Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The “Carrie” Remake: Horror Plus Time Doesn’t Always Equal Hollywood Magic

Where horror movies are concerned, what goes around certainly comes around. Witness the success of the updated Halloween at this week’s box office. And Dario Argento’s 1977 balletic creepfest, Suspiria, has just returned, now helmed by Luca Guadagnino of Call Me By Your Name fame. I haven’t seen these yet, but I did recently catch up with the 2013 remake of a horror classic, Brian De Palma’s 1976 screen adaptation of Carrie.

Carrie, of course, was the first Stephen King novel to make it to the screen, and it remains one of the few adaptations of his writing to win his praise. a wonderful little anthology called Double Features: Big Ideas in Film, published last year by the Great Books Foundation, reprints King’s seminal 1981 essay, “Why We Crave Horror Movies.” King’s essay, which covers flicks ranging from Roger Corman’s The Pit and the Pendulum to Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, speaks admiringly about how De Palma’s approach to the story of Carrie’s frightful coming of age “is lighter and more deft than my own—and a great deal more artistic.” What’s key for King is that “when the horror movies wear their various sociopolitical hats—the B picture as tabloid editorial—they often serve as an extraordinarily accurate barometer of those things that trouble the night thoughts of a whole society.” When he wrote Carrie back in 1973, he was musing not only about a lonely young girl but also about  “how women find their own channels of power and what men fear about women and women’s sexuality.” His lurid tale of Carrie coming into her own was “in its more adult implications, an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality.” To King, this subtle undercurrent in his own work was brought dramatically forward in De Palma’s screen version, which captured (at a time when the Women’s Movement was picking up steam) a culture’s need to grapple with changing gender dynamics.

I’m not sure whether, when I first saw Sissy Spacek take bloody revenge on her high school world in Carrie, I picked up on the underlying layer of meaning that King describes. I do know, though, that this is one flick that can chill to the marrow anyone who’s ever felt out of place at a high school dance. Or comes from a wacky family background or otherwise doesn’t belong among the cool kids but would love to be welcomed in. The film version of Carrie (anchored by the riveting performances of Spacek and Piper Laurie as her religious-crackpot mother) is so indelible that I can’t imagine why anyone would feel the need to remake it. So of course they did.

The 2013 reboot of Carrie is directed by Kimberley Peirce, who had made a notable debut with the gender-bending Boys Don’t Cry in 1999. It’s well cast, with the talented young Chloë Grace Moretz in the title role and Julianne Moore playing her mother from Hell. There are a few stabs at modernizing the story, with Carrie’s traumatic locker-room humiliation videotaped on her classmates’ cellphones and spread through the teen world via social media. Otherwise, I don’t see many significant changes from the De Palma version. I can’t help feeling that Sissy Spacek seemed eerier, more genuinely possessed, than Moretz, whose more conventional prettiness also makes her less physically distinctive than her predecessor in the role. And nothing can rival the perversity of the original ending, with Mrs. White’s almost orgiastic acceptance of her suffering, some bizarrely inverted near-Christian iconography, and yes! that final scare. Yikes!

And of course Happy Haunting this Halloween!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

How the Figures in “Hidden Figures” Came To Life

In 2016, Hidden Figures was a surprise box office hit. This story of three smart black women who contributed mightily to NASA’s early triumphs while battling segregation at Virginia’s Langley Research Center proved so irresistible that the film was nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. There were also nominations for co-star Octavia Spencer and for screenwriters Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi, who had adapted historian Margot Lee Shetterly’s 2016 book of the same name. The writers didn’t win their Oscar (that honor went to Barry Jenkins for Moonlight). But they were certainly deserving. Now that I’ve read Shetterly’s book, I realize that this screenplay is a textbook example of how to turn a serious work of history into a living, breathing film.

Not that I have any complaints about Shetterly’s considerable achievement. Her book, subtitled The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, is a serious chronicle, one that covers segregation in Hampton, Virginia from World War II onward, while also providing a full account of the changing workplace at Langley. At the same time, it introduces some fascinating women who bucked racial prejudice and social conditioning to succeed as “computers,” dedicating their mathematical skills to the Langley engineers’ high-level projects, though expecting little in the way of personal reward. Because Shetterly is revealing a slice of history that previously was scarcely known, she also goes far afield, covering (for instance) the challenges faced by black male engineers who sought work at Langley as well as what happened to the first black candidate to join the astronaut corps.

But the screenwriters know that history lessons don’t always make for good cinema. A quick glance at their screenplay reveals how, from the start, they make sure that Shetterly’s three main “hidden figures” are front and center. Without being untrue to the basic personalities of Dorothy Vaughan, Katherine Johnson, and Mary Jackson (as revealed in Shetterly’s intense researched book), the screenwriters find colorful ways to dramatize the challenges faced by each woman.

With three strong actresses—Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, and Jannelle Monáe—in the central roles, each must be given something vivid to do. The film kicks off with the trio carpooling to Langley, only to face a broken-down engine and the attentions of a skeptical white policeman. Monáe, as the spirited Mary Jackson, boldly sasses the cop, while the super-competent Spencer (as Vaughan) coaxes the car back into service. It’s a clever intro to the three, though Shetterly’s book mentions that the real Vaughan never learned to drive.

Shetterly also notes how the “colored” computers at Langley struggled to find restrooms they were permitted to use. In the screenplay this becomes a sequence—both hilarious and poignant—in which Henson (as the redoubtable Johnson) races against a deadline to finish the stack of calculations to which she’s been assigned while also desperately seeking a place to answer nature’s call. The sequence ends dramatically with her new boss, played by Kevin Costner, destroying the sign that had made the nearby ladies’ room exclusive to white employees.

The script also adds a few snippy villains (played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst) for our heroines to butt their heads against. And the climactic contribution of Katharine Johnson to John Glenn’s Apollo mission is played out for all it’s worth. Yes, Glenn did actually say he’d trust Johnson’s calculations before he’d trust a computer, but the detour he makes on the tarmac to shake the hands of the black computers is one more lovely fiction that adds to the power of this film.