others. Like Ms. Desjardin, who she lifts to safety, away from some electrical wires and water, on the floor of the gym. Other students she purposely crushes between some bleachers and flings into doors and windows.  This Carrie is in full control of her powers, noted by Chloe’s hand gestures and body language, which would look pretty cheesy, if the result weren’t so horrific.  This version of Carrie knows exactly what she’s doing. Death is not a bug. It’s a feature of her intentions.

And no more so, than when she kills Chris  Hargensen. In the original film, it looks like she does it as an afterthought, when Billy and Chris attempt to run her over, in his car. Billy is removed from the equation rather quickly, while Carrie gives her full attention to Chris. It is a spectacularly gruesome death. Carrie expresses her full hatred and utter contempt for her childhood tormentor, not just what she does to her,  but in her body language, as well. She WANTS Chris to hurt.

Some of the differences are more subtle and have much more to do with the movie taking place in a world of cell phones and social media. Carrie’s  humiliation,  in the showers, is filmed and then played back during the Prom scene, which is a lot less sweet and treacly than the original. Margaret drives a beat up station wagon and is shown working outside the home. There are no jump scares in this movie and very little humor and I was expecting both. That Peirce chose not to do any of these things, is much appreciated.

DePalma approached this as a Horror movie. Peirce approached it as a psychological drama with some elements of Horror and the difference is noticeable.

Almost nothing is played for laughs and the acting is a little less histrionic.  Peirce has a point to make and cannot be bothered with pointless frivolity. This is a director with an agenda, who has thought long and hard about what she wants to show us and why. Her vision of this is very different from DePalma’s and no moment is wasted. 

This is not to say that the  original film is a bad movie, but it is very much a product of the men who created it, with its reliance on spectacle, rather than drama, and hysteria rather than genuine emotions. This is the difference in approach to the same material by two very different film makers. Kimberly Peirce’s movie, is not just a retread. It is a solid, capable film, in its own right.