Carrie’s big disappointment is just how damn slick and ready-made it is. In its noble aspirations for deep sympathy with Carrie herself, director Kimberly Peirce (a fascinatingly unconventional choice, if not a successful one) has wholly and totally forgotten to be filmically radical while at it, and the clean-ness of the film sort of smothers any attempt at proud female-vengeance in a rote language of modern horror that has the seemingly unintentional affect of painting Carrie as a one-note villain anyway. Any attempt to “get us into her mind” is entirely surface-level and script-based; the raving emotion-over-logic feverishness of the original that so wonderfully and radically made sure we understood the chaos of Carrie as a fact, how society had rendered her more enigma than person, and which encouraged sympathy as much as discomfort, has been replaced with something far more tepid and conventional.
Part of it has to do with how much this is an “everyday story” about human misfortune and inequality rather than a force-of-nature nightmare of torrential proportions – the former may be more nuanced if it’s particularly well realized and scripted, but for pure film-making craft the latter provides more of a filmic playground. Peirce does not seem to be interested in this playground, incidentally, sacrificing “show” for tell as we’re graced with scene after scene that unambiguously define Carrie as the film’s protagonist. Radical in principle, perhaps, but not in effect, nor is the garden-variety revenge fantasy given to the film without the craft to back it up. For horror needs directorial craft, and Peirce is not a craftswoman – she is a director who looks for feeling in screenplays, and she needs one to back her up. Here she has a dud, and she directs down to the material.
The obvious lynchpin case is the prom scene. In the original, it was a descent into pure hellish chaos and confusion, with crash zooms and non-continuity cutting matched to tinted colors to convey something entirely non-realistic precisely for the fact that it wasn’t out of reality and played to the people within less like sense than surrealism. Here, it’s all convention, with no attempt at filmic artistry to distract from Carrie’s actions. And here, the focus is very much on Carrie’s actions, with her quite clearly and unambiguously setting out for revenge on those who wronged her. We are made to watch her specifically manipulating her environment to do so; in the original, it was as though she was transfixed, a power beyond her consciousness grasping her soul and playing around with the world on its own, a sort of perpetual victim. Maybe it’s me, but the latter lack of agency, in all its dreamlike helplessness, sounds much scarier indeed (plus, it conveys more tellingly the weight holding women at arm’s length from social agency). Here, Carrier is empowered, again fine in concept, but the intentions don’t play out on screen.
Another similar sequence – the primary revenge on the pranksters in the car – couldn’t be more different from the original film, and it couldn’t be worse. Here it takes on a dirge-like operatic grandeur and attains a certain leaden, plodding length as Carrie sets up the pieces for revenge. In the original, a piercing close-up of Carrie’s eyes was all we needed to feel the knee-jerk confusion of Carrie’s body and her inability to control it. It was a primal urge released from her after long lying dormant by a society content to repress female sexual desire and primal emotion. More than anything, this made us “feel” Carrie from the inside by visually capturing her mind, and it does so far more efficiently and nerve-fryingly than any narrative beat or bit of dialogue ever could. Here, she gets revenge in a more conscious way, and we’re supposed to take joy in the concept. Indeed, I do take joy in the feminist themes of Carrie conceptually, and many films have tackled this theme with greater heft and craft, but this is not one of them.
The whole film follows suit – it is nothing more than a schlocky modern horror that seeks to make us sympathize with its slasher character from a proudly feminist angle. Where-as the original put us into Carrie’s internal fear and gave us the ambiguity and confusion she felt about herself, establishing a complicated empathy for her, this one strives for sympathy but uses deliriously stagnant horror filmmaking to do so. Weirdly, and perhaps against its will, the “Carrie as slasher” filmmaking just as often makes her out to be the villain as it does the protagonist, and if its heart is in the right place, it takes more than saying that Carrie is our heroine to do this. The poster, in its oppressive close-up, ambiguous, haunted facial expression, and demandingly terse and direct statement of female agency, is a genuine chiller. Would that the film had followed suit. It is absolutely a film that should be made – the Carrie as heroine idea is positively engorged with radical feminist potential – but it needs a passionate filmmaker to back it up. Peirce, perhaps thinking mainstream horror to be below her, doesn’t seem to be the right one.
Joe Johnston aside, I had some hope for The Wolfman prior to its release. Not that it would be good, per-se, for that would be wishful thinking. But that it would have good features, at least, and not actively shoot itself in the foot with a silver bullet at just about every opportunity. But that’s remakes for you. Yes, the script is a drag, not a nail-in-the-coffin for a horror film. It’s an absolute mess of a film, insisting too heavily on certain details to the point of harping all over them and leaving some material at the door as soon as it’s introduced, but I’ve loved horror that has all these problems and more. I expected that, but there’s at least some atmosphere or some lurid fun, right? I kept waiting for the moon to align, but Johnston, a consummate hack-meister, and a seriously confused Benicio del Toro had other ideas in mind.
Del Toro, for one, is usually picky with his roles – even when they aren’t for good films, they are almost always fascinatingly flawed. Here, he has a serious split-personality, and the film follows suit. He can not for the life of him whether the role requires a sullen, deadened workout in boredom or a high-flying exercise in chewing up some of the fattiest, gristliest scenery this side of Southern home cooking. Of course, he looks quite a bit like his obvious predecessor and inspiration Lon Chaney Jr. But in the 1941 film this work owes its shell too, Lon Chaney Jr. was rather wonderfully used as a meat-bag totally confused about whether he was in a movie or not (in a sense, he was the Keanu Reeves of his day, all bored, slacker screen-presence and no real emotion, but when this type of persona is understood by actor and director and used properly, it can produce a wonderfully sloppy non-performance that captures naturalism better than any conventional acting could). For this film in a modern era so infatuated with Capital A-Acting, Benicio del Toro is actually asked to perform and imbue a character and convey feeling, things the normally-subdued actor finds himself wholly incapable of without a script or a director to back him up. He is deeply confused in a way that is less fascinating than tiring.
Which brings us to the real problem – Joe Johnston. There’s a loose sense that the film’s raison d’ etre is re-purposing the filmic language of an old-school Universal mood-fest with the more liberal standards of filmic dismemberment in today’s society. A worthy goal perhaps, but the director finds himself mashing the two together haphazardly and cowering around in the background hoping the pieces of his flaming wreck don’t fall on him. Tonally, the lurid excess drowns any sense of atmosphere and low-key, expressionist mood. Meanwhile, there’s a distant rumor of campy fun, but any sense of garish, low-brow menace is lost when the film is too busy crying into a handkerchief. In a way, all of this cancels out and ends up seeming depressingly functional, and functional to an end it does not know. The scenes are united only in that they are statically filmed and lack energy, but they do not even have the good grace to lack energy for one holistic reason. The movie’s style and storytelling compete with each other, and both become deadened. The best horror films are positively alive with death. This one can’t wait to put one foot in the grave.
Fright Night isn’t especially good or meaningful as a horror throwback, as the original was. Nor is it especially good as an exercise in the language of classic horror cinema in an era where that language had been slashed to bits by the likes of Jason and Freddy, as the original film was. Indeed, with horror much less unified and cohesive in today’s world, this aspect of Fright Night never truly could work today – it would seem overly-forgiving for it to posit that the horror of its day could actually be meaningfully challenged at an aesthetic level, for this would imply that modern horror had much of an aesthetic. I half expected it to go the “this is a real Vampire, get out of here you damn youngins and your Twilights” vibe so overblown today, and that cantankerousness would never been good for such a sprightly, light-on-its-feet film. That it does not, and that it does not much have any interest in commenting on horror at all, is both the film’s blessing and its curse.
for, if it keeps the film from ever doing much other than entertaining in a low-brow way, the lack of narrative substance at least leaves a whole lot of room for the film to succeed at its own much lower-flying goals: being a nice violent horror picture with charismatic characters and a none-too-subtle sly side aimed squarely at modern society and the everyday-ness of its own existence. Essentially, the film’s pleasures are all light and surface level, and if they aren’t all that pleasurable, that are at least deserving of the denotation “pleasures”. That, in itself, is worth something for horror in this day and age.
And there are quite a few of those pleasures indeed: a snidely, oil-smothered Colin Farrell who just avoids looking like too much of a Harlequin novel model here, a lascivious, snarky, and altogether never-better David Tennant having the rightest time of his life, plenty of good ol’ fashioned ’80s style (which is to say, tongue-in-cheek but not archly ironic) gore and violence, an easy-going, almost lackadaisical tone that captures the day-to-day of being a high schooler in the suburbs, some swift, deft camera movements, and a small truckload of whiplash blood-and-guts that do their damnedest to pay homage to horrors past (The Thing makes a none-too-obvious appearance late-on). Again, surface-level pleasures all, with nothing to dive down below for, but it’s a fun surface-level to wade around in while it lasts.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1973 made-for-television film long-famed for scaring the children of the ’60s and early ’70s year-after-year, is resolutely and aggressively one of Guillermo del Toro’s most conventional and mundane efforts. For all his boastful fanboy producer stylings, his hand is just never nearly as strongly evident for anything he doesn’t direct. This film won’t change that. It’s a rather typical haunted house story, in fact, and is never really particularly invested in doing much of anything with this idea (a drag considering del Toro has always been particularly well-matched to the more loopy, chaotic fun side of haunted house films, and the milquetoast quality of this particular foray into the genre sees him working down to the it;s limits rather than exploiting its potential). It’s just too stately, perhaps appropriate considering the nature of the story about age-old horrors in an age-old house. But if the location is mildewy, that doesn’t mean the film-making has to follow suit.
Alas, I’m being a bit on the harsh side here. The fact is, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark is a rather fine little effort in its own right, although it struggles to combine its genre with the somewhat more awe-struck Pan’s Labyrinth imitation all the rage around 2009-2010 (reaching its pinnacle in 2009 with several films, Where the Wild Things Are and Coraline included, that surpass del Toro’s own superlative effort). Troy Nixey (a great, slithering, mischievous last name for a horror director) proves himself a talented craftsman behind the camera, and Oliver Stapleton’s cinematography is a mischievous delight. Still these all fall into the “good” craftsmanship category, and seldom find themselves interested in pushing on a bit further (although, to be honest, Stapleton may be pushing himself here; he’s never really worked on a movie for which cinematography is a meaningful thing to discuss, and based on this evidence here I’m inclined not to call him a hack). At the least, they know their way around a staircase, although the film doesn’t reach Wellesian heights as far as staircases are concerned. Things take a dip for the worse, unfortunately, when the film’s inevitable monsters become a bit too real and fail to convince – the misshapen oddity design is inspired, but they never emerge as a credible threat on-screen.
Meanwhile, neither Katie Holmes nor Guy Pearce do much of anything as the parents of Bailee Madison’s Sally, who finds herself lost in this haunted house and in her own mind-in-decay (perhaps it’s the point for a film from a child’s point of view that the parents are poorly realized, an argument made for Pan’s Labyrinth and which I have no use for here or there – both films clearly center adult characters as much as child ones, and in fact both take pains to separate out the two perspectives, making the whole argument seem like wishful thinking). Holmes’ failure isn’t really a surprise, but that doesn’t make her twee-ness here any more bearable. Pearce is a shame though, playing the dad like an un-restrained caricature of uncaring parenthood, something I’d take in a film that really does more to define itself as a child’s nightmare vision of the world (it works wonderfully in Coraline for instance). But here, in a film that is too “realist” and too tepid to really go down its own rabbit hole, these flaws don’t so much seem like inspired, even radical decisions to eschew “realist” nuances as they do poor writing. Still, a competent effort from a first-time director; here’s hoping he has more confidence in himself to let loose next time, and he has a better script and performances backing him up.
Let Me In
Let Me In, the American remake of the elegiac, impressionist Swedish horror tone poem, succeeds for many of the reasons that its predecessor did, but if the framework is the same, the tone and mood are not quite. For one, its Americanization (and being directed by Matt Reeves) has brought with it a certain more visceral and direct edge, but it never feels like it’s been dumbed-down. Streamlined would be the conventional word, but I’d say it’s more a trade-off in style than anything else.
In Let the Right One In, youths Eli and Oskar are awkward, confused, melancholic pre-teens lost in the world, and their relationship is as equals (the film, for those who haven’t seen it, explores the development of a friendship between the two, and Eli’s vampirism is more a means for her role as a social outcast than something of outright horror). The film is horror mostly because we are lost to describe movies with vampires without using the “horror” descriptor, and because genre is a devious mistress. In Let Me In, things get less Swedish, and thus less anxiously mournful, and we come to see Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz, and this film’s Eli) as a more horrific, domineering figure to Owen (Kodi Smitt-McPhee, this film’s Oskar). She makes more calculated decisions not only over him but over her “father”, played by Richard Jenkins, who here is less ambiguously Abby’s caretaker and more her prisoner and servant.
The new film’s heart is blackened while the earlier work’s was warmer and more heavily worn. The American version is less modest about underlining the horror of the situation with crimson strokes a la classy old-school Hammer horror (incidentally, it was to be a Hammer horror before production issues got in the way). It’s all less plaintive, and more primitive. And, ultimately, it’s more horrific and chilling, even if it’s less dramatically successful for the same reason. The difference, really, is all in the naming. Let the Right One In is intentionally ambiguous and wonderfully contemplative. Let Me In is direct, terse, demanding, and forceful. Both films take advice from their names, and both take them well.
Visually, the film follows suit, giving us more erratic direction (including one much-copied trick of fiming a car-crash from inside the car that really hits the stratosphere here, thanks to Reeves’ eye for inspired chaos and grimy physicality). Elsewhere, Abby is filmed with a more brutal edge that matches well to the increased violence and gore. While shots in the original film held back, Reeves shoves us right up in the action with animalistic urgency and intensity here. This being said, the film is still slow by horror standards, retaining enough of the elegiac edge of the original so that the violence seems pinpoint and precise rather than un-modulated or ugly. It’s not a revolutionary film, but it’s extremely sharp and well-crafted. And beneath it all lies a fairly clever and snarky anti-twee film for its re-reading of everything self-consciously indie and cutesy-awkward about independent “Sundance” cinema (and the foreign films America seems to fall in love with) to expose the power dynamics that lie underneath even the faintest and most innocent of relationships. Not bad for a pesky ol’ vampire film.