Killtoberfest 2 – #7: Carrie (2013) / The Dark Half

In All, Movies by Kyu

The next Killtoberfest 2: Kill Me Twice, Shame On Me double feature exhibits a very simple connection: they’re both very faithful adaptations of Stephen King novels. One is decent; the other utterly, utterly pointless.

First up, the pointless one: Kimberly Pierce’s 2013 remake of Carrie.

Carrie was, of course, Stephen King’s first big novel, rescued from the trash by his wife and subsequently published for quite a bit of money. It was the movie, though, Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of the same name, that really put King on the map. Popular and influential, De Palma’s version cemented many of the story’s key scenes into popular culture, particularly the two bloody brackets of the “plug it up” opening and the Prom night climax. But ostensibly this R-rated movie is for kids, right? Kids don’t watch old movies. Let’s modern this up, throw some iPhones in there, maybe a Chloe Moretz or two, CG it up and then sit back and watch the money disappointed reviews roll in.

There are a couple of problems here, and yes, I realize they’re all mutually incompatible. Shut up.

1. The remake is too faithful.

This remake isn’t shot for shot, but it is (so far as I can remember) scene for scene with the original film. Most of the emotional shadings are the same. Why make the movie at all if you don’t have a different perspective on it? Why does Brian De Palma’s version feel more feminist than Kimberly Pierce’s?

2. The remake isn’t faithful enough.

Everything that is different about the remake is essentially worse. For example, De Palma’s features a scene, not in the book, where students buy suits and dresses for the prom in zippy fast motion, a perversely goofy scene given the violence to come. Pierce includes that scene in her remake, but replaces the fast motion with an actual (albeit short) dance sequence. It’s weird and uncomfortable because it makes no sense for the students to be dancing–Pierce has tried to recreate the same emotional feel of the original scene, but sourced it to objective events rather than subjective filmmaking techniques (the difference between De Palma directing the scene so the students look happier and Pierce directing the scene so the students ARE happier). The result is that you’re forced to compare this version to the original, and to be repulsed by even slight imperfections in the recreation. This is the case with the entire film: the remake is stuck in the Uncanny Valley.

3. The remake doesn’t update the story enough.

Kids today are different. Not better or worse; but they talk and act differently than they did back when King wrote Carrie (and he was in some ways drawing from his own experience as a student in the 1960s). They bully differently. Same principles of behavior, but different expressions. How does the remake take this factor into account? Well, one of the students has an iPhone and later she uses Youtube. What, no Myspace?

Also, the deadliest school shooting in the previous decade (’67-’76) was Kent State. The next worst one killed three people. Before the remake you had Newton, Virginia Tech, Columbine… It blows my mind that you could make a movie in 2013 about a bullied student using superpowers to take semi-justified revenge on a gym full of high school students and not think about Columbine, but that’s apparently what happened here. Even King’s original novel does a better job of addressing this–told in epistolary fashion, the book gets to tell the main story but also express the after-the-fact perspectives of the media, academia, and traumatized survivors, showing how we process these kinds of events.

Is it impossible for this movie to have lived up to my admittedly contradictory expectations? Maybe. But the filmmakers set themselves an equally impossible task by trying to live up to what is, on the one hand, a beloved cultural icon, and on the other, a movie that was the product of a radically different culture. And that’s a task they also failed to live up to. As I was watching the remake, I became very curious to see what it would do with the ending–the original film closes with one of the most famous and effective jump scares of all time. Would they recreate it? Strive for the same effect via a different technique? How do you successfully execute a jump scare that everyone knows is coming?

Answer: they don’t. The movie includes the last scene from the remake but simply doesn’t put a scare in. It just ends. That’s what this remake is as a whole: slavishly faithful to a movie it doesn’t understand and has no hope of recreating, but also scared to venture out on its own and try new techniques or new perspectives. As with many remakes, the question it inspires is, “Who the fuck is this for?” Not me, apparently.

From pointless to decent: George Romero’s The Dark Half.

I have a mild inclination to watch Stephen King movies at best; I’m not obsessed. There are plenty of them I haven’t seen, and if I never see, say, Sometimes They Come Back, I don’t think I’ll be regretting it on my deathbed. Most of them, I’m well aware, are just trash–not because of the source material, which is usually not only good but fertile ground for invention (as directors like Kubrick and Reiner have proven), but for a handful of reasons that most of these adaptations repeat. Whoever takes on the film gets distracted by the flashy horror, but King’s horror is often unrepentant (or even gleeful) cheese; what makes it work is King’s facility with characters and his clean, efficient prose. When you throw most of the characterization by the wayside, and don’t replace the prose with its cinematic equivalent (the kind of muscular directing found in, say, Darabont’s work), what’s left is… well, a big pile of cheese. It’s this fundamental flaw that has sunk a ton of King adaptations, from Firestarter (1984) to Dreamcatcher (2003).

What makes The Dark Half unique is that it’s failures are, as far as I’ve seen, unique among this group of films. Rather than a failure to properly adapt King’s novel of the same name, The Dark Half suffers from the limitations of its source material.

I reread the novel recently, and was struck by the possibilities that a film version might hold for the story. The book is downright weird, and not very good. The basic concept: a literary writer ends a secret career authoring pulp crime novels under a pen name, only to find that the resentful pseudonym has come to life and will kill to get its job back. It’s obviously something that was very personal to King, a metaphor about his life (his own “dark half” being his extensive drug addictions) wrapped in a thinly-veiled version of, again, his own life (King also wrote gritty crime novels under a pen name, which he was forced to give up), but both novel and film struggle to make something so esoteric relatable to anybody who isn’t a celebrated writer. (For example, both versions mention a connection between Stark, the pseudonym, and protagonist Thad Beaumont’s alcoholism, but neither makes a big deal out of it, or mines the concept for any actual dramatic interest.) Moreover, although parts of the book are very cinematic (mostly Stark’s bloody murder spree through New York City), other parts feature a lot of telling versus showing (long, long conversations between the Beaumonts and Sheriff Pangborn about the case, for instance), and the novel as a whole tends toward deus ex machina and whatever the Latin for “ass pulls” is when it comes to the supernatural elements. These are all things I felt might be fixed by the movie version, and so I was curious to see if that actually happened.

George Romero (Night of the Living Dead, Martin), writing and directing, makes excellent choices all the way through, choices which go a long way towards fixing those problems. He makes a meal out of Stark’s rampage, including a tense, haunting sequence set in a dark hallway lit by alternating red and blue skylights, and brings an ethereal beauty to Thad’s ominous dreams about Endsville. The novel’s slower passages are tightened and clarified, the movie restages the opening to include the plot’s inciting incident (related in the novel through one of those long conversations with Pangborn), and the connection between Thad’s writing and Stark is also made clearer (particularly in the invented scene of Thad lecturing about the value and freer nature of the imaginative self, the writer’s unconstrained id). Timothy Hutton, dual-cast in the role of Thad and Thad’s peculiar ‘twin’, delivers two good performances. His Stark is graceful, clever, and coldly vicious, while his Thad somehow makes the character’s contradictions work–we see the clumsy, good-natured man caught in an astonishing situation, but we also see that that darker half is a part of him, as well, the half that would rage and do violence to those who wrong him.

So where does Romero go wrong? Mostly where King does. The most interesting plot element in both works are the questions of what Stark actually is (as Pangborn points out, he’s not even a ghost–he’s a man who never was) and how the sparrows figure into that, but both book and movie do a poor job of elucidating the supernatural forces going on here. Neither can avoid making these elements concrete (and thus frustratingly vague), when they’re really more psychological or symbolic in nature and effect; less concrete, rather than more fully realized, might have been a more fruitful direction. Romero even makes a point of having the character with all the supernatural exposition in the novel be much less helpful in the film. “I wish I could give you some kind of magic bullet,” she says (or something to that effect); in the book, of course, that’s pretty much what she does, handing over the deus ex machina of the climax. But Romero doesn’t replace this with anything more meaningful than a fistfight.

Likewise, the most interesting idea in the book is that of Thad’s ambiguity towards the being he’s created (and the part of himself that being represents). The best moment in King’s book is the very very end. Thad has made the choice to destroy Stark once and for all, but this is the result, the last lines in the novel:

Behind him, Thad slowly raised his hands and placed them over his face. He stood there like that for a long time.

And the best part of the story isn’t even in The Dark Half; it’s the throwaway mention in one of King’s subsequent stories that, after Stark was destroyed, Thad went back to drinking, ruined his marriage, and eventually committed suicide. The implication being that the man couldn’t deal with having had denied and destroyed a part of himself–even a dark, vile part. That somehow he needed that half to be whole.

Of the few missteps the movie makes, the worst is not expressing this ambiguity. Without it, the story’s emotionality becomes less complex, and the movie’s other mistakes stand out more. (The least sensible change the movie makes is to the relationship Sheriff Pangborn has to the case. In the novel, Thad’s fingerprints have been found at the scene of a violent murder; but Thad has an iron-clad alibi, preventing Pangborn from arresting him and forcing the Sheriff to open his mind up to the outlandish reality of the situation. In the movie, Pangborn is friendly enough with Thad to weigh fingerprint evidence against “well, I know he wouldn’t do a thing like that” and decide to wait on arresting Thad until more evidence turns up. It kinda breaks that part of the story; luckily Pangborn, as the voice of reason in an unreasonable story, just isn’t that important to the proceedings.)

Ultimately The Dark Half is just too weird to work, a mix of elements that could only succeed in a delicate balance that neither King nor Romero gets right. But that said, at least Romero makes the attempt, and does manage to improve upon the original. The same can’t be said for the Carrie remake. Like George Stark, some movies just never should have existed in the first place.

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