Westworld: Nothing can go wrong

Westworld. Michael Crichton’s thought-provoking and fun 1973 sci-fi classic that he both directed and wrote. I watched this movie dozens of times as a kid. Anytime it would come on TV I would stop what I was doing and tell my parents not to bother me for two hours. This film was my introduction to artificial intelligence, robotics, westerns, and entertainment.

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I recently got to see this film on the big screen in 35mm and was moved to write a review of one of the seminal films of my youth, and how it holds up today.

Westworld is a tightly paced film that has influenced countless movies since. I would list The Terminator, Predator, Blade Runner, Jurassic Park, and Ex Machina. The cast is perfect, and the direction is unique. The plot is relatively simple. In the future, an amusement park for adults has been created. Delos is a three-part theme park where you can immerse yourself in one of three worlds. Roman World, Medieval World, and West World. You wear the clothes, eat the food, reside in lodgings, and participate in activities of the time. We follow the two protagonists James Brolin and Richard Benjamin as they experience the old west of 1880 in Westworld.

The entire scenario is a not-so-veiled criticism of Disneyworld, which just opened 2 years prior to this movie. I liked the dark social commentary that human beings would love a vacation where they could legally kill people and have sex with people without any consequences. Because they aren’t legally human beings, they are simply robotic humans, androids, tools for our entertainment and self-gratification. They get rebuilt every night, so what’s the harm?

Casting Yul Brynner as the iconic gunslinger was absolutely genius. He capitalized on our pop-culture memory of him from The Magnificent Seven in 1960. In Westworld he literally wears the same all-black outfit that he wore in that film 13 years earlier. And casting him as the bad guy was in the same vein as Sergio Leone casting Henry Fonda as the bad guy in Once Upon a Time in The West. He has few lines of dialogue, but he sells every line. There are shots of him where he is just standing and staring with his hands on his gunbelt that I’ve never forgotten. His glare is beyond powerful.

Later in the film he has silvery mirrored contacts in his eyes to show his improved visual scanning implants. Not only does he look creepy and badass, but this reminds me of Ridley Scott’s similar eye effect used in Blade Runner to signify when a character is a replicant. There are many similarities to Blade Runner, which is one of my favorite films. I’m sure Ridley Scott watched Westworld and knew he could take those themes to a higher level 9 years later. In Westworld, the only way to truly tell if a person is a robot is to examine their hands for little ridges between the digits of their fingers. In Blade Runner, the only way is to proctor the Voight-Kampff test, and even that psychological test isn’t 100% reliable. Especially when the replicants don’t know that they are a replicant and they have been gifted memories from someone else’s childhood.

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I love the odd little scenes Crichton puts in that aren’t necessary to the story. One great shot near the end of the film shows a roman statue that has been broken and left in a river. There is a drop of water from the river running down its face like a tear. This happens as everyone is being killed and raped off-screen. Another is the reflections in the mirrored cop sunglasses that the pilot of the hovercraft wears when transporting patrons to Delos. Nothing about these scenes adds to the plot in any way, but that mysterious shielding of the eyes and reflections of moving landscapes is striking and memorable. I wonder if he had seen Lucas’ excellent debut film THX-1138, which also used a similar device. Except in that dystopian future film, the entire face of the robotic police officers was reflective metal.

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The other surreal scene that really stuck with me is the employees of Delos coming out in the middle of the night to collect the dead bodies of the day’s adventures for later repair. The music is haunting and very unusual as the anonymous workers set up a large spotlight to work by. Nobody is talking to each other as they gather the bodies and cart them away in a truck. The night shift really does clean up corpses at 4am so nobody has to see the carnage over breakfast. When I watched it this time I wondered if the clean-up crew themselves were also robots. Doing the grunt work out there in the middle of the night cleaning up the broken bodies of their own kind. This scene could’ve been cut, or not even filmed by another director. It could just be mentioned by the scientists that the clean-up crew gets the bodies in the middle of the night to be repaired. But he took the time to create this ghostly unnerving scene and provided some of the best ambient music in the film.

Speaking of the soundtrack, I have to say that Fred Karlin did an amazing job. He filled the movie with very unusual sounds and musical effects instead of the normal orchestra playing compositions like we get in so many movies. No stock melodies that telegraph what emotion we should be feeling in that particular scene. His soundtrack has numerous noise cues that I still cannot identify. During the final chase there is one particular sound that reminds me of helicopter rotors with a touch of a horse snorting. He also uses a tense sound effect that is quite similar to one used to great effect in the 1968 Gregory Peck western called The Stalking Moon. That film also has a very long final chase/fight between the protagonist and antagonist. And it turns out, Fred Karlin did that soundtrack as well. That explains why I love both films so much. His Westworld soundtrack is on its way to me from Amazon.com right now.

The western is one of the truly American experiences, and we have a wealth of films to prove it. From the John Ford and Howard Hawks classics, to the graphic and genre-pushing spaghetti westerns (my favorite), to the western mythic quest films. The common themes include revenge, honor, brotherhood, and men out of time. Directors like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah, Sergio Corbucci, and Clint Eastwood hold the top spots for western directors for me. Who among us didn’t play western playground games as kids, or imitated John Wayne’s drawl? It’s almost a universal American lust for the old west and wild frontier that makes a film like Westworld so appealing. Wouldn’t you pay $1000 a day (1973 costs) to dress up as a gunslinger and go around with your best friend drinking whisky and challenging some shady cowboys to a gunfight? Robbing banks? Starting a bar-fight? Visiting the brothel? Chasing down and killing all the bad guys?
Many of us would.

This film certainly slingshotted ahead the conversation about artificial intelligence, robotic realistic sex dolls, and computer viruses. This movie seems simple on the surface, but has deep themes that become more and more relevant as technology advances. Today, young schoolchildren can name ‘computer virus’ and know exactly what that entails. There is a growing industry selling realistic life-like human sex dolls for thousands of dollars. And the idea of supercomputers becoming sentient and possibly deciding that humans are in need of extermination has been a topic of countless science fiction books and films of the last 45 years. Westworld certainly was prescient regarding these scary and relevant issues.

Watching this film again as an adult I recognize one particular reason I liked it so much. Every time our heroes encounter the villain played by Yul Brynner, they dispatch him in a very distinctive and violent manner. Now I know that Crichton was probably copying the great Sam Peckinpah with these western shootout scenes. Peckinpah was famous for his multi-camera coverage and slow motion death scenes. And the use of blood squibs. Every time there is a gunfight with the Yul Brynner character it goes immediately to slow motion, and the ‘ballet of death’ that Peckinpah loved so much is shown perfectly. Blood squibs not only explode from the front of the man in black for the entrance would, but they also burst out his back for the exit wound. Often he is blasted out a window and the hundreds of glass shards tinkle and reflect the sunlight as his corpse falls below.

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Another 70’s stereotype is the use of brightly colored fake blood when characters get shot. In Westworld, this criticism can be explained away because the creators of the robotic gunslingers would have wanted any bullet wounds to be very noticeable and graphic. After all, these are paying customers. We want to make sure that the patrons see their enemies get shot to bits and have the bright blood spurts to celebrate it. It’s a red world, after all.

This film also likely was one of the first to use thermal vision effects. We’ve seen this a hundred times since, most noticeably in the 1987 John McTiernan action film Predator. But in 1973 this technology was just becoming available and filmable with computer effects. Speaking of special effects, they all hold up quite well. The Yul Brynner character has his faceplate removed to expose the circuitry inside. It’s still a riveting scene and is very believable. Other scenes involving acid being thrown on his face results in a creepy couple of shots where his head is smoking. Another striking shot is of his body laying on the ground after being burned. The smoke effects remind of something John Carpenter would do years later. And as covered earlier, the shootout scenes and resulting bullet wounds are graphic and realistic. I love seeing Yul Brynner firing his rifle repeatedly with the casings flying out, exactly the way he did in The Magnificent Seven. But this time, he is the relentless evil force hunting the innocents.

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His character truly is the original Terminator. I believe James Cameron said that the Arnold Schwarzenegger character from the Terminator films was influenced by Yul Brynner’s Westworld character. I think also the same was said from John Carpenter about Michael Myers in the original Halloween movie. Unstoppable. Pure evil. And each with a few false endings where we think they are dead but they aren’t yet.

“Listen, and understand. That terminator is out there. It can’t be bargained with, it can’t be reasoned with, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse or fear, and it absolutely will not stop…EVER, until you are dead.”

This is the entire final 30 minutes of Westworld. The hunt that goes from Westworld out into the gorgeous cinematography of the mountains then into Medieval world. At times Brynner’s character seems to just be toying with his prey. At other times he is limited by his technology damage and has to get creative. He truly has over-ridden the 3 Laws of Robotics created by Isaac Asimov. These prime directives were to be encoded into the brain programming of every robot.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws

Yes, Michael Crichton went on to deal with a similar theme park gone wrong scenario in Jurassic Park. But Westworld is the original, and a damned great ride. I’m shocked at how good it still is. Western fans and science fiction fans should all watch this movie again. As Yul Brynner famously says, “Your move.”

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Spaghetti Apocalypse

Four of the Apocalypse is a 1975 spaghetti western film directed by noted horror director Lucio Fulci. And it’s unlike any film I’ve ever seen.

I am a huge fan of spaghetti westerns. As a teenager I fell in love with the big three by Sergio Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly). While those are probably the most satisfying and well done, there are literally hundreds of others to explore. A few dozen of them are great and worth your time. Unfortunately, once producers saw a successful genre they milked it too deep. Putting out so many mediocre-to-bad spaghetti westerns killed the genre for a long time.

I had already been a fan of Lucio Fulci’s horror films. He became known as the ‘Godfather of Gore’ in the 70’s and 80’s and earned that moniker from such great films as The Beyond, Zombi, and The House by the Cemetery. When I learned he dabbled in various other genres including spaghetti westerns, I quickly tracked this film down and gave it a watch.

Honestly, I kind of hated this film when I first watched it. I imagine that was because I went in with expectations of a gore-fest like his other films, and/or I expected a gritty revenge tale in the style of Death Rides a Horse or the original Django. I found it very unsatisfying and the music irritating. Four of the Apocalypse in indeed an odd movie. Some would call it batshit crazy.

Here’s the description from the back of the Blue Underground DVD release:

Having survived a vigilante slaughter, four hard-luck strangers – gambler Stubby Preston, a pregnant prostitute, the town drunk, and a madman who sees dead people – escape into the lawless frontier. But when they meet a sadistic bandit named Chaco, the four are plunged into a nightmare of torture, brutality, and beyond. In a land that screams with the pain of the damned, can four lost souls find redemption and revenge?

Yeah I guess that is the basic description of the plot, but it’s much more than that. I can’t tell if Fulci wanted to just mess with our expectations of his film, or if he was trying for a more surreal and emotional classic quest story. The film at times feels like a road film, other times a pseudo-love story, a horror film, or even an exploitation flick. Normally this tonal change would sink a movie, but somehow I think that it works here. They are all flawed, anti-heroes that end up meeting a truly sinister and evil antagonist in Chaco.

One of the strongest performances, and a compelling reason to watch this film, is Tomas Milian’s role as Chaco. He exudes menace and malice with every squinty dusty glare. He based this character in part on Charles Manson. Scraggly hair, wild eyes, unpredictable, and sadistic. He clicks his ring against his Winchester rifle like a nervous rattlesnake about to pounce on a desert mouse. He draws crosses underneath his eyes in a completely striking and original move. He gives all four miscreants peyote and ties everyone up. He tortures a captive just for the sake of torturing them, rapes a character, kills many many people, and basically seems to have an agenda of chaos. Most recently, Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow seems to have taken much visual inspiration from Chaco. Much like Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz character in Apocalypse Now, his character doesn’t actually have all that much screen time, but he is talked about and feared and reacted to for the entire movie. And his presence dominates any scene that he is in.

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If the film was more hallucinatory and symbolic, it would give Alejandro Jodorowsky a run for his money. I was definitely reminded of El Topo and The Holy Mountain at times. But then the opening scene has great slow-motion shootouts with bloody squibs a la the great Sam Peckinpah. Parts in the middle of the film feel like a horror movie. The snowy landscapes bring to mind McCabe and Mrs. Miller and The Great Silence. The love story reminds me of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. This movie is all over the place. Maybe Fulci was inspired and intentionally mixing it all up. Maybe he was lost and didn’t really have storyboards or all the details worked out. Maybe he and the entire cast were drinking and drugging in the desert making it up as they went. All possibilities are valid.

Don’t watch is as a spaghetti western. Watch it as a mythic quest film. I think then the chance of disappointment would be lessened. Upon my second viewing, all the characters are archetypes and antiheroes desperately trying to escape a torturous and insane antagonist. Their surreal journey across the harsh desert will bring redemption, death, life, madness, and revenge, among other things.

One criticism is the music. Indeed there are numerous folk songs that, by today’s standards, seem to distract from the story. I hated the music the first time I watched it. Some of the songs have the exact vocal effects and style as 70’s Pink Floyd. Which makes sense since Dark Side of the Moon came out a couple years prior to this film and sold a bazillion copies. And, just like Keoma, another spaghetti western with questionable music, some of the songs actually are narrating the action on the screen. That’s a hard narrative choice to pull off without sounding corny.

But it was the 70’s and music like that was huge. It wouldn’t be any stranger than a current film using current bands and styles on their soundtrack. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out a few years prior to this movie, and I don’t love their use of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head. Some of the most successful album-oriented-rock acts then were artists like The Carpenters, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Eagles, etc.  Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Keoma, Mannaja: A Man Called Blade, and Django all use folksy acoustic music. So go into it knowing that this film is of its time, and it has some interesting music to show it.

But on the good side, this film is unusual and takes you to areas you didn’t expect to go. Which I love. One of the best scenes is when Bud is walking around naked in the rain talking to tombstones in the graveyard as if the people were there and could hear him. I’ve never seen something like that happen in any other movie. Another striking scene is when a small town comprised entirely of men all stop and react to the sound of a baby crying after being born. No baby had been born in the town prior, people had only died. The way the men rally around and celebrate that new life is touching, and something very unusual in movies, let alone a spaghetti western. Finding out the fate of the church caravan is very well framed and directed. I noticed a group of baby goats walking over to the corpse of their Mama goat when I watched it this week. What a subtle detail that probably took several takes and intricate staging.

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The cinematography is gorgeous and gives us creepy spiderwebbed rooms in an abandoned church. The director caught heat wave ripples in the air above the mountains when the band of four trudges across the wilderness. Images of the group carrying one person on a stretcher across the cracked desert playa are beautiful. It’s a surreal and almost nihilistic film where you’re just rooting for the least evil character. At times I feel like the film, and director Fulci, are actually sneering at us. When the film first came out it was apparently censored or banned in some regions due to some graphic violent scenes. By today’s standards it would only be rated R, or even a hard PG-13, but the subject matter and oppressive tone and dread certainly can add to it’s reputation. It is stark, violent, and disturbing stuff, to be sure. But I think marketing the DVD in this way does a disservice because then we except some horrific scenes of brutal graphic violence like in Fulci’s horror films. And what we get instead is a very unusual and actually poetic spaghetti western that will keep you on edge if you let yourself be drawn into it.

I’m a big fan of the final confrontation amidst shaving cream, blood, and a straight razor. This film stands alone in its greatness. I actually think that is is Fulci’s best film. Join the group of strange anitheroes on their quest across the desert of hell.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This Macbeth is mine

Well I finally have it. The filmed version of Macbeth that I had in my mind for my entire life. This film is so well done, from every single acting performance, to the music, the cinematography, the palpable dark feel of every scene. The entire movie is a mood piece, and that mood is one of dread, paranoia, and death.

It reminded me of Refn’s striking film VALHALLA RISING. Imagine the style of that film matched with very stylized slow-motion shots that elongate the moment of violence or anticipation of that violence.
I also was reminded of my favorite Werner Herzog film, AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. That film was a perfect match of long shots of the river or explorers moving through landscapes to the droning moody music of Popol Vuh. The director of Macbeth had to love Aguirre. He also matched similar visuals with striking music that keeps you anxious. Lot of violins and cellos and droning bagpipes lurk under most of the film.

The use of color and mist was inspired. Several shots of silhouettes of human figures walking reminded me of John Carpenter’s underrated film, THE FOG. And AGUIRRE, again. Maybe a bit of THE WITCH. Many scenes choose a color scheme and stick with it. Many blues are used in the hills and castles, gold and yellow candlelight are used perfectly in scenes with Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and the bright reds and oranges are used in battle scenes of blood and fire. Sparks float by in slow motion as warriors draw their swords, and I could almost feel the heat from the maelstrom behind them.

A few scenes of character’s faces in a room of hundreds of candles reminded me of Ridley Scott’s amazing lighting in BLADE RUNNER. I was actually looking for the glint in Macbeth’s eyes that would hint that he was a replicant. I also recalled Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON, where he used natural light and specific lenses to actually film the period piece by the available light that was available at the time of the story. Candlelight. Every scene in Macbeth is gorgeous. The location shots in the Scotland and England landscapes are stunning. It was reminiscent of the New Zealand beauty in the Lord of the Rings films. It has the same attention to rolling hills, snowy mountains, and small lakes and rivers. The majesty of nature.

Nothing about this film struck me as being stagey, or ‘just a play filmed for the screen’ like the Roman Polanski version. This film makes Polanski’s version look like watching a poorly done high school play. It is certainly quite dramatic and heavy, and all actors were completely immersed in their roles. Lines and speeches we’ve all heard a hundred times seemed new and fresh. They didn’t do anything in an expected or familiar way. Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth gave the best portrayal of that character that I’ve seen. And Michael Fassbinder was a Shakespearean force of darkness. I truly believed that he was Macbeth.

Although it is violent and bloody and filmed in a very engaging manner, it still is Shakespeare’s words. So younger viewers expecting a hyper-edited action oriented film will, of course, be disappointed. If you’re not into the colloquial language of Shakespeare, steer clear. The olde style vocabulary combined with the heavy Scottish accents requires your attention. I will admit I put on the subtitles at some points.

Again, this is by far the best film adaptation of this play. I’m already looking forward to watching it again. Well worth the time investment.

THIEF, 1981 Michael Mann

Michael Mann is one of my favorite directors, and this is the first film of his that I saw when I was a kid. As an adult, I can re-appreciate this film on additional levels. This feels like Michael Mann’s rehearsal for HEAT, his crime classic from 1995. And what a great rehearsal it is. James Cann is fabulous. His diner scene with Tuesday Weld is reportedly his proudest moment of his acting career. He plays a great tough guy with a heart who has goals like all of us: starting a family, adopting a child, accumulating wealth and the status we all strive for. But he is betrayed and broken. One particularly effective line is when he pulls a gun on somebody in his office and says, “I am the last guy in the world that you want to fuck with.”

But what makes his characterization so great is that he’s not just a one-dimensional tough guy. If Mann wanted that he would have written the part differently, and had somebody like Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood or Sylvester Stallone play him. Somebody larger than life, impervious to damage, and often quipping one-liners. But James Cann’s portrayal of Frank is so much more powerful because he is believable. An everyman. He’s been in tough situations and can certainly be the tough guy. But he gets just as upset over everyday things as he does deals gone bad or rip-offs. And his vulnerability in the infamous diner scene is expertly acted. Not many action characters spend time on-screen talking about adopting a baby, helping friends in prison, and  talking about past personal brutalizations. But this isn’t an action movie even if it appears like it on the surface. It really is a drama that happens to take place in the crime world. James Caan had been superstar for almost a decade when this film was released due to the worldwide success of The Godfather. His Sonny Corleone character was unforgettable. We know that going in, and sort of expect that hot-headed reactionary character. Mann surprises us by giving us a calm collected criminal that prides himself on thinking everything out beforehand, which is the exact opposite of Sonny Corleone. When the film builds to the inevitable violent climax, we are almost relieved to see him finally react in this manner. One could almost imagine Thief as an alternate universe where the Sonny Corelone character from The Godfather actually lived, left the protection of the family, and struck out on his own as a diamond thief. Sonny calmed down and learned self-restraint and calculated planning, and became Frank.

Michael Mann is a meticulous director who researches police procedure like no other. Part of the reason that Thief, Manhunter, and Heat work so well is the attention to detail and the honesty of what you see onscreen. He employed actual high-end bank robbers as consultants on this film, and a couple of them even have small roles. The detail of the heist scenes is unequaled. No dialogue is used, just the amazing droning pulse of Tangerine Dream on the soundtrack. Watching them burn their way into a strong safe with the use of a thermal lance is surreal and mesmerizing. This is pure visual film-making that really draws you into the scene, making you feel like you somehow snuck in behind the diamond thieves and are right there with them.

I must comment on the epic denouement of the film, in which James Cann goes against logic and does what is right for his personal code. (SPOILERS) He purposely breaks his girlfriend’s heart and sends her off (financially taking care of her) so she will not be in danger. He destroys everything linking him to his double-crossing bosses, devaluing any possessions they could claim as theirs. He literally blows up any connection to that life of material possessions that was once his dream. His house, his local bar, his used car business, and dozens of cars.

This is a portrait of a man erasing himself.

To quote Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.” After he destroys all of this, he goes after the bad guys for revenge, not caring if he destroys himself as well. An unofficial version of Pink Floyd’s song ‘Comfortably Numb’ pushes the final action along. Mann steps into a comfortable zone of staging action scenes like no other director. He had just done numerous episodes of Miami Vice, and the stylized and colorful action and editing styles do indeed remind me of that show. I was a teenager when Miami Vice was on TV, and I absolutely loved the marriage of popular current music loud in the mix with the striking visuals. Mann used this technique in the climaxes of both Thief and Manhunter, two of my favorite films.

Tense, exciting, stylized and rewarding shootouts ensue in the climax.  This is a fantastic crime drama that everyone should see.

SITTING TARGET

Sitting Target is one of those movies I would catch on TV growing up as a kid. I’d stop what I was doing and change my plans to watch it. An admittedly adult film, I felt like I was getting away with something by watching it. I wish more people knew of this 1972 movie, as it is one of the greatest gritty revenge films of all time.

The plot is simple, but with an interesting twist. Oliver Reed’s character is in prison. His wife visits him to tell him that she wants a divorce and is pregnant by another man. So starts his twisted plan. He loses his mind over this revelation and decides to break out of prison for the sole purpose of killing his wife and her lover (and unborn child).

This is a tour de force for Oliver Reed. He is a barrel-chested alcoholic, deep-voiced everyman, and in this film, a seething sociopath. Reed spends the film obsessed and simmering, you can’t take your eyes off of him because you know he is about to erupt at any moment. I love hearing him bellow lines like, “You bloody bastard!” or “You conniving bitch!” in full rage.

This was probably the first film that introduced me to the anti-hero. Where the main character has amoral motivations and isn’t a particularly likeable person. It’s a lot to ask of an audience to follow the story of this man’s revenge quest to murder a pregnant woman, but somehow it works.

Oliver Reed plays Harry Lomart and his cell-mate Birdy is played by Ian McShayne. He has been a great actor for many decades that most of us know recently from his portrayal of Al Swearengen on Deadwood. The unfaithful wife is played by Jill St. John, and the detective that tries to keep her safe is played by Edward Woodward. Both are perfectly adequate for their relatively small roles.

I love that this movie pulls no punches and doesn’t hold back at all. It defines gritty 70’s revenge cinema. There is no comic relief, no cheesy songs, and no tonal changes. It is a simple tale told economically and filmed using some very creative and unusual methods. It revels in its darkness and nihilism. This film came out 2 years before Death Wish, and one year after Get Carter. I honestly think this film is far better than Get Carter, but because they were both British productions released around the same time, often this movie gets compared to that Mike Hodges movie starring Michael Caine.

The music was done by Stanley Myers and is perfect. The soundtrack is unusual and a bit jarring, which fits the theme of the film.

The direction by Douglas Hickox is inventive and deftly done. Lots of interesting framing and camera angles, including use of the split diopter lens. This makes the object in the foreground and background sharp and in focus, while the objects in between them are blurry. Brian DePalma adopted this and used it heavily later on. For the introductory scene where the wife visits Harry in prison to give him the bad news, the director had a challenging scene. How do you make a scene of two people talking through a window interesting? Rather than the typical A-B shot back and forth repeatedly, Hickox made a truly fascinating scene. He used extreme close-ups on their eyes and faces and set up reflections in a unique way. He used the shadows from the slats in the talking window to a film noir effect, bisecting their faces and sometimes obscuring their mouths. Or he would align the reflection in such a way that one character’s profile appeared directly in front of the others facing the same direction. It’s a truly inventive scene that gets your attention. A lesser director would’ve filmed this straight and boring. There is another scene with multi-panel mirrors that Brian DePalma famously copied in Scarface with the character reflected (or split) into multiple images. Symbolic of the fractured mind and soul, I imagine, but also just a damned great image.

The prison escape is tense, brutal, and exciting. Once Harry and Birdy break out, he acquires a Mauser and starts tracking down his wife. Gun aficionados love this gun. It’s a 9mm automatic handgun attached to a removable rifle stock, also called the ‘broomhandle’.

My favorite scene is a chase with two motorcycle cops following Harry through a bunch of laundry drying lines. Everyone is obscured by the flowing white sheets and clothes hanging from the various lines, and they hunt each other in the surreal sea of fabric. Instead of dramatic movie music, the director just ramped up the police radio chatter and the bizarre police sirens to create a dreamlike scene that, of course, ends in violence and death.

The film builds to a great conclusion that I felt was perfect. Nihilistic and brutal, you won’t soon forget it. The lighting, the editing, and the slow-motion would make Sam Peckinpah proud. (Also the end scene has the famous London Battersea powerstation smokestacks that Pink Floyd used for the cover of their 1977 album ‘Animals’.) If you are willing to go down this seedy road of the London underground with Oliver Reed, it’s well worth your time. Honor among thieves. The beatings, gunplay, chases, and overall darkness make for an excellent jailbreak/revenge thriller.

This line of dialogue sums up the film beautifully, “The spirit is weak, Harry. The flesh even weaker.”

The CARRIE remake is better than the original film

The 2013 remake of Carrie is better than the 1976 original version.

I know this is a surprising opinion, especially coming from me.

I rarely think that a remake is better than the original. The inability of Hollywood screenwriters to come up with a new idea has meant that any and every revered film of the last 40 years is being remake or rebooted, and most of them are terrible. I firmly believe that the 70’s was the greatest decade in American cinema. I typically think that we should leave these classic films alone, not re-shoot them with popular actors of the day and pour millions of dollars of bad CGI all over the screen. I’m also a big fan of Brian DePalma, and have seen his version at least 15 times.

However, the new version vastly improves on the story and virtually eliminates any cheese or dated tropes of films made in the 70’s. Gone are the excessive slow-motion scenes of characters simply walking around. Also gone is the gratuitous (and again slow-motion) soft-porn of the opening scene in the girl’s shower. This always came off as unnecessary and salacious. The music cues that were exaggerated and at best cartoonish are gone. Best example: listen to the music in the original when the girls are doing pushups and laps on the field. Notice the complete absence of music here in the new version. Speaking of music, DePalma outright stole the music from Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho several times. This is unforgivable. I honestly don’t really even miss the split-screen gimmick during the climax. That was innovative in 1976, but there are reasons why no director has utilized this method successfully since then.

Spoilers follow, but who hasn’t read or seen Carrie?

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie did do admirable jobs in the original. But the religious nut-job of the  mother played by Piper Laurie often approached camp and lost the ability to creep us out. Julianne Moore does a much better job as Margaret White in the remake. One addition that I thought was brilliant was making her character a cutter. Seeing scars on her arms and, in one very compelling scene, watching her cut herself with a sewing tool, was a  welcome addition showing us the extent of her own psychological damage. Julianne Moore does more to terrify us by speaking quietly and calmly instead of screaming like a banshee. And don’t worry, the famous “And then he took me” speech is there, and done better.

The new version of Carrie recreates every important scene from the original but wisely cuts several extraneous scenes that don’t do anything to help the story along. Best example would be the scenes of dysfunctional couple John Travolta and Nancy Allen arguing, slapping each other, and solving their problems with a blow job. This was probably considered ‘character development’ but truly is just silly 70’s improvisation that should have been cut in the first place.

One major change that I totally approve of is the decision not to kill the gym teacher that was always supportive and helpful to Carrie. She dies in the first film to shock us with Carrie’s uncontrolled and indiscriminate rage, but it always rang false that the one person who reached out to Carrie in kindness would die along with the actual tormentors.

Updating the story to fit modern times is often one of the biggest challenges of doing a remake. This version, of course, had to include the technology that everyone has on their cell phones now, the ability to video record anything anywhere. Of course, some teenage sociopath would take out their camera and film a nerdy girl being pelted with tampons in the shower as she freaks out not knowing why she is bleeding. This update is done very believably and makes it more real for today’s audiences.

Another addition is the scene that starts the film showing the Julianne Moore character giving birth to Carrie and not really knowing what is happening. She is then seen contemplating killing the newborn, even grabbing a pair of large scissors and holding them over the infant. I loved that foreshadowing. During the film’s famous final confrontation, one of the implements of death for the Mother is a large pair of scissors.

I appreciated a new scene showing the Mother actually leaving the house and working at a job. She is sewing at a dry-cleaning/restoration shop, and this is where we see her dig a stitching tool into her leg while dealing with an irritating customer. In the original film she doesn’t really have a job or a reason to  leave the house except to walk around door to door proselytizing and occasionally getting a cash donation from neighbors who just want her to politely get her out of their home.

The climax where Carrie loses it and unleashes her telekinetic powers on everyone at the prom is far better in the new version. I always felt that the 1976 version wasn’t quite enough. Some people die, but far too much time is spent showing students getting knocked around by a water hose and a couple of school administrators getting electrocuted by the microphone. In the new version Carrie doesn’t just stand motionless on stage, but holds her arms out in a truly creepy orchestra-conductor-of-death pose. She is controlling the forces of destruction more directly, and the visage of Carrie covered in pig’s blood with the wall of fire behind her killing her fellow students is chilling. One death by an electrical cable that ignites the dress of a girl, and her spinning around burning is particularly beautiful.

The death of the two worst characters (Billy Nolan and Kris Hargensen) in the original was always a bit of a missed opportunity as well. They see Carrie walking home after the prom massacre and try to run her over with his car. Carrie gives them the look of death and spins their car over, which of course explodes for no reason. But that dual-death was never particularly personal and was very anticlimactic. Problem fixed in the new version. Carrie indeed uses her powers to stop the car, but a grisly shot of Billy’s face hitting the steering wheel and Kris freaking out follows. Then Kris takes the wheel and tries to run over Carrie herself, but Carrie raises the car up in the air as the engine revs loudly, drawing out Kris’ final moments of helplessness. They get to lock eyes and share a confrontational understanding. A gory and valid testimonial for wearing your seat belt follows, and Carrie finishes her revenge on her nemesis with much more satisfying explosions.

Another improvement is the Mother’s death scene. The original scene is unfortunately marred by visible strings on the kitchen utensils, and Piper Laurie’s over-the-top sexual noises as she is impaled and dies. Watch the scene again, it’s unintentionally comical. OK, we understand that she has about 9 orgasms and dies in a poetic Jesus Christ pose. I get that her repressed sexuality and religious guilt over having a child may be expressed with her finally having orgasms as she is penetrated and goes to finally meet Christ. However, that symbolism is something better accomplished in book format. Some subtlety would have been nice.

All of the actors and actresses do a great job, and it’s nice to see a bunch of unknowns filling out the cast besides Julianne Moore and Chloe Grace  Moretz. Chloe truly impressed me with her portrayal of Carrie. She looks nothing like Sissy Spacek, and this works in her favor as you don’t particularly think of the older film while watching the new one. Chloe does wonders with just her body language or her eyes, portraying the deeply insecure, timid, socially awkward, bullied teenage girl. Her face is radiant when she goes to the prom and is having possibly the first good time of her high school experience. We want her huge smile and happiness to continue forever, but we all know that soon she and the entire prom is going to hell.

My only very mild ‘complaint’ is that Chloe is, frankly, just a but too gorgeous to really be believed as the geeky nerdy introvert that everybody picks on. Even without makeup and wearing dowdy clothes, her eyes, lips, hair, and facial structure still make her stand out as a knockout in the rough. In reality, boys would be chasing her around like crazy. But I understand the difficulties of casting choices.

And the final welcome change is the very ending of the film. The original version wanted to get one  last cheap jump-scare in. So when Sue visits Carrie’s house to leave flowers, Carrie’s hand bursts out of the ground and grabs Sue’s wrist, seemingly trying to pull her down into hell with her. Of course, this gimmick was just a dream/nightmare that Sue was having. That worked in the 70’s, and spawned about a million rip-offs of that type of unexpected scare. The new version has a much more subtle ending.

As with most authors, their first book is often their best. Stephen King’s Carrie is indeed one of his best works, and now we finally have a film version that honors that.

A final note, there is even a subtle tip of the hat to The Shining in this film. Stephen King often references his other characters or events in his books, connecting his various worlds for those readers paying close enough attention. I was happy to see this done in this film. But I’ll let you find that for yourself.

Carrie is the best horror film of 2013, and the best remake of a horror film period. Go see it.

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