In this series I will be looking at horror films that have fallen through the cracks; the obscure, the underseen, the underrated, the lost.
As the latest version of Carrie is due to be released in the UK in just a few weeks I thought it would be a good idea to kick this column off with a look at the mostly forgotten TV Movie from 2002, which was apparently supposed to kick off a Carrie TV series.
This largely forgotten version feels not so much like a remake of Brian DePalma's film as it does a modern (well modern in 2002, which is surprisingly old fashioned now, as this is a high school without smartphones or even YouTube) adaptation of Stephen King's novel. Writer Bryan Fuller and director David Carson retain a few things that DePalma jettisoned, take a different tone with some of the performances and update some of the dialogue intelligently. Unfortunately this is not to say that the film is a total success, but it's seldom less than interesting.
The first place that this Carrie really scores is in the casting of the title role. Sissy Spacek is indelible as Carrie White, making the part a mountain for any actress to climb. Angela Bettis, who was cast on the strength of her work in May though Carrie would be seen first by the public, is ideal casting. She's not Spacek and doesn't attempt to copy her, but Bettis shares some inherent qualities that are integral to the role. Make no mistake, Angela Bettis is a strikingly good looking young woman, but her beauty has a quiet, almost mousy, quality that easily blends in to the background, especially when you set her against the likes of Emilie DeRavin's dolled up Chris Hargensen. You can believe that Bettis' Carrie would be ignored at high school, were it not for the fact that she is strange and that her peers are aware of her restrictive upbringing with her extremely conservative religious mother (played here by Patricia Clarkson). Bettis' look also works in another way; her transformation into the pretty girl who goes to prom is both credible and a real change of look.
Of course Bettis' performance goes much more than skin deep, and in this way she's also very different from her predecessor. Spacek's Carrie always seems scared, but there is something different about Bettis in the role; an anger that seems ever present and a knowledge that that anger can be destructive. This leads to a subtly different take on the scenes of telekinesis. Spacek's Carrie seems to gradually gain control over her powers, but we never feel that from Bettis. Even at the prom she seems overtaken, frozen by her powers.
An additional scene in which Sue Snell (a creditable performance from Kandyse McClure) helps Carrie pick out a lipstick for the dance adds colour and a little more social nous to the character. There are a few additions and changes like this, and most are welcome. New dialogue when Chris Hargensen's plan for revenge against Carrie is first mooted is both period appropriate and funny “We should have a rule: If they do something in a Freddie Prinze Jr. movie, we're not allowed to do it in real life.” Even better is the extending of the bullying of Carrie, which takes the 'plug it up' moment and – though it depicts it less explicitly – makes it more public and just as cruel. There are nice little moments scattered throughout the film that seperate it from the DePalma version and make Carrie a subtly different character (her line about breasts to her mother is also extended and works really well).
There are two big changes. One works reasonably well, the other almost brings the whole film crashing down. Carrie, the novel, is one of Stephen King's most unconventionally structured; written as if pieced together from reports about the prom incident and what went before it. This film attempts to reflect that by having survivors interviewed by the Police. It's a nice idea, and gives the film a different feel from the original, but the internal logic of the structure isn't always maintained and it does rely on some patchy performances when it cuts away from Kandyse McClure. The ending, on the other hand, is laugh out loud ludicrous, so bad it nearly retrospectively destroys what was good about the film in the first place. I'll just say that the last five minutes attempt to set up a TV series that would have co-starred Sue Snell and leave you to imagine the plot contortions and how awful they are.
This version of Carrie is somewhat schizophrenic in its quality. You can enjoy the coiled menace of Patricia Clarkson's performance as Margaret White, which takes a radically different approach to the more nakedly unhinged Piper Laurie to fine effect, but at the same time the cramped framing – frequently in close up – and general try too hard feeling of David Carson's direction can be off putting. To his credit Carson doesn't imitate Brian DePalma, but the effects he sometimes tries look cheesy and there is just a sense that he's overegging the pudding through his direction because TV rules mean that he can't show much violence. There are other problems too, notably with the supporting cast and especially with Jesse Cadotte, who is terrible as Billy Nolan, and makes you long for something as restrained as John Travolta's hammy turn in the original film.
I only discovered that this version of Carrie existed because I'm a fan of Angela Bettis, but does it deserve to be dug up? I think so. It's a long, long way from perfect and it can be a frustrating watch because you want to shout at the director and the editor, especially in the last five minutes. However, the leading performances are excellent and the film distinguishes itself enough from the DePalma version that it does feel like it can stand on its own. At the very least it's an interesting curio for fans of Bettis, Clarkson and King.