Parents always ask me whether certain movies are appropriate for certain kids. I know where they’re coming from. Who wants to have to sit up all night because someone saw The Wizard of Oz before she was ready? Who wants to have that argument with a spouse who told you 60 times The Birds was a bad idea? But there’s often no good answer for that question. You might as well pick up a shirt off the rack at Gymboree and ask me if that will fit your daughter. With all due respect: How would I know? You’ll just have to take it home and hope for the best.
In my experience, different films and television shows freak out different children differently. Most standards of appropriateness are a joke: I found Jim Henson movies scary. Ask concerned parents what they watched when they were kids and when did they watch it. That’s a more useful bar. The experience of fear is an important cultural rite. The dread that knots your stomach is an amazing feeling that, as an adult, you neither forget nor top.
Mommie Dearest was the first movie that completely scared me. Brian De Palma’s Carrie was the second. I was too young for both, which means I was the perfect age. Parental betrayal fuels the great horror tales — even the camp ones. The horrors of Mommie Dearest lasted long enough to find them laughable. They could be conquered through performance and quoted at recess. Carrie was less theatrical. It used cinema to cast its pall.
One night, I found it on television and watched the whole thing. Watched the whole thing, appalled. At 8, all you know is what you see: buckets of blood, hurtling knives, an imploding house. But the movie also proffers for your nightmares greater horrors: shots of a hideous-looking crucified Jesus, a hand shooting from a grave, the heart-attack sound cues, that eerie Vaseline glow, Sissy Spacek. That last one sounds mean. But it gives the film half its power. Spacek had cartoon-big eyes and jungle-cat freckles. Her hair was limp straw. Her smile sagged. Her Southern accent was soft and beguiling. No one I knew said “mama” with such sadness, disappointment, and ambivalence. I’d seen The Wizard of Oz at least five times by then. I knew: This girl would have made an amazing Scarecrow.
But instead of Oz, she was in a kind of zoo. Life at home with her crazy mother (Piper Laurie) was hell. So was life at school among a chorus of bullies. Yet, she was treated as if she were velvet. She looked like she was scared of everything, including herself — her body, her feelings, her telekinetic powers. You knew why not even her mother liked her: She gave everybody the creeps. De Palma’s style gave the movie the rest of its strength. The camera floated. It swung. It swerved. It jumped from long shots to close-ups. Behavior as banal as group laughter was rendered in motion so slow that it was like watching something be born and die at the same time. Carrie, of course, was alive, and the terror in all that energy was exhilarating.
An 8-year-old couldn’t have known the source of that slowed-down, sped-up moviemaking was Brian De Palma. OK, the movie was based on Stephen King’s first published novel, which was adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen. But the delivery mechanism for its scariness comes from a director with distinct, purely visual sensibility. As a movie, it lingers and looms. Carrie is so distinctively a De Palma movie that surely most people who see it think afterward of him before thinking of King. (They’re coauthors now.) How do you make an audience forget the original film?
Either you hope your audience sees no films (that’s how you wind up with 1988’s Carrie, the musical) or you hope it wasn’t around in 1976 to see De Palma’s movie. That’s how you wind up with the remake that opens today. Carrie 2013 gets into territory that feels modern. It’s still set in a suburban town ruled by beautiful people. But when this Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) has her period and freaks out after phys-ed and the other girls pelt her with tampons as she pleads for help, it’s like an episode from Emily Bazelon’s recent book on bullying. One girl, Chris (Portia Doubleday), whips out her phone, makes a video, and posts it online. That’s one source of the remake’s horror: mortification. Revenge is another. The taunting gets Chris banned from the prom, another mortifying punishment. To get her back, she, her boyfriend (Alex Russell), and their friends decide to ruin Carrie’s night, which is possible only because a guilt-stricken classmate, Sue (Gabriella Wilde), renounces bullying and loans Carrie her boyfriend (Ansel Elgort).
The result is what most people going to this movie will want to see: Carrie’s telekinetic retribution. It’s the one sequence of the movie that’s worthy of De Palma and King. The director, Kimberly Peirce, treats it like the catastrophe it is. Part of the improvement is a matter of better effects. Carrie can raise her arm and send a hundred bodies flying across an auditorium. She flings people into glass and electrocutes them. This goes on for what feels like a long time. For most of it, Peirce keeps the character conducting the mayhem from the stage, covered in blood, her eyes wild with a kind of arousal. That’s the big difference between the first movie and this one: Now Carrie gesticulates her rage. She leans forward and bends back. She’s Celine Dion wailing in Vegas. She’s Gustavo Dudamel snake-charming the L.A. Philharmonic. She’s a mutant in the X-Men offshoot of your choice. This Carrie isn’t just striking back, she’s performing. Peirce even has her float up and sail above her victims.
Her power display produces a scene of spectacular destruction. And in addition to all else that sequence evokes, you’re free to associate it with modern terrors. You’re free to think about the spate of massacres that were less common in 1976. Carrie is victim first, and her revenge ought to feel good. But Peirce complicates the exhilaration. She glorifies her heroine without overdoing the slaughter. It’s as if she has anticipated the evocation of various shootings, and in showing all the people whom Carrie doesn’t kill, spares her from seeming like the dangerous young men in the news.
But that makes for an interesting movie as opposed to one that frightens you. The film can’t maintain its strong, disturbing opening. “What is this cancer?” moans Carrie’s mother, Margaret White (Julianne Moore), writhing on the bed, while the camera fixes on the sight of something wriggling out from under her nightgown. That introduction is Gothic and lyrical and trashy, and, even though Moore doesn’t tear up the movie the way Piper Laurie did (Laurie didn’t seem to know her character had no powers), she gives the role what it needs: deranged fever.
Margaret tortures the adolescent Carrie with her paranoid evangelism, and the adolescent tortures her with her telekinesis and need for friendship and normalcy. It occurs to me that Lee Daniels’s Precious was actually based on a novel by Stephen King — halfway, at least. But this movie has a tougher time connecting what goes on in the White household with what goes on at Carrie’s school. You watch this movie, involving as it is, with the sinking feeling that De Palma’s Carrie would never happen in 2013. You can tell because, for one thing, Carrie doesn’t look like Sissy Spacek. She looks like Moretz, a pert, fit blonde. Moretz is still a teenager, but she might be the wrong teen for this part. With Moore, she can do needy and reluctantly spiteful. She’s actually pretty good. Yet what you’re missing is the hook for the bullying, the reason. (Lindsay Lohan was rumored to be King’s choice for a remake he reportedly found redundant.)
With Spacek, it was obvious. She had a secret beauty that stuck out against all the mocking confidence and hotness. (Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, William Katt, and John Travolta played the other kids.) Spacek was instant weirdo while Moretz easily could have played one of Carrie’s assailants. If De Palma’s Carrie is at all funny now, it’s because the actors seem older than their parts. They’re reliving youth. For a kid, seeing adults act like adolescents must have added to the scariness: High school will never be over.
De Palma made his movie seem like a gauzy bad dream reaching out to pull you in. That’s what terrifies a child — that a movie is coming for you. Peirce isn’t that kind of visual artist. Her movies include Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss, and you can feel her caught in the awkward position of wanting to challenge the material, to open it up further rather than furnishing the film with as much vaginal imagery as she does. You can also sense her not wanting to alienate the audience or the studio. Some of what happens here is accessorized with the possessed-mommy horror that has been big at the box office this year. But with Moore, the possession feels entirely psychological. Peirce wants to make a hit, and, even with source material this strange, it feels as though she has. But if so, that’s all she has made.
There’s another sort of horror, the sort that’s all too real. On May 13, 1985, the city of Philadelphia dropped a bomb on the roof of 6221 Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia. Its stated goal was to flush out the residents, members of a prickly black liberation group called MOVE. The explosion caused a fire that was permitted to grow into an inferno that destroyed 60 additional homes and killed 11 men, women, and children. (The city urged the evacuation of the surrounding homes in eerie anticipation of the day’s events.) Local news followed the police standoff, the helicoptering in of the bomb, the conflagration, and the bittersweet conclusion many, many hours later. A year after seeing Carrie, I watched the MOVE disaster on television from my school, all day, in a state of bewildered fascination. My grandmother lived five blocks away from the building.
A searing new documentary by Jason Osder called Let the Fire Burn, opening this week in select cities, recalls the event with sharp dismay. It is composed primarily of old footage: a news feature on Philadelphia’s Channel 6 (the ABC affiliate) about the MOVE organization, video from previous confrontations between the group and the police, news reports from the scene of the standoff, home-video images, and the deposition of little Michael Moses Ward, who died last month.
In a little more than an hour and a half, Osder lays out the fundamental conflicts — between both the organization and the police, and the organization and its black neighbors. MOVE viewed itself as a religion, and you can see why people called the outfit a cult. Its members followed the teaching of a man who named himself John Africa. Everyone in his small, mostly black flock took the surname Africa and lived in arguable squalor. They said they wanted to abolish the boundaries of race and class. They were loosely vegan and defended the rights of animals. They harbored distrust of authority. They kept their dreadlocks short and unruly. (My grandmother’s friend Irma called them Raggedy Africa.)
The police kept its eye on them. In a decade, MOVE members were arrested almost 200 times, and nine of them were imprisoned after a 1978 police standoff. The police assaulted Delbert Africa when he emerged unarmed from a house. Officer James Ramp died after a MOVE shootout. Something was ripe to happen, and the move to Osage Avenue appeared to be it. The neighbors were forced to file complaints. The rest is grim history.
The film’s eloquent structure lets every side speak (two affronted former MOVE members, the police and fire commissioners, city councilmen) and lets you see that the police used poor judgement and excessive force. But that you-are-there style gives you only an impressionistic sense of what life was like inside that organization. You’d like to hear from Michael Moses Ward now. You’d like some present-day recall. This is a rigorously passive feat of journalism. In that absence of clarification, a kind of mystery grows about whether MOVE was a truth-to-power group, a terrorist organization, or just a nightmarish neighborhood nuisance. It really depends on whom you ask. Even so, this is a stunning film that gets at that primal need to experience fear. It’s scary as both a movie and a still-reverberating moment in time.