Tag Archives: (2013)

Carrie x 4

Carrie“I’ve heard rumblings about a Carrie remake….Who knows if it will happen? The real question is why, when the original was so good? I mean, not Casablanca, or anything, but a really good horror-suspense film, much better than the book.” – Stephen King, as quoted in Entertainment Weekly, May 2011

Of course, King knows why, and the 2013 remake, directed by Kimberly Peirce, didn’t disappoint: after recouping its $30M budget, it went on to make an additional $50M worldwide. But he was right to question the remake’s necessity. Brian De Palma’s 1976 original is one of the best horror films ever made. And since, as King points out, it already tops the book, what remained to be done?

In fact, the book is an effective pot-boiler, but nothing more. In this sense, it was a perfect candidate for adaptation. That is, by someone who understands the implications of adapting a book like this. Brian De Palma did. But the producers of the remake, who evidently let it be known that the new script would be “more faithful” to the novel, clearly did not. It isn’t the kind of novel one should be “faithful” to; it is the kind of novel one should use as a springboard to something better.

And what is “more faithful” anyway? The new film begins with Carrie’s birth. Just as in the book, Carrie’s mom, Margaret, gives birth all by herself: she doesn’t hold with modern medicine and she certainly has no friends. On top of that, I think she’s still hoping the baby will turn out to be some weird tumor she can toss in the garbage along with the sin that produced it. But, no, it’s a baby, all right, and though she tries to kill it, she can’t bring herself to do it.

Carrie1976Now, in the book, the police find her hours later, exhausted, and with little Carrie at her breast. It was a battle, one that Margaret lost. In the movie, she goes soft on the little thing and cuddles her. It is the beginning of a strange new element in the story: Margaret’s “love” for Carrie. I suppose the Lord of Faithful Adaptations giveth with one hand, only to taketh away with the other.

It does, however, tell you what you need to know about the remake’s definition of “faithful”: if a scene in the book is violent, it will try to include it.

To its detriment, it reproduces the vengeful side of Carrie’s personality. One of the reasons the original works so well is that De Palma (and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen) tossed most of that aside and focused on the girl, not the avenging angel. I enjoy watching Clint Eastwood wipe out the bad guys in all those “man with no name” movies, but that’s because the bad guys are evil and they are adults. As King has one of Carrie’s classmates point out in the book, we aren’t dealing with adults here, we’re dealing with kids. (She repeats this several times.) One or two of these kids might be evil, but the rest are just…kids. What this means is that, while we might sympathize with what Carrie thinks she would like to do to them, we can’t sympathize with her actually doing it. (I saw a question in a Goodreads group about Carrie: “did you cheer her on?” Good Lord, I hope not. She kills scores of kids, the great crime of most of whom was probably nothing more than that they ignored her.) It’s a subtlety that is lost on Peirce; consequently, we never feel for Carrie the way we did in the original film.

Carrie 2002It isn’t for lack of trying on the part of the actors. While I certainly wouldn’t put Chloë Grace Moretz in Sissy Spacek’s league, she does well in the title role, and some of her scenes with Ansel Elgort, as Tommy Ross, the boy who takes Carrie to the prom, are quite sweet. But this is another thing De Palma had going for him: a killer cast: Piper Laurie (who, King said, “really got her teeth into the bad-mom thing”), William Katt (the embodiment of the All-American boy), Amy Irving, Nancy Allen (much more believable than Portia Doubleday as the girl who can “take her pick” of prom dates), and John Travolta (who does something extraordinary, playing both parts of his bad boy role, coming across as bad, yes, but also as a boy).

In 2002, television got into the act with its own Carrie adaptation. This one stars Angela Bettis as Carrie. (You might remember her as another eponymous character, from another film released the same year — May.)

The oddest thing about this adaptation, which in other respects is probably as good as the 2013 remake, is the ending: Carrie doesn’t die. Why? Because the film was originally intended as a pilot for a TV series. I don’t consider this a spoiler, because it’s really nothing more than a tacked-on ending setting up a series that, thankfully, never happened. According to the Stephen King Wiki, it was supposed to be about how Carrie moves to Florida to “help others with telekinetic problems.”

Carrie2013The reason to watch this one, if you like King’s book, is that it is the only adaptation to try to recreate the novel’s documentary approach. It begins with Sue Snell — the girl who convinces her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom — being interrogated by the police. This is a couple of weeks after the disaster. Other interrogations follow periodically throughout the movie.

The other reason to see it is that it is also the only adaptation to depict the devastation that Carrie wreaks upon the town at the end. The other movies show what she does to the school and a gas station, but as any reader of the book knows, Carrie didn’t stop there. Neither does this movie.

These two elements more or less cancel out a bizarre twist at the end that was also probably dictated by the proposed series, but which I won’t reveal, other than to say that it manages to walk Carrie’s character right down the middle of the road, between “innocent” schoolgirl and vengeful spirit.

Book: ♦♦♦
1976 Film: ♦♦♦♦♦
2002 Telefilm: ♦♦½
2013 Film: ♦♦½

While I agree with Stephen King, I think that it can be said that De Palma’s Carrie is definitely one of the Casablancas of horror film.

Lovelace (2013), directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

lovelace-poster - small♦½

I don’t know what we’re supposed to take away from this movie, but I’m pretty sure it has something to do with “the seventies.” I say this because the filmmakers refuse to allow us to forget it. Just when we think we might — just when we think there might be a universal message hiding somewhere in all this — they blast us with another song or another TV clip (Richard Nixon, Johnny Carson, Phil Donohue) or some more of those crazy clothes people wore back then. I think maybe this movie is telling us, The seventies were real, man!

That’s about as deep as this movie ever gets. It’s hard to be incoherent and deep at the same time.

Linda Lovelace, of course, is the woman who starred in Deep Throat, the record-breaking porno film that helped mainstream the entire industry. It was reviewed in the New York Times. In 1980, she published her autobiography, Ordeal, in which she spoke out against pornography and domestic violence, the latter because she claimed to have been threatened and beaten by her husband, Chuck Traynor, and forced by him into porn and prostitution.

I have no doubt that bad things happened to Ms. Boreman (her real name). Just as I have no doubt that this movie, posthumously, is one of them. It’s an awful mishmash of scenes with conflicting messages, as if the filmmakers couldn’t quite decide who the bad guys were. Except for Chuck. He’s rotten from start to finish. (But for that kind of thing, you’d do better to watch Star 80.)

It’s safe to say that the porn industry comes out  unscathed. As a matter of fact, it’s actually kind of cute. There’s the loving recreation of Linda’s most famous role, for instance. Her co-star, Harry Reems, seems like a nice guy, and provides the basis for the film’s only humor, when he gets a little too excited by Linda’s famous talent. There’s the photographer who shoots her for the movie poster, who, Linda says (in awe), makes her beautiful. There are the porn bigwigs who protect her from Chuck later in the film.

If it’s about anything, this film is about domestic violence, but even that won’t fly because, without the porn, there was no point in making it about Lovelace, specifically. And as a biopic, it’s too disjointed and incomplete to be of any real value. Watching this picture I got the distinct impression that Linda only made one movie (Deep Throat), but the reality is, she appeared in adult loops, including one involving bestiality, as well as in the sequel to Throat.

I can’t think of any reason to see this movie except to ogle Amanda Seyfried’s breasts, and that is, I think, the strongest indictment against it.

Devil’s Knot (2013), directed by Atom Egoyan


Unfocused dramatization of the events surrounding the 1993 murders of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, including the investigation, arrest, trials, and convictions of three teenage boys for the crimes. The teenagers, later known as the West Memphis Three, received additional notoriety when questions began to be raised about the case, with many believing that they are innocent. Based on a book of the same name by Mara Leveritt, who believes the teenagers were
targeted in a “witch hunt” similar to that which occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, in the late 1600s. The murders of the boys were linked by police and prosecutors to Satanism and Satanic ritual. Meanwhile, other leads, particularly one involving a black man who on the night of the murders reportedly entered a restaurant bleeding and disoriented, were ignored. That’s a lot of ground to cover for any dramatization, and there’s more besides, such as a woman and her son, both of whom appear to have lied to police: the woman about attending a satanic ritual with two of the accused, her son about having witnessed the murders.

More like a series of reenactments than a dramatization, the film fails to probe any aspect of the case or the people involved with any depth. That said, it opens well with Reese Witherspoon and young Jet Jurgensmeyer as mother and son, and the fateful if perfectly natural decision to allow the boy to go out riding bikes with his friends. The sequence ends with the discovery of the bodies. The bulk of the film, if viewed as a kind of primer on the case, is compelling enough, but those familiar with what happened may become bored by the wide-ranging superficiality of it all. Devil’s Knot is a deeply flawed film, but one which, for its subject matter and themes, may appeal to those interested in true crime.

World War Z (2013), directed by Marc Forster


When every major city in the world is overrun with zombies, Jerusalem stands alone untouched. This is thanks to their “10th Man” doctrine, which states that when nine men in a select group of ten agree on something, it is the duty of the tenth man to disagree. Nine men agreed that an email intercepted from India that talked of a plague of zombies was nonsense. Perforce the tenth man disagreed. So the Israelis built a wall around their city. (Vegas would love these guys.) Unfortunately, they subsequently abandoned the policy that had saved them from the initial outbreak. I say this because I have to believe that having built a hundred foot wall (in a week, no less) around their city, nine men must have thought, A hundred feet is enough, thereby triggering the tenth man to disagree, resulting in a 200 foot wall. And so on forever — or at least until their supplies ran out or the men and women doing all the heavy lifting adopted their own policy — of decimation.

You have to fall into one of two camps to enjoy World War Z: either you must love zombies (really, really love zombies) or you must love Brad Pitt (a lot). The movie offers nothing else. The story is frankly inane, the supporting characters little more than living zombies themselves. And the dialogue? The only line I remember is one of Pitt’s: “Movement is life,” he says. Yeah, tell that to a tree. Maybe one of those 500 year old redwoods.

The movie might work if viewed as an absurdist comedy; it certainly has plenty of material. Take the scene in which hero Gerry Lane (Pitt) tries to save himself from rampaging zombies with a wall of luggage. Or the one where the Israelis, with the rest of the humanity rapidly being wiped out, decide to sing and dance. And then there’s the one where the man with the plan to figure out how to cure the zombie infection dies moments after he’s introduced. But not before he has time to fill Lane’s head with a lot of gobbledygook about serial killers. Oh, didn’t you know? Mother Nature is a serial killer. And here I was thinking death was a natural process and the old bird was just doing her job.

“The history book on the shelf,” Abba tells us, “is always repeating itself.” Would that it were true. It’s been a lot of years since George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, but the people who made this movie went off and did something new. Romero’s film was about people; this one is about mayhem. It’s like Gone With the Wind — if Gone With the Wind had been an endless stream of nasty Unioners bayoneting everyone in sight.

Whenever people in movies go to war, I have to ask myself what they’re fighting for. In this film, Lane is blackmailed into working for the U.N. and, when it appears as though he may have died in the line of duty, his wife and two daughters are designated “non-essential” and ordered off the Navy ship he worked so hard to get them on. Well, hell, sign me up. The zombies aren’t the problem; they’re the solution to the human apocalypse.

Dumb as it’s depiction is in this film, I think the Israelis were on to something with that whole 10th man thing. When nine movie producers think a movie is a good idea, I propose Hollywood find a tenth to suggest the opposite. Since nine out of ten movies are pretty bad these days, I like those odds.

Suddenly (2013), directed by Uwe Boll


Dumb remake of a smart B-movie about a small group of killers who take a family hostage in order to use their house as a sniper’s nest for killing the President.  All the strengths of the original are missing here, things like a good script, believable characters, strong acting, and a plausible plot.  Ray Liotta plays one of the film’s many stereotypes, an alcoholic war veteran.  Dominic Purcell is the wooden leader of the bad guys.  Cole Corker plays a school-skipping teenager who gets to listen to his grandpa comparing kidnapping and assassination with once having been stuck in a white-out.  It’s all directed by a man best known for his adaptation of BloodRayne and a host of other video games.

Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013), directed by John Luessenhop


He’ll fuck you up, he’ll fuck you up / Yes, God will fuck you up / If you dare to disobey his stern command

If you google this song, which plays near the beginning of Texas Chainsaw 3D, you will find a few instances of it being miscredited to the John Butler Trio, an Australian group with several platinum albums to their credit. In fact, it is by John R. Butler who, as one website puts it, “has had few brushes with greatness.” Can’t imagine why.

I tuned in to this movie thinking it was the remake of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 original. On Netflix, the “3D” is absent from the title. But I was egregiously uninformed. Turns out that the Chainsaw “franchise” currently consists of no less than seven films. The one I was thinking of was the fifth, from 2003. This one is the most recent. But for my purposes it was just as good, in the sense that it references nothing but the original. In no other sense is “good” a word I would use to describe it.

The premise, for example, rewrites Hooper’s film. If you’re going to do a “sequel,” you ought at least to get the original facts straight. According to this film, Leatherface, the chainsaw wielding maniac from the first film, belongs to and lives with an entirely different family. Not psychos themselves, they nevertheless protect him and cover for him. But they are no longer able to do this when Sally (from the original) escapes and tells her story to the police. The police and several townspeople converge on the house and burn it to the ground, killing all but two people: Leatherface, of course, and a little baby, whom one of the vigilantes adopts. Twenty-some-odd years later, the baby has grown into buxom Heather Miller (Alexandra Daddario). A letter she receives one day informs her that a grandmother she never knew she had has died and left her her house — and all within it. It’s in Texas, baby, and that means a road trip for Heather and her friends.

At first, it’s kind of fun comparing the doppelgangers of the characters from the first film. The only one missing is Franklin, Sally’s invalid brother. He gets double-doppled, being both the odd man out (Franklin) and the hitchhiker they pick up on the way. These kids would never pick up the twitchy weirdo of the first film, of course, so this time he’s young, good-looking, and ripped. Makes sense, I suppose, but the vérité of the original is missing. There, the kids were hippies, and picking up hitchhikers was a natural thing to do. Here, the sex-crazy girls are already paired up, so what’s the point?

But it isn’t the details that kill this movie (though the complete lack of humor is striking when judged against the original). It is its moral anarchy, which begins with the wholesale overhaul of Leatherface himself. Hooper’s film hinted at the character’s retardation yet never used that as an excuse for his behavior. This movie, over the course of 90 minutes, takes him from psychotic killer to sympathetic victim. It’s a change that cascades to the cast: if Leatherface isn’t really the villain, then who is? The answer is, government and the police. One of those vigilantes, you see, has somehow gotten himself elected Mayor. Gimme a corrupt cop, gimme a crooked politician, but don’t slap me in the face with a retarded homicidal hero. Blood may be thicker than water, but Heather’s is pure sludge. She can forgive the murders of her friends because Leatherface is “family.” Really? I’d say her friends would be better off without her, but her misunderstood cousin kind of made that a moot point.

Used to be, what with the virtual guarantee of nudity in a horror film, that people worried about the conflation of sex and violence in the impressionable minds of the audience. This film has no nudity (not quite), but combining violence with its bizarre take on what is right and honorable is more insidious still. Of the original, Roger Ebert wrote, “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to make a movie like this, and yet it’s well-made, well-acted, and all too effective.” Regarding this new film, I agree completely — with everything before the first conjunction.

Seduction of the Innocent (2013) by Max Allan Collins


It was in the author’s afterword and acknowledgements that I learned that the heroes of Seduction of the Innocent, Max Allan Collins’ roman à clef about the comic book controversy started by Dr. Fredric Wertham with his 1954 book of the same name, had been featured in two previous novels. With this third book, Collins says, his originally envisioned trilogy was complete. Not that he wouldn’t mind writing more books about Jack and Maggie Starr, if readers asked for them. How many readers that would take is anyone’s guess. He admits, however, that the publisher of the first two decided against the third, so I’m guessing it wouldn’t be many.

Seduction comes to us thanks not to readers but to Hard Case Crime. Hard Case Crime seeks to bring back the pulp excitement of the paperback original, both by reprinting older works and by publishing newer ones. Without HCC I may never have discovered Michael Crichton’s John Lange books. I like HCC and I like their lurid covers. And I say good for them that they allowed Collins a venue for Seduction. Even if his original publisher probably wasn’t crazy.

Fortunately this trilogy is thematic rather than narrative; I don’t think I missed much not having read the previous two. All are centered on various controversies in the comics world: who really owned Superman, the Al Capp/Hal Fisher fued, and now Dr. Wertham’s crusade against comic books that ultimately resulted in the creation of the self-censoring Comics Code Authority.

Fredric Wertham is here named Werner Frederick, and fans of comic book history will have fun matching real people and titles to those in this book. Mad, for instance, is Craze, and Bill Gaines is Bob Price; Batman becomes Batwing; and so on. Collins tells us that his caricatures are ultimately fictional, but at least in Wertham’s case, the representation is clearly wish-fulfillment as well, as Collins takes one pot-shot after another at the good doctor.

“Good” doctor? Within the last couple of years, a study was made of Wertham’s research and scientific rigor as it related to comic books. Let’s just say that Wertham, it seems, took a few shortcuts on his way to his conclusion that comic books should be removed from the hands of children under 15. But let’s also “remember” that Wertham established the Lafargue Clinic in Harlem, where he specialized in helping black teenagers. Collins reluctantly cops to this fact of Wertham’s good nature, but he can’t resist undermining it: at one point in the book, in a scene set in the clinic, he has Werner look about “dismissively.” In his afterword, he admits that Wertham “made important contributions to the Civil Rights Movement.” These, however, he says, are “understandably” overshadowed by what he had to say…about comic books. But he’s right: the naked quest for money will always trump a social conscience. Especially when writers like Collins fixate on the one and “dismiss” the other.

I’ll be honest and say that I don’t view Wertham as a villain even regarding the comics controversy. In fact, I think many (including Collins) who have read Wertham’s book have missed the point entirely. I think maybe Wertham did. The point isn’t that comics are (or were) so awful, but that society needs to take a hard look at itself and its values and how it promotes those values. This, to take an example ripped, as they say, from today’s headlines, is exactly what cartoonist Joe Sacco has done in this strip about the Charlie Hebdo killings. I applaud Sacco and I applaud Wertham, both of whom are telling us that real freedom comes with a price, that of responsibility. And that things are never quite so simple as the knee-jerk crowd would have us believe.

One of the funny things about Collins’ book — which is certainly sometimes intentionally funny, but this isn’t one of those times — is the way Collins takes Wertham to task for trying to manipulate people into seeing things a certain way while all the while doing exactly the same thing to his readers. The action is set in the 50s, but the heroes are plucked straight from our own 20-teens, being just as liberal and open-minded and tolerant (even of the Mob, though not, of course, of domestic abuse) as they can be. Jack Starr is Mike Hammer, but decidedly soft-boiled. And yet it’s all part of that funny brand of liberalism that tells us women are men’s equals, so long as they’re beautiful, stacked, and sex-crazed.

Anyway, the story is about what happens when one of the players in the comic imbroglio gets murdered. It’s lightly written, a fast read, and kind of fun if you’re into comic books. But it is a crime novel: don’t let it mug you.

Mountain of the Dead: The Dyatlov Pass Incident (2013) by Keith McCloskey


Mountain of the Dead scared me silly.  Each page added to the horror as my suspicion turned to certainty:  author Keith McCloskey did all his research for the book online. Oh, I have no reason to doubt the claim that he actually traveled to Russia, but to what end is a mystery. He was given no special access, for example, to any material not readily available otherwise. He might just as well have stayed home at his computer. Which is exactly what I would encourage his potential readers to do.

I might assign some value to his “research” if he merely saved me the time of tracking down a number of websites with interesting information. What he clearly discovered, however, is that most of the sites in question regurgitated the same facts as all the others. Those facts being in short supply, he had to find another way to fill out his book, and he picked the laziest possible solution: to turn the book into a survey of all the deranged theories surrounding the case.

The case is this. Nine skiers/hikers went into the Russian wilderness, camped on the side of Kholat Syakhl (“Mountain of the Dead” in one translation, the not quite so forbidding “Dead Mountain” in another), and died. The manner and circumstances of their deaths are what give this tale its otherworldly sheen. For reasons unknown, they appear to have exited their tent by knifing through it from the inside, calmly walked about a mile down the mountain — wearing no shoes and grossly inadequate clothing — split into two groups, and froze to death. The bodies belonging to one group were otherwise more or less uninjured while the others included significant internal damage and strange injuries such as missing eyes and a missing tongue.

The eyes and tongue tell you where McCloskey is going. One’s first thought regarding them must be predation, but that’s much too prosaic for this guy: he doesn’t even bother to address the issue. He lumps them together with broken ribs and fractured skulls to suggest the fantastic, quickly dismissing the fact that the condition of the bones just might have something to do with where the bodies were found; to wit, at the bottom of a ravine. He dismisses this due to a lack of external injuries to account for them. Which begs the question, how unusual is this really? I, for one, would like to know. McCloskey, however, doesn’t want to tell me.

So after the initial description of the events leading up to the tragedy and then its immediate aftermath, the bulk of which can be found on Wikipedia and other easily accessed websites, about all McCloskey has left are those crackpot theories. We get them all: UFOs, paranormal activity, and secret government slash military tests gone awry. He does provide a brief rational explanation: an avalanche followed by “paradoxical undressing,” a known condition that causes a freezing victim to actually remove their clothing. But he admits he isn’t buying that; he falls into the military testing camp.

Interestingly, in spite of his own preference, he gives the most space to a ludicrous story of a man who once encountered (he says) floating lights that reacted to the human glance. I suppose even McCloskey found this bit of fantasy too much to take so he lets the man tell it in his own words. It reads like a very bad movie treatment as this clown unabashedly embellishes his alleged and rather benign experience with deadly pressure beams and precise details of how the hikers met their various ends. He ends the tale with warnings and advice to us all in case we should ever encounter this dangerous phenomenon. To call this or any of the viewpoints expressed in this book “theories” is disingenuous to say the least.

That said, the case itself is certainly bizarre, the more so, of course, because there are so few facts. With what is known to date, I can’t even begin to figure it out. I can understand the hikers cutting their way out of their tent if it was covered by a small avalanche, but I cannot fathom them then abandoning it along with all their supplies. I suppose if they were fearful of more snow coming down the mountain, they may have instinctively turned tail, but then why the seemingly orderly march down the slope? It truly makes no sense.

So, yeah, the case is a real campfire story. The book, on the other hand, is merely fuel for the blaze.

The Frozen Ground (2013), directed by Scott Walker



In the Venn diagram of The Frozen Ground and Things That Interest Me, here’s the shaded overlap: Nicolas Cage, Serial Killer. That’s an awfully short list. Good script, exciting story, plausibility — none of these get anywhere near the middle.

That last one — plausibility — is particularly vexing as this film is based on the real-life manhunt for serial killer Robert Hansen, who kidnapped, tortured, raped, and then hunted women in the Alaskan wilderness, finally killing them. One of his victims, Cindy Paulson, escaped, and her eyewitness account became the first big break in the case. Her influence on this film is significantly less positive.

The truth of the matter is that the actual events weren’t exactly made for Hollywood. Investigators were only beginning to realize they were dealing with a serial killer when Paulson escaped. Hansen’s M.O. involved flying the women to his cabin; Paulson escaped, in fact, while he was loading the plane. Police were then able to take her to the airport, where she identified Hansen’s Piper Super Cub. After breaking Hansen’s alibi for the night of Cindy’s escape, police searched his home and eventually discovered the murder weapon, as well as a map on which Hansen had helpfully marked the locations of the graves of his victims. Hansen confessed. Truth, as it happens, isn’t always stranger than fiction.

Writer-director Scott Walker fixed that, though, by speculating what would have happened if 18-year-old prostitute Cindy Paulson (Vanessa Hudgens) not only teamed up with lead detective Jack Halcombe (Nicolas Cage), but remained a Hansen target to boot. I’m not speculating when I tell you that what happens is predictable nonsense.

All the faux excitement generated by Paulson’s peril is wrapped up in a script that wanders aimlessly between Halcombe, Hansen, Paulson, and a couple of ancillary characters — Paulson’s pimp and a hired thug — as if searching for its genre. Is it a police procedural, a thriller, or a redemptive tale of a brooding cop and a tragic hooker? You know it’s confusing when the man who murdered at least 17 women isn’t even the bad guy of the climax.

So back to my diagram. Let’s put a check next to Cage, who outperforms the script. But “serial killer” — we’re going to have to cross than one out. I think Walker must have been so determined not to glorify Hansen — he barely shows us anything the man actually did — that he ultimately made a movie about someone else.