Carrie (1976) – Brian De Palma

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Here’s an old campy horror flick, in true Halloween spirit.  I noticed Kimberly Peirce is remaking this film to come out in 2013, which is what inspired me to watch it.  Should be interesting.  Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is a high school girl who is ostracized and bullied by her schoolmates.  When a prom night prank pushes her over the edge, Carrie unleashes her telekinetic powers to destructive effects.

The film’s real selling points are its gore and suspense.  Otherwise, the characters are two-dimensional: the pretty, vicious popular girl; the football jock; the kindly teacher.  Carrie herself is somewhat sympathetic (at least at first).  Her classmates pick on her cruelly, and her mother is fanatically Christian, calling Carrie a sinner for things like getting her period and wanting to go to the prom.  Carrie walks with her hair hanging in front of her face, too frightened to speak to anyone.  By the end of the film, however, she is our villain—the bringer of destruction, and the bloody hand reaching out from the grave. What?

Never mind the plot or characters.  The whole film seems to be an excuse for cheap thrills—and cheap thrills we will get.  The violence and destruction is over the top, both in the high school gymnasium and later in Carrie’s home.  De Palma also makes the most of opportunities for suspense: the buildup to the prank at the prom is excruciatingly slow, especially in the moments before the prank’s actual execution.  Likewise, when Carrie returns home, the house is filled with candles but her mother is nowhere to be found.  Carrie goes into the bathroom and turns on the light, and we see her mother standing eerily behind the bathroom door—but Carrie does not discover her mother for another five minutes or so.  These suspenseful moments keep an otherwise insubstantial film engaging.

What was really interesting to me about this film were the striking parallels between Carrie and De Palma’s 1980 thriller, Dressed to Kill (which is phenomenal).  The films are dissimilar except for their shared genre, and yet I found that they mirror each other in the way they begin and end.

Both films begin with an excessive shower scene with our heroine (is Carrie our heroine?) that is set to soothing music.  The women’s bodies are eroticized in the shower—something that is fitting in Dressed to Kill because of the sexual themes throughout, but seems out of place in Carrie, which does not otherwise sexualize its title character.

Dressed to Kill:
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Carrie:
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These shower sequences are both abruptly cut short by imagined violence—in Dressed to Kill a strangulation nightmare, in Carrie the confusing arrival of her first period.

Dressed to Kill:
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Carrie:
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The way the two films end is also almost identical.  In both films, a female character—who is different from the heroine featured in the shower—has a nightmare about the villain’s return…

Dressed to Kill, with a grisly throat-slitting:Image

And Carrie, with the famous trope of the hand from the grave:Image

…only to be awakened and comforted by a loved one.  The women’s screams and the loved ones’ words of comfort are the last things we hear in both the films, accompanied by the dramatic musical scores, as the camera slowly pulls back.

Dressed to Kill:
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Carrie:
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I’m not really sure what to make of these parallels.  It’s possible that they are the mark of an auteur, but it seems more likely to me that they display a lack of ingenuity on the part of De Palma.  If I had to recommend one film over the other, I would go with Dressed to Kill, which is absolutely terrifying and a great homage to Hitchcock’s 1960 Psycho.  Michael Caine fans will also enjoy it—believe it or not, he plays neither a wise, elderly British man nor a butler.

For either film, I would not recommend a meal after watching.  Carrie left my stomach feeling a little weak—not necessarily because of the violence (the gore is charmingly dated), but because of the general aura of creepiness that pervades the entire film.  Get ready.

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Blue Velvet (1986) – David Lynch

(Spoilers!)

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I’ve been sitting on this review for a while.  This film is a tough nut to crack.

Thankfully, it wasn’t as scary as I expected: rather, surreal and, for lack of a better word, freaky.  Home from college because his father has suffered a recent stroke, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) finds a human ear in the field behind his neighborhood.  His curiosity is piqued, and with the help of newfound friend Sandy Williams (Laura Dern), he decides to pursue the case of his own accord.  Before he knows it, Jeffrey is being sucked into the warped and frightening world of the beautiful singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) and the violent, perverted sociopath Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).

The film opens with a shot of an idyllic suburban paradise, complete with white picket fences and flowers swaying in the breeze.  This paradise is shattered almost immediately when a man watering his lawn suffers a stroke and falls down unconscious. The camera then cuts to a close-up beneath the lush grass, where there is a swarming nest of disgusting insects.  This opening sequence introduces a theme that is carried throughout the film – a sense of something nasty lurking behind a pleasant facade.  Jeffrey’s quest is one for knowledge and illumination, and significantly, the violence he uncovers is going on right in his own perfect neighborhood (just as the nest of insects is hidden beneath the well-kept lawn).  (A heavy-handed image but an effective one nevertheless.)

This is no ordinary mystery, however.  As the plot unfolds and more information is revealed, we as viewers become more befuddled rather than enlightened.  The story is more dreamlike than anything else.  Sandy, materializing uncannily out of the darkness (“Are you the one that found the ear?”) with all the information Jeffrey needs, seems almost to be a vision or hallucination.  Jeffrey’s interactions with Dorothy are like sexual fantasies come to life, her character existing almost exclusively as a sexual being.  And Frank is made of the stuff of nightmares; twisted, violent, his behavior involving a combination of sexual perversions, old 50’s hits, drug use, and physical and verbal abuse.  Lynch’s camerawork and editing only enhance this dreamlike tone, engaging everything from slow zooms in and out of various ears, to brief, random shots of staircases or flickering candles mid-scene.  By the end of the film, it is difficult to decipher whether the events of the plot have even occurred at all, or whether everything has existed only in the confines of Jeffrey’s own mind.

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As disorienting as it is, there is something oddly compelling about the film’s surreal quality.  What is set up as a standard neo-noir mystery immediately takes a turn for the nightmarish, and in this way, the events that take place are that much more terrifying.  We catch only glimpses of Frank’s fixations, fetishes, and violence, never getting the full story, and thus he is dehumanized, turned into something powerful and cruel.  His behavior is never explained or resolved – merely cut short by his death.  The film is unapologetic as it takes us down the rabbit hole into Dorothy’s world, and what we experience there lingers with us like the remnants of a vivid bad dream.

Where Lynch loses me a little is in the scenes with Sandy that take place outside of the dreamscape.  Jeffrey and Sandy’s relationship is the most formulaic part of the film; it is immediately obvious that they will end up together, and their relationship follows the predictable flirtation-romance-conflict-forgiveness-happilyeverafter template.  Their interactions seem stale and insincere throughout the film, however, almost as if they are meant as a mockery of traditional filmic romances.

For instance, after first witnessing Frank’s abuse of Dorothy, Jeffrey says to Sandy with a sincerity that is almost laughable, “Why are there people like Frank? Why is there so much trouble in this world?”  Sandy responds with a description of a dream she had the night she met Jeffrey, in which robins, representing love, brought light to a previously dark world.  “So I guess it means that there is trouble until the robins come,” she says.  This conversation is so saccharine and cliché, especially in the midst of the fresh, original, and disturbing execution of Dorothy and Frank’s story, that it is hard to be sure whether we are really meant to take it seriously.

If the relationship is meant to be a caricature, I think it makes a pretty interesting comment about the theme of normalcy that Lynch establishes at the beginning of the film.  At the end, we return to this idyllic suburban lifestyle, with all the loose ends of the plot tied up.  Jeffrey’s father miraculously experiences a full recovery off camera, all of Dorothy’s trauma seems to be erased, and Jeffrey and Sandy are happily in love.  Smiling, Sandy points out a robin holding an insect in its beak.  (Think back to the nest of insects under the grass.)  Love has conquered evil!

Of course, Frank was not the only source of evil in the world – and yet, now that he has been killed, Jeffrey and Sandy seem to believe that all is well, returning to the bubble-like world from which they came.  What unsettles me is my uncertainty about whether this ending is meant to be dissatisfying, or whether it is a result of poor writing.

I did enjoy this film, though, and was certainly engaged by it.  If Lynch’s goal is to leave you deeply unsettled (and I’m sure that is his goal), he does a pretty phenomenal job.