What would Tanner Boyle say?
When we film fans play the game of selecting our most iconic character of a given era, I let everyone else pick the Bickles, Balboas, and Corleones of the 1970s. I go with Tanner, the foul-mouthed, hot-tempered 12-year-old played by Chris Barnes in The Bad News Bears. Tanner is a supporting character in a modest but beloved comedy. In addition to the temper and the mouth, Tanner is mean. He's a tiny bully who takes way more beatings than he gives out, and in one remarkable moment, calls a 12-year-old teammate the N word. Keep in mind that The Bad News Bears was a family film and Tanner was one of the good guys. We rooted for Tanner Boyle. Could such a character exist today?
Which brings us to Kimberly Pierce's remake of the 1976 horror film Carrie. Brian De Palma's original Carrie is not a great movie, but it is an extremely effective horror nightmare, the kind that stays with you a long, long time. It is perfectly acted by its two leads (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie). Still, there are several plausible arguments for remaking it. School bullying is far more of a hot button issue today than it was in 1976. Modern special effects should allow for a more visceral experience of the gruesome aspects of the story. And it would be interesting to see the story with a teenager in the title role. (Spacek was 25 when she played high schooler Carrie White.)
Pierce's version is in most respects more realistically grounded. Whereas De Palma went for broader characterization, particularly in his villains, Pierce shows some nuance. She even turns De Palma's ultra-bizarre comic acid-trip mini montage of the boys trying on their wedding tuxes into a more standard rock and roll montage. A lot of the decisions work. And yet, I can't help thinking that Tanner would not be pleased.
In its two most memorable sequences, Pierce, perhaps constrained by 2013 morality, makes decisions that lessen the impact of her movie. One sequence (the second in De Palma's version, the third in Pierce's) shows the girls in the locker room, showering after gym class. Carrie experiences her first period, and not knowing what it is, becomes terrified. The other girls taunt her. De Palma shot his actresses in 1976 in various stages of undress. The production values make it first appear to be an arty soft-core porn film. That leads to the repressed Carrie enjoying the sensuality of her shower before the blood strikes. It is an extraordinary sequence, lambasted by some as being exploitative. They have a point. But De Palma nails the convergence of the erotic and the terrifying extremely well in this early sequence, and much of the rest of his story is predicated upon that feeling. Pierce does not show any of her actresses naked. They are all tactfully covered. Moretz was 15 at the time of filming and we have rules against such things today. Most of the other main actresses were over 18, but they were playing high schoolers, which makes it a very touchy issue.
The other sequence comes at the end, and this is your spoiler alert warning. Skip ahead if you don't want to hear details of the climax. One of the most difficult things about De Palma's original is how indiscriminate Carrie's final destruction is. She gets the boys and girls who antagonized her, but she also incinerates many innocent bystanders along the way, most notably sympathetic gym teacher Miss Collins. It is a biblical punishment, making an entire community seemingly complicit in the sins of a few. That has always bothered many viewers, and it appears to be one of the things that Pierce set out to correct. In her Carrie, most of the innocent escape. They are harmed, and they are traumatized, but they are alive. Most notably, the gym teacher, here named Ms. Dejardin, is expressly spared by Carrie. This certainly seems more just. But it dilutes the apocalyptic power of that ending.
The '70s were a glorious time in American film. Freed from the shackles of the Production Code, Hollywood began exploring things previously forbidden. Anti-heroes became fan favorites. Good guy cops could blow the heads off petty crooks and regular family men could throw the word "fuck" around with casual abandon. And there was plenty of nudity. There was almost a playful joy in being able to deal with adult issues in a way previously forbidden. Did it go too far and become tiresome? Did it become an affectation? Did political correctness choke it off? There was a time in the '70s when the bigot Archie Bunker was the most popular character on television. Archie doesn't exist today. Peter Griffin, who says even more outrageous things than Archie in Family Guy, does. But Archie was grounded very firmly in the reality of his Queens neighborhood. Peter is a cartoon, who says what he says with a nod and a wink, reminding you none of it is real.
That's what we get today, and it leads directly to a more palatable, dare I say more tasteful, but less impactful Carrie. As for 12-year-old Tanner Boyle, I actually know exactly what he would say.
"Show us your boobs!"
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