Monday, October 21, 2013

Suspiria

Dario Argento's Suspiria is the ultimate argument for style over substance in filmmaking. I've heard complaints that the plot makes no sense but I've never understood the argument. The plot makes perfect sense, it's just incredibly thin. Suzy Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American ballet student, relocates to Germany in order to train at a world-renowned dance academy in Freiburg, on the edge of the Black Forest. After she arrives she discovers that her new school is a front for a coven of witches. That's it. But onto this bare bones frame Argento builds one of the most outlandish, gruesome and beautiful horror movies ever made, a technicolor, art deco wonderland of a movie with terrifically over-the-top death scenes and a chillingly effective musical score that adds to the sense of unease every bit as much as the lurid visuals. It's sensory overload from start to finish and I adore every single minute of it.

I love stories about witches almost as much as I love stories about haunted houses. And have I mentioned that I love unsettling stories about ballet dancers, too? So how could I not love Suspiria? Everything about it makes me supremely happy. I'm basically euphoric the entire time I watch it and I have watched it many, many times. I like that the creepy supernatural vibe isn't confined to the walls of the dance academy. From the very first frames of the movie, when she arrives at the airport late at night and hails a taxi during a horrific rainstorm, it's as if Suzy's surroundings are already conspiring against her. Everything looks brighter, more colorful but also more menacing than it does in the real world. The hypnotic, disconcerting score by Goblin kicks in on the soundtrack and it sounds like a music box possessed by a demon.

Every location in Suspiria ought to feel dangerous considering that the power of the witches extends beyond the academy. Anyone who uncovers their secrets or crosses them in any way meets with a horrible end. Student Pat Hingle (Eva Axen) uncovers the true nature of the dance school and is brutally murdered that same night. The school's blind piano accompanist, Daniel (Flavio Bucci) gets into an altercation with instructor Miss Tanner (a wonderfully creepy Alida Valli) and is killed hours later when his own service dog viciously turns on him. The witches themselves never get their hands dirty but they seem to be able to summon dark supernatural entities to do their bidding at a moment's notice. And these things don't mess around. Although all the deaths in Suspiria are memorable (Stefania Cassini's Sara actually falls into a room filled with razor wire - a whole damned room filled with razor wire) Pat's is the most over the top and unforgettable. Stabbed through the heart, strung up by an electrical cord and plunged through an enormous stained glass skylight, it is relentlessly brutal but also garishly beautiful.

I guess you could argue that the resolution to Suspiria feels a little easy. The witches appear to be all-powerful but wispy little Suzy is able to defeat them fairly quickly in the film's final moments. I think the storybook ending works, though, because the entire movie kind of plays like a dark fairy tale (Argento's color palette for the movie was even inspired by Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). Despite its barbaric, surreal nature Suspiria ends on a triumphant note. One that is probably as close to a "Happily Ever After" as you're going to get in a horror movie. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Haunting

Robert Wise's The Haunting is the grandaddy of haunted house flicks. Adapted from excellent source material (Shirley Jackson's brilliant The Haunting of Hill House) it satisfies on every level. Beautifully filmed, terrifically acted by the small cast and genuinely frightening, this is the haunted house movie by which all others should be measured. I have never seen its equal.

The film opens with an introduction to Hill House and its wretched history. The imposing home was built by Hugh Crain, as a gift for his wife, who is killed in a carriage accident in the driveway, just moments before she would have first set eyes on the house. Crain and his young daughter, Abigail, move into the home and Crain remarries. His second wife also dies (after taking a tumble down the main staircase) and when Crain himself dies while abroad Abigail inherits the property. She lives to a ripe old age and dies in her bed, while trying to summon her live-in companion, who was out on the veranda canoodling with a gentleman from the nearby village and did not hear her employer pounding her cane against the wall in distress. The companion inherits the house but eventually hangs herself from the landing atop the spiral staircase in the library. After her death Hill House passes to a distant relative, Mrs. Sanderson, who maintains the property but opts to live elsewhere. 

The strange and tragic history of Hill House attracts Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson), an anthropologist and paranormal enthusiast intent on documenting actual proof of supernatural phenomena. Markway asks permission from Mrs. Sanderson for he and a carefully selected team of assistants, hand-picked by the doctor because of their own dealings with the paranormal, to stay in the house and record their experiences for a scientific study. Sanderson reluctantly agrees to the request but insists that Luke (Russ Tamblyn), her nephew and heir, accompany the team. The two men are joined in the house by Theodora (Claire Bloom), renowned for her psychic abilities, and Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), a fragile woman who has spent most of her adult life caring for her recently-deceased invalid mother. Markway tells Eleanor he chose her based on an alleged poltergeist incident from her childhood, when stones rained down on her family's house for three days. Eleanor tries to deny the incident ever occurred, even though it was witnessed by both neighbors and members of Eleanor's family. 

A married couple, the Dudleys, work as caretakers at Hill House. Mrs. Dudley prepares meals and serves as housekeeper for Markway and his team but, as she is quick to point out to Eleanor and Theodora when they arrive, once the sun sets she and her husband head for the village a few miles down the road. Hill House has something of a reputation in town and none of the locals want to be anywhere near it after dark. During the night, our intrepid team of ghost hunters will be very much on their own. From the moment she arrives at Hill House Eleanor senses that something is not right. She fights her recurring urges to back out of Markway's experiment, though, because, frankly, her involvement in his project is the most exciting thing that's ever happened to her. Finally free from the responsibility of caring for her ailing mother, Eleanor is anxious to make a fresh start and create a life of her own. She's also hungry for human connection and longs for the acceptance of Markway, Theodora and Luke. Wise uses voice-over narration extensively in The Haunting and Eleanor's every fear and insecurity is made abundantly clear to the audience. As frightened as she is of Hill House Eleanor also feels as if she belongs there, a feeling that grows stronger the longer she stays. 

Markway and his team begin to experience strange occurances almost immediately after their arrival at Hill House. Some can be explained by the design of the house itself: Hugh Crain, it seems, was both sadistic and misanthropic and intended his house to be disconcerting and unpleasant as opposed to welcoming and homey. All of the angles are slightly askew, creating an off-kilter sensation for the people inside. None of the doors are hinged properly and after they're opened they swing shut of their own accord. But nothing in the design of the house explains the loud, angry knocking sounds that Eleanor and Theodora hear outside their bedroom doors on their first night there. Or the strange, dog-like creature that Dr. Markway spies in the hallway and pursues onto the grounds, where it disappears. Or the chalk lettering on the hallway walls that spells out "Help Eleanor Come Home." Whatever's in the house has set it has sets its sights on Eleanor and it intends to keep her.

In order for The Haunting to be effective it has to work as both a character study and a ghost story and it succeeds, on both levels. The dynamic between the four principle characters is fascinating. Alliances are created and then shift from one instant to the next. The relationship that forms between Theodora and Eleanor is especially interesting. At times they are friendly and affectionate towards one another but at other times they squabble like spoiled children. Although Eleanor's motivations are clearly presented in Julie Harris's voice-over it's harder for me to suss out exactly what's going on with Theodora. I believe that she is genuinely fond of and concerned for Eleanor but I also think she allows her annoyance for the other woman's naïveté to sometimes get the better of her, which causes her to act out in childish ways. Luke, more light-hearted and skeptical than the others, is often her partner in crime, with Markway acting as a surrogate father of sorts to the diverse little group. Eleanor is attracted to Markway almost immediately and, despite the fact that he is married, he does seem to return her feelings to a degree. Or maybe he's just especially fascinated by her because of the way the house reacts to her. Of course all of these relationships might be misrepresented to the viewer, since the story is essentially told from Eleanor's point of view and she may not be the most reliable of narrators.

Eleanor's instability may very well explain away some of the strange phenomena (she could very well have written on the wall with chalk herself, for example) but not all of it can be attributed to her. There is definitely something going on with the house. Markway says it's not so much haunted as diseased. It's a house that was "born bad" and does seem to possess a sort of malevolent consciousness of its own, one that feeds off of the energy that certain people provide for it. People like Eleanor.

This is such a sad, unsettling and fascinating story. The cast is just terrific. It's always a pleasure to see Russ Tamblyn and his Luke brings a few moments of much-needed levity to an otherwise intense story. Claire Bloom is gorgeous and fascinating as Theodora, a role that is celebrated for its positive depiction of a lesbian character. At times aloof she is also warm and highly intelligent. I found Richard Johnson's Markway to be both charming and compassionate. His scenes with Eleanor are especially captivating and sensitive. But the movie belongs, rightfully so, to the brilliant Julie Harris. There's something so genuine and open-hearted about her presence onscreen. I always empathize very strongly with the characters she creates. Eleanor can be frustrating at times but Harris makes her so raw and so genuine that's impossible for me not to feel for her.

In addition to excellent acting the production values on The Haunting are first-rate. Wise is able to create more terror and suspense with well-placed sound effects than any number of lesser horror movies do with overblown CGI bells and whistles. It is a perfect example of less is more. The rich black and white photography creates deep, ominous shadows in the enormous, opulent rooms of Hill House. The film is gorgeously shot but every frame inside the house is oppressive and melancholy. The whole thing feels stifling and claustrophobic. It's a beautifully constructed nightmare.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Dead of Night

Dead of Night is my favorite anthology horror film. It's a movie that can be tricky to hunt down (and it is crying out for a remastered DVD release to clean up that muddled sound) but if you have Turner Classic Movies they are very good about including it in their Halloween line-up each October. One more reason to love TCM! The movie consists of five supernatural tales and a wraparound story to tie them all together. It opens with an architect, Walter Craig (Mervyn Johns), arriving at a country estate for the weekend.  Craig has never visited the house before but he has dreamed about it. Inside he's greeted by the other guests. He's never met any of them, either, but they show up in his recurring dream too. Craig is overwhelmed by a sense of foreboding. Based on the fragments he can recall from his dream he is sure that something horrible is going to happen. Though Craig feels he should leave the other guests encourage him to stay and, in order to assuage his fears, they decide to exchange their own tales of encounters with the supernatural.

The first two tales are the shortest and are both pretty standard ghost story fare (which is not to say they aren't enjoyable, because they are): in the first story a race car driver has an encounter with a spectral carriage which turns out to be the harbinger for a future tragedy, in the second a young woman meets and comforts the spirit of a forlorn, lonely little boy who was murdered by his sister. The third story is about a haunted mirror. There may be other stories out there about haunted mirrors but this is the only one I've ever seen. In it a woman, Joan, buys her fiancé Peter an ornate antique mirror. At first it behaves like a normal mirror should but, over time, it begins to show the surroundings of its former owner in its reflection. This alternate interior is only visible to Peter, who sees himself within the surroundings every time he gazes into the mirror. Joan begins to notice changes in her fiancé's personality and becomes convinced that the vengeful, murderous spirit of the mirror's former owner is attempting to control him. The fourth story, about rival golfing buddies who fall for the same girl, is the most lighthearted offering, even if it does contain a suicide and a visit from beyond the grave.

The fifth and final tale in Dead of Night is the longest and the most celebrated. It features Michael Redgrave as Maxwell Frere, a talented ventriloquist whose dummy may or may not be running the show. Redgrave is spectacular as Frere. His beleaguered showman is both tormented and terrifying. It's likely that Frere is suffering from Dissociative Identity Disorder, sometimes he's himself and at other times he becomes his dummy, but the story leaves just enough wiggle room for us to consider the possibility that his malevolent doll is acting of its own accord. The movie concludes with a resolution, of sorts, to the wraparound story that is both amusing and unsettling.

In fact, amusing and unsettling pretty much describes the overall tone of Dead of Night. It's not especially scary and at times it's downright playful but it is unsettling, even, I think, in its most light-hearted moments. It's got an incredible ensemble cast, all of whom are delightful, and a beautiful location. I'm probably a bit biased because I have a weakness for English countryside settings and movies made during the forties. If I had to live in a horror movie it would probably be Dead of Night. The malice in the movie is met with a fare amount of merriment and, if that's something you appreciate like I do, this one is definitely worth watching.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

May

Lucky McKee's May is one of the first titles that springs to mind when I think about my all-time favorite horror movies. I make a point to watch it a least once a year during the month of October. Sometimes I bust it out at other times during the year as well. Its influences are easily recognizable (the most obvious being Carrie and Frankenstein) but its quirky characters and visuals, punchy dialogue and kick-ass soundtrack make it a unique and very worthwhile viewing experience.

I found out about May via the late great Roger Ebert, who wrote a glowing review complimenting the movie's many merits. Although other critics were also buzzing about May Ebert was the only one whose site I looked in on regularly. Were it not for his enthusiastic and compassionate reaction to this movie I might never have known about it. His high praise certainly made me want to check it out.

When May came out about ten years ago I was hesitant to watch it, even though I really wanted to see it. The reviews I read suggested a high ick factor and I just didn't know if I could handle it. Just like I did with this year's new Evil Dead I waffled when it came to actually seeking out May and watching it for myself. Instead I did lots of homework in an effort to psyche myself up for it. I'm pretty sure I knew about every bad thing that was going to happen, in great detail, over the course of the movie long before I actually watched it. Fortunately May isn't really the sort of story where prior knowledge of the plot spoils the viewing experience. The outcome is projected in the movie's harrowing opening shot and the resolution seems logical, even inevitable. Plus, like CarrieMay is very much about the emotional and psychological journey of its titular protagonist and her interaction with the somewhat thoughtless but essentially decent people she crosses paths with over the course of the story. 

Like Carrie White, May Canady's had a weird and lonely childhood. We get a glimpse of it during the movie's brief prologue. May is an adorable little tot with one small physical imperfection: she has a lazy eye. Her mother is an obsessive perfectionist (the sort who gets mad when you tear into the paper on your birthday gift instead of methodically removing the wrapping so it's not ruined) and it only takes a few minutes of screen time to figure out that growing up with a woman this tightly wound might cause serious damage to a young person's psyche. May's mother is clearly horrified that her daughter is less than perfect. May must wear an eyepatch at all times, which perplexes her classmates, but that seems like less of a hindrance than a mother who instills in her young daughter the sense that she is flawed and should be ashamed of her physical appearance.

After the concise backstory the movie shifts its focus to May as an adult (played to perfection by the fantastic Angela Bettis). She works at a veterinary hospital and, owing to her lack of squeamishness, is excellent at her job. Her social life, however, is nonexistent. May is a shy, awkward young woman who lives alone and spends her spare time sewing and confiding in Suzy, her childhood doll and only friend. Suzy was made by May's mother and she is kept in a glass display box, because she's special. It's worth noting that May's parents don't seem to have any sort of presence in their adult daughter's life but, even now that she is on her own, May still abides by her mother's rule that "special" Suzy cannot come out of her box. It's sad enough that May's only friend is a doll but it's sadder still that it's a doll she's never even been able to hold in her arms.

Although she only appears in the first few minutes of the movie the presence of May's mother looms large as the story unfolds. As an adult May, like her mother before her, is obsessed with physical perfection and is dismayed by anyone or anything that does not measure up to her exacting standards. One day an auto mechanic named Adam catches her eye. May confides to Suzy that Adam is perfect and she fixates, in particular, on his hands, which she thinks are beautiful. May wants a real friend and she's decided it should be Adam. She visits an eye doctor who fits her with contact lenses to correct her lazy eye and then, through a series of awkward, hilarious, staged "chance" encounters, she gets Adam's attention. 

Adam is played by Jeremy Sisto. Although Clueless is almost twenty years old I still think of Sisto as the obnoxious Elton every time I see him. He does a good job in May, though, of being kind of cool and sexy in a shaggy sort of way. I can see why May would be attracted to him. Adam is a horror movie aficionado. He has a particular fondness for Dario Argento's work. He tells May that he thinks she's weird but that he "likes weird." Unfortunately for both of them Adam's threshold for "weird" is nowhere near as high as May's so it's not long before Adam, initially so intrigued by our heroine, becomes creeped out and breaks things off with her. May tries again and again to connect with the people around her. Her outrageously oversexed coworker Polly (a hilarious Anna Faris) practically throws herself at May but she seems to come onto every attractive woman who crosses her path with just as much gusto. If It's a serious, committed relationship that May wants she won't find it in free-spirited Polly. May thinks she's found a friend in Blank (James Duval), a mohawked punker with a Frankenstein tattoo and a weakness for JuJu Beans but he, too, is easily freaked out and quick to want to distance himself from the offbeat young woman.

Every person May encounters has a perfect part. Adam's hands, Polly's neck, Blank's arms. "So many perfect parts, no perfect wholes" May muses at one point. It's not surprising when this lonely, unstable young woman decides to take the parts she covets and combine them to create one truly perfect friend. That is literally what happens in the third act of May. Again, like CarrieMay plays as an increasingly quirky character study with unsettling overtones for the first two-thirds. After May is rejected, in one way or another, by all the people she reaches out to she finally comes undone and the consequences are, ultimately, tragic for both May and many of the people who've crossed her path. All the ick I was so worried about comes at the end of the movie. There is quite a bit if blood but it's Kool-Aid colored and not especially scary to see. The movie is scary not because it's gross but because Angela Bettis fully commits to the role of a woman who is pushed to the brink and then goes, enthusiastically, over the edge. It is heartbreaking and horrifying to witness. 

Much as she might scare me I identify so much with May. I relate with her obsessive nature and, to a lesser degree, her desire for perfection. I feel for her in her handful of encounters with Adam. She's never had anyone she cares about return her feelings and it's obvious that her emotions overwhelm her when she's around him. When he rejects her it's not surprising that she begins to unravel. I relate with the world of the movie on certain levels, too. The soundtrack features several tracks by the Breeders and The Kelly Deal 6000. The Deal sisters were pretty important to me when I was in college and I get a bit nostalgic when I hear them. I also love the aesthetics in May's crafty little apartment. All her well-ordered sewing materials and doll parts remind me of the types of things I collect around my house for art projects. I guess what I'm trying to say is that even though the world McKee constructs in May is specific and idiosyncratic it speaks to me on a personal level. And May herself speaks very clearly to me. And that is both satisfying and terrifying, which is what you want from a good horror movie. Isn't it?

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Innkeepers

Ti West's The Innkeepers is the movie I wanted Insidious: Chapter 2 to be. It's eerie and funny and incredibly understated. You can count on one hand the number of genuinely scary scenes but that's part of what makes it so effective. The bulk of the story is straightforward, bordering on mundane. The underwhelming atmosphere just ratchets up the tension for me. When nothing much was happening I couldn't help but think to myself "something is about to happen." The longer I had to wait for that something the more freaked out I became. Martin Scorsese, in the documentary Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures, talks about the effectiveness of the bland locations and people in Kubrick's adaptation of The Shining. He says you can tell something bad is coming because of the way everybody dances around it. The tension builds and builds until the evil can no longer be tamped down (I'm paraphrasing here - wildly). The same kind of thing is happening in The Innkeepers.

There are other similarities between The Shining and The Innkeeers. Both are set in near-empty hotels that boast violently tragic pasts. Both feature hotel staff protagonists and at least one character who is attuned to the bad vibes that the hotels are giving off. And in both stories there is a suggestion that the hotels are conscious on some level and are creating scenarios that will allow them to "keep" their protagonists forever (in much the sane way that Hill House wants to "keep" Eleanor in Shirley Jackson's exquisite The Haunting of Hill House). 

Speaking of protagonists, I love Claire, the adorable, awkward, hyper and completely dorky heroine of The Innkeepers. Here's the movie's premise: The historic but floundering Yankee Pedlar Inn is closing its doors for good. It's the last weekend that they will be open and front desk workers Claire (Sara Paxton) and Luke (Pat Healy) are holding down the fort. Luke has created a website dedicated to the tragic history of the inn and the alleged incidences of paranormal activity that have occured there. The problem is he's never really captured any great footage of the hauntings. Luke and Claire know that this final weekend is their last chance to get some good, concrete evidence to support the claim that the inn is haunted. They take turns manning the front desk and wandering from room to room with recording equipment, hoping for an encounter with the ghost of Madeline O'Malley, the young bride who hung herself in the honeymoon suite after her husband abandoned her. 

Luke and Claire are joined in the inn by a handful of guests. There's the grumpy young mother and her son, the sad old gentleman who insists on staying in the honeymoon suite where he and his wife spent their long-ago wedding night and, most interesting of all, former TV star turned medium Leanne Rease-Jones (Kelly McGillis). Although she initially clashes with Claire, Leanne eventually offers to help the girl "make contact" with the entity that resides in the Yankee Pedlar. Leanne explains that her gift allows her to see things that will happen as well as things that have happened, although the chronology of the events is not always clear to her and, as a result, it's sometimes difficult for her to correctly interpret the messages she's receiving. 

I love well told haunted house (or hotel) stories. I like a slow burn and lots of hints and suggestions and atmospherics. I like it when there are unanswered questions at the end, instead of tidy, thorough explanations. Not every style of storytelling benefits from ambiguity but haunted house stories, a lot of the time, do. I like unreliable narrators and the hint, just the hint, that maybe the events that are unfolding are just inside that narrator's head. The ShiningThe Haunting and The Innocents are three of my very favorite horror films. They all feature unstable people knocking around inside great big, foreboding, imposing locations. That, to me, is a formula for success. The Innkeepers may lack some of the atmospheric elegance of these earlier works but it's got a quirky charm of its own. I think it's a solid addition to this subgenre. Think of them as a family. If The Shining is the overbearing father, The Haunting is the fragile, long-suffering mother and The Innocents is the melodramatic spinster aunt then The Innkeepers makes the perfect goofy teenage daughter. It's great fun. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Carrie

Disclaimer: I have seen the 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie several times but I never realized, before last night, that William Katt, who plays love interest Tommy, was the same guy who starred in The Greatest American Hero. I am apparently the last person on the planet to figure it out and I am deeply ashamed, since I loved GAH when I was a kid. If you're still interested in my thoughts on Carrie, given how clueless I am about basic things like the cast, then keep reading.

How horrifying is the shower scene that opens Brian De Palma's Carrie? It is vicious and heartbreaking and Sissy Spacek's bewildered terror is palpable. This scene, where Carrie gets her first period while showering in the girls locker room, mistakenly believes she's bleeding to death and is bombarded with feminine hygiene products by her classmates, who find her frightened cluelessness amusing, sets all the events of the sad story of Carrie White into motion. Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), furious with her class for their callous treatment of the vulnerable Carrie, sentences the students to one week's detention. Anyone who gets out of line will be banned from the upcoming prom. Bad girl Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) mouths off on the first day of detention and has her prom privileges revoked. The angry and vindictive Chris masterminds a wicked plan to exact revenge; not against Miss Collins, but against Carrie. 

As Chris is plotting to destroy Carrie, good girl Sue Snell (Amy Irving) is trying to help the outcast. She convinces her sweet boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy agrees because he loves Sue and wants to make her happy. As he spends more time around Carrie it becomes obvious that he has developed genuine feelings for the shy, awkward girl. In the end, though, none of that matters. Thanks to Chris, Carrie is humiliated in one of the worst ways imaginable at the prom. Believing everybody in attendance was conspiring against her all along, and with the words of her abusive, religious zealot mother (Piper Laurie) ringing in her head ("they're all gonna laugh at you"), a stunned and horrified Carrie taps into her newly discovered telekinetic powers and makes the whole school pay for what's been done to her.

This is such a great movie. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie both garnered much deserved Oscar nominations for acting. To this day theirs are two of only a handful of horror performances to ever be recognized by the Academy. In addition to their formidable work in the movie Carrie also boasts terrific performances by its supporting players. Betty Buckley is great in her feature film debut. Her Miss Collins is smart, sassy and compassionate and her exchanges with Spacek's Carrie provide some of the most heartfelt moments in the movie. Nancy Allen's Chris is the perfect high school mega-bitch. She's spiteful and bossy but also determined and seductive. It's easy to see why her friends and her meathead boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) agree to pretty much anything she demands of them. Amy Irving's Sue doesn't have quite as much to do. Her character's motivations are better explained in King's novel and go beyond her simply wanting to atone for the way she's treated Carrie. In the novel King explains that Sue feels genuine remorse for her actions but she also wants to test the limits of Tommy's love for her by seeing if he'll agree to take Carrie to the prom. Sue is testing the boundaries of her power over Tommy just like Chris is testing Billy. Everything that happens in Carrie stems from the actions of the female characters, who are all asserting their power over the other characters in the story in one way or another. Miss Collins decides and delivers the appropriate punishment to her students when they misbehave. Carrie's mother, Margaret, raises her daughter as a single parent and calls all the shots in the White household. And of course Carrie discovers, over the course of the story, her own unique power and puts it to use, with devastating results.

Carrie, the novel and, I assume, by extension, its many adaptations, has been accused of misogyny and it's not hard to see why. It's easy to interpret the story's message as "Female power is scary and when women assert themselves bad things happen." While some of the characterizations and motivations are off base and outdated I don't have a problem enjoying the story and the characters. That has a lot to do with De Palma's direction and the fine acting of his cast, Sissy Spacek in particular. Spacek's Carrie White hardly matches King's physical description of the character, who is described in his novel as overweight and acne-ridden. With her strawberry blonde locks, fair, freckled complexion and large, expressive blue eyes Spacek's Carrie is absolutely breathtaking. She's as beautiful, if not moreso, than all the other girls in the movie. This doesn't undermine her performance, though, because Spacek plays the role of the timid, awkward, lonely outcast so well. She's so fragile and uncertain that it's often uncomfortable to watch her. Once she begins to understand her telekinetic abilities her confidence increases and that is satisfying to see. The bullying aspect of Carrie feels especially resonant now, given the horrific accounts of classroom bullying that seem to frequent our nightly news reports. I want the abused outcast Carrie to thrive and I root for her every time I watch, even though I know she's every bit as doomed as her tormentors.

I'm pretty fond of stories set in high schools. And I have a particular weakness for high school dance scenes. Carrie contains one of the most bizarre, disconcerting, fascinating and heartbreaking high school dance sequences ever committed to film. I'm talking about the part before the prank with the pig's blood, when it's just Carrie and Tommy together. Their one and only slow dance is so well-filmed and so well-acted. It may be the one true moment of happiness that Carrie experiences in her brief life and you can see that it overwhelms her. In that moment I understand exactly how she feels, so the scene overwhelms me, too. The camera swirls around the couple on the dance floor and the tone is both romantic and unhinged. Everything is about to go pear-shaped, in the worst way imaginable.

Carrie combines so many of my favorite elements into one great story. It's got strong, compelling female characters, supernatural shenanigans and teen angst. It's got fantastic seventies clothing and hairstyles. It's got Piper Laurie's unhinged Margaret referring to breasts as "dirty pillows." But more than anything it's got one of the best protagonists in any horror movie, ever. Like Dr. Frankenstein's creation, Carrie is both the monster and the victim in the tale. She holds my interest and has my sympathy from start to finish.