Thelma opens with a picturesque long shot as a young girl and, presumably, her father walk across an ice-covered lake to the deep blanket of – audibly underfoot crunching – snow where father and daughter head into the woods to go hunting. The man stops and lifts his rifle, taking aim at an approaching deer only to turn it onto the back of the head of the small child dressed in red. It immediately calls to mind Snow White and her trip with the Huntsman and even a little Red Riding Hood.
Fade to black – signifying a time lapse – and an aerial shot slowly zooms in and follows a young woman (also wearing a red tone) as she walks across campus and into a biology lecture. So sets the scene of Joachim Trier’s fourth feature. Once again he partners with screenwriter Eskil Vogt to bring something a little different yet equally as beautiful and resonant as Reprise, and Oslo, August 31st, if far more supernatural and allegorical in tone.
Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a shy loner, has stiflingly over-protective and controlling parents (Blind’s Ellen Dorrit Peterson and Henrik Rafaelsen) and begins to experience seizures, seemingly triggered by her meeting Anya (Kaya Wilkins). Slowly, she begins to integrate herself into a social circle, her Christian upbringing a source of fascination for some of her new friends. Torn between fulfilling her parents’ expectations, self-acceptance and suppressing everything else – including her attraction to Any – Thelma’s psychogenic seizures begin to debilitate until she seeks medical help and the truth about her condition is revealed.
While a coming-of-age with supernatural elements is nothing new, Trier’s evocative, moody and visually arresting love story manages to sustain its mystery for the 116-minute runtime. Some may be reminded of Carrie but this has more in common with Let the Right One in (2009) and When Animals Dream (2014) riffing on the Female Gothic, Nordic-style, via horror tropes/themes offering a melancholic and deliberately paced affecting drama. True to Trier form, there is the signature neutral colour palette of greys, blues and muted tones punctuated with the occasional burst of colour, the slightly voyeuristic camera courtesy of Jakob Ihre’s cinematography, along with the jarring soundtrack (that occasionally diminishes into deafening silence) by composer Ola Fløttum.
Okay, so the Freudian/religious imagery is a little on the nose but for a modern day gothic fairy tale-come-teen-drama, Thelma deals beautifully with the ambiguity of growing-up, trauma, and the end of oppressive patriarchal control, as well as the need for autonomy, self-love and acceptance.
School is the worst place to hide in plain sight when you’re different and bullies are unforgiving and relentless, it’s one of the reasons why Stephen King’s first novel has stood the test of time and why Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Carrie still remains the best of its kind and resonates with an audience. Released just in time for Christmas (a Carrie White Christmas, no?) Arrow Video has pulled together a pretty decent limited edition boxset complete with a new 4K restoration from the original negative, replete with a whole host of new and archival extras, and new writing on the film.
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is the only child of a religiously maniacal Gothic seamstress mother. Margaret (Piper Laurie) is a woman who insists on spreading the word of the Lord whether others like it or not. Her daughter wants nothing more than to fit in and be a regular teenager, however, the girls at school: Helen (Edie McClurg), Norma (P.J. Soles), and Sue (Amy Irving) led by Chris (Nancy Allen) have no intention of letting that happen. Even the teachers are mean. From that opening scene on the volley ball court in which our eponymous heroine is isolated and invited to “eat shit” after missing the ball to the following in the changing room. As Carrie’s pleasurable moment in the shower is interrupted by the violent and visceral experience of her first period. The original mean girls are at their most feral in their vicious hysteria as they launch sanitary pads and tampons at their vulnerable and terrified peer.
This girl is crying out for a mother and when she returns home it should be a place of comfort, somewhere she can feel safe, not a place where she has to repent in a closet for a biological function. However, with an abusive mother like Margaret – school is respite for her. A maternal figure comes in the unlikely form of gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) and then the unexpected happens and Tommy Ross (William Katt) – who is supposed to be going with Sue Snell – asks her to Prom. Sue feels, that by asking Tommy to take Carrie to the biggest night of the school year, it will assuage her guilt for attacking the timid girl in the shower. Tommy, much like the majority of the males in this film (and there aren’t many) is a pawn; a conduit for the girl(s) to use to get their way. See also Billy (John Travolta) and Chris’ relationship and her pig of a plan for Carrie. The women are the ones in control – Carrie just has extra ability to play with.
De Palma’s adaptation bypasses the epistolary structure of the novel entirely and combines the weighty issues with satire. While there are brief moments which homage Psycho – some references are subtler than others – the score which should have been Bernard Herrmann’s instead went to Pino Donaggio who created a wonderfully atmospheric accompaniment and found the best way of repurposing the late Herrmann’s work (by isolating individual notes from the shower sequence and using the high-pitched shrill strings during the times when Carrie loses control). It is in those moments the film comes into its own – although, Arrow really missed a trick not including the soundtrack.
Carrie was not the first (or last) to conflate questions of femininity and the supernatural. If anything it paved the way for more male filmmakers to attempt to get their heads around the abject notion of menstruation. The text also subverted the idea of the American home as a safe space, instead its white picket fence and asymmetrical visage became a place of dread, fear and anxiety. Helped immensely by the religious iconography and paraphernalia invading the oppressive domestic space and aiding the sexual repression enforced my mother – there’s that Psycho link again.
The film created a bit of a feminist backlash too, particularly in relation to the shower scene and the alignment of pigs blood and women’s blood – women as pigs (?) and the monstrous female body as the site of transgression. Certainly, there are some interesting readings in relation to Carrie and it will, of course, depend on your perspective. Carrie is “othered” (like almost every other monster in horror) because, as Alexandra Heller-Nicholas states (citing Carol Clover) during her audio commentary: “horror is a female genre” – our protagonist is the literal outsider and yet we are invited to identify with her. Her fury at the world and those who punish her is fully justified, as frightening, irrational and uncontrollable that power is in its force; Carrie stands up to her bullies, and well, there’s something rather empowering in that.
The Prom, its framing, use of space, split screens, Dutch angles, colour filters and the composition of each shot is superb (and a nice nod to Argento). Those blue and red filters and the scenes they colour are the greatest aspect to come from the restoration, they are visually amazing and, for me, the peerless part of the film. Even 40 years on, it holds up as one of the filmmaker’s best, if not the best (although, I’ll have to rewatch Sisters and get back to you on that). Carrie still resonates, we’re aligned with the “monster” of the piece and identify completely with this girl and her need/want of acceptance. Despite the fact that we know how the film ends, it’s easy to watch and still wish for a different outcome.
Audio commentary provided by writers-critics-authors and all round good eggs, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas and Lee Gambin. These Aussies are authoritative (you can always trust these two when it comes to horror), knowledgeable and, better than anything, fun to listen to as they watch and examine Carrie; its themes, composition and their mutual love of it.
Acting Carrie (42 mins) – This 2001 featurette contains interviews with De Palma, art director Jack Fisk and the cast including: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, Priscilla Pointer, William Kat, P.J. Soles, Betty Buckley and Nancy Allen. They discuss the casting process which took place at the same time of Star Wars (Katt auditioned for Han Solo and Irving, Princess Leia). Spacek only auditioned following husband (and the film’s art director) Jack Fisk’s involvement and Laurie came out of retirement to play Margaret – it worked out well, they were both nominated for Academy Awards for their respective roles. Remember the last horror film to do that? Exactly. It’s an entertaining feature as we’re taken through the filmmaking process, story boarding details, and that shower scene. A building frenzy which Irving describes as “beautiful” and Allen, “disturbing. Ladies, it is indeed both.
More Acting Carrie (20 mins) updates on the previous extra by having a lot of the same cast members interviewed in 2016. There are new stills and images in this, however, a lot of anecdotes are repeated but it’s nice to see the cast in their advancing years. The addition of Edie McClurg is new (though the typo in the credits change her to ‘Eddie’) as we discover the real fire which broke out on the soundstage during filming and Soles’ perforated ear-drum following fire hose hi-jinks. Visualising Carrie: From Words to Images (41 mins) is a mini-feature which details Lawrence D. Cohen’s script brandishing in pre-production hell before securing a director. The Jack Fisk interview is the most interesting part as he details the process in making the White household which is known as “father, son and Holy Ghost” architecture due to its asymmetrical style, how he fashioned the Saint Sebastian statue in Carrie’s closet and the other religious icons he acquired for the set dressing. There’s a beautiful mention of the late Bill Paxton who put Fisk onto the pig farm.
Singing Carrie: Carrie the Musical (6 mins) – Although short lived, there was a 1988 musical production of Carrie which was written by Lawrence D. Cohen and starred Betty Buckley as Margaret White. Both she and Cohen discuss it and surmise why it failed on stage. In a 2016 interview Cohen is back in Writing Carrie (28 mins) as he discusses his process from receiving Stephen King’s manuscript, finishing it in one sitting and reviewing it for the paper he worked for. He believed even back then it would make a great film and upon seeing Obsession (1976) he knew De Palma was the man for the job. Cohen speaks warmly of his director and the success they both had with Carrie. He launches into discussing Carrie the musical, which seems a little redundant as the previous disc feature has already given us the lowdown.
A 2016 interview with cinematographer Mario Tosi follows in Shooting Carrie (14 mins), in which he describes the wonderful experience of working with “difficult communicator” De Palma. Tosi speaks in stilted English and uses cue-cards, not sure why he couldn’t have spoken in his mother tongue given the subtitled Donaggio interview later on. Cutting Carrie (24 mins) is a 2016 interview with editor Paul Hirsch in which he repeats a lot of information that has gone before. The monotonous tone of the man’s voice adds to the tedium of this extra as he describes the “painful” process of cutting the film. Not sure why he mentions Allen and Irving’s subsequent marriages either. This is worth skipping.
Although not drastically different from the very first feature, Casting Carrie is 15 minute long interview with casting director Harriet B. Helberg about her first screen credit which she loved every second of working on (from what she can remember). She’s a big fan of the remakes too. Bucket of Blood (24mins) – a 2016 interview with composer Pino Donaggio is one of the disc’s highlights as he recollects how De Palma changed his life and took him from the canals of Venice to Hollywood. It’s a charming interview and nowhere long enough as he takes us through his score; from the homage to Herrmann and his use of strings to create suspense to the more melodic music, like Carrie’s theme. For a musical genius, the man is so very humble and such a lovely interviewee. Horror’s Hallowed Ground is a 10 minute, low-budget episode of a TV series which began in 2006 (a lot are available on YouTube) where host Sean Clark visits locations from classic horror films. It crosscuts from Clark to the locations/scenes in the film. It’s harmless and well put together if amateurish.
The last of the big features is a brand new visual essay Comparing Carrie in which writer-editor Jonathan Bygraves compares the three screen versions of Carrie from 1976, 2002, and 2013. He examines time periods, production, structure, the characterisation of Carrie (Sissy Spacek, Angela Bettis, Chloe Grace Moretz), the different versions of Margaret White played by Piper Laurie, Patricia Clarkson and Julianne Moore respectively. There is one small mistake in which one image is labelled as 2002 when it belongs to 2013 and I can’t say I’m a fan of the font used. It’s all written in blood-red capital letters and would have been so much more readable in lowercase (and therefore referencing the 1976 credits). That said, the strains of Donaggio’s melodious score over the top of the essay is wonderful.
Alternate TV Opening – Details the main differences in the censored TV version.
Gallery – 45 slides showing posters, stills, publicity shots including some of the prologue that was shot but never used.
Trailer – Spoilery trailer which they’d never get away with today because… Film Twitter.
TV Spots (3 mins) – Five of them in total. All of which stating “If you have a taste for terror, you will have a date with Carrie” which is a “chilling blend of American Graffiti and Psycho.”
Radio Spots (1min 30sec) – Same voiceover used as in the TV spots.
Carrie Trailer Reel (6mins) – Combines trailers from 2002 TV movie Carrie (dir. David Carson), The Rage: Carrie II (1999, dir. Katt Shea) and 2013’s Carrie (dir. Kimberly Peirce).
Reversible Sleeve featuring original and new artwork by Laz Marquez (see featured image).
Limited Edition 60-page booklet (unavailable at the time of review) featuring new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell, author of Devil’s Advocates: Carrie, a reprint of The Final Girls’ 40th anniversary Carrie zine, and an archive interview with Brian De Palma.
I’m loathe to describe something as the “definitive” version of anything, however, if we’re talking about editions of Carrie, then this one is as near as damn it. It repurposes a lot of extra features which appear on the 2016 Shout Factory Collector’s Edition Blu-ray and archival bits and pieces from 2001’s MGM Special Edition DVD but my main gripe (and I’m really searching for one, honest), the thing that would have made it absolutely perfect – or “definitive” if I have to put a label on it – is the missing soundtrack.
Being a teenage girl can, for want of a better word, suck. Fighting against changes you cannot control, whether they be bodily, emotional, and/or familial; attempting to force yourself to fit into whichever societal mould proves popular can be exhausting, often heartbreaking and wholly unnecessary (survival and hindsight can be a wonderful thing). Within the horror genre, females are often victimised, punished for sexual transgression, through the finality of death, as per the ‘slasher’ movie or can be depicted as teenagers and aligned with the abject. This abjection can be in the form of literal law-breaking, often by committing murder, seeking pleasure through the perverse and/or the secretion of bodily fluids, most often menstrual blood. While some female critics/theorists have read these texts as a further attack of their gender by patriarchy, these “monstrous femmes” have rendered some of the most memorable female protagonists recorded on celluloid. These include cult favourites Sissy Spacek as Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma), Katharine Isabelle in Ginger Snaps (2000, dir. John Fawcett) and now AnnaLynne McCord’s astonishing portrayal in Richard Bates Jr’s Excision (2012).
McCord, best known as a spoiled, rich blonde in the re-vamped 90210 delivers an, in any other generic movie, award-winning performance as socially awkward Pauline. Physically, she is unrecognisable with lank, greasy brunette hair, acne strewn blemishes and hunched stance. She embodies a complete smorgasbord of emotions and characteristics and goes against the ‘norms’ of the female in horror, specifically in her lack of sexual reluctance, aspirations to be a surgeon and the oblivious way in which she approaches life. Most significantly, she is no passive victim. Pauline lives in picket-fenced suburbia in a repressive family unit headed by her castrating mother Phyllis (Traci Lords), emasculated father Bob (Roger Bart) and ailing little sister Grace (Ariel Winter). Phyllis exerts her maternal authority over the whole household and is determined to raise her daughters through the Church and the formality and etiquette of cotillion. At the crux of the difficult, terse and often cruel mother-daughter relationship is the ferocious need for the other’s love and acceptance.
Pauline is a sociopath but manages to convey levels of real empathy. She is gauche, fiercely intelligent, obsessive and delusional and suffers vivid dreams, of which only the audience is party; these are often sexually indulgent and display necrophiliac fetishes. For all of the blood, gore and toe-curling masturbatory fantasies, at Excision’s heart is pitch black, offbeat, comedy. These comedic moments are most evidently displayed in the ingenuity of the casting: John Waters as Pauline’s Preacher-cum-psychiatrist, Malcolm McDowell as her maths teacher and former adult film star Lords as her mother, plus losing her virginity to Peter Pan (Jeremy Sumpter) rounds things off nicely. Bates’ directorial debut is truly impressive, made with deliciously demented precision, a fierce sense of humour and, as its title suggests, is incredibly cathartic.