My friend Dennis Paoli says there are two kinds of horror movies, and since his screenwriting credits include Re-Animator, I treat his categories with respect. Either you organize a movie around nine decapitations, he says, spacing them at at ten-minute intervals, or else you work up to a single big decapitation at the end.
Carrie is a notable example of the latter type: a movie with a long, long buildup, culminating in general slaughter. The big question, then, is, “What happens on the way to the bloodbath?” In the case of Carrie, the answer is, “Not much.” If you watch the picture today, twenty-three years after its release–and you should, to get the most out of Katt Shea’s The Rage: Carrie 2–you will be struck by its lack of incident. The fatal prom takes up a full twenty-five minutes of the film; another fifteen or twenty are devoted to the bloodshed in the prom’s aftermath, and to the coda and closing credits. Nearly half the movie is payoff, and that half is realized at the pace of an adagio, so that Brian De Palma may demonstrate what his studies of Hitchcock have taught him.
It is not enough for De Palma to set a bucket of pig’s blood over the spot where Carrie will stand. He also must track the course of the attached rope, starting from the lair of the pranksters and craning slowly to the rafters. Then, for good measure, he retraces the route, following it through the eyes of good-girl Amy Irving. I doubt the mechanics of a practical joke have ever been so exhaustively demonstrated–especially when the response to the joke will defy the laws of physics. And what is Sissy Spacek’s Carrie doing, while this minimal plot device is being put into place? She’s getting wet, literally and figuratively. From the opening credit sequence (a montage of autoeroticism in the shower) to the prom itself, where Carrie deliquesces in the arms of her date, De Palma keeps his protagonist moist with anticipation, though for a climax other than the one she gets.
To give a more general answer to the question posed above: On the long road toward a horror movie’s bloodbath, we learn why revenge will be taken. In Carrie, the explicit reason for the rampage is that the protagonist has been mocked and ostracized. The implicit reason: She’s been denied sexual pleasure. And then there’s a third justification, which may be imputed not to the character but to De Palma himself. As master revenge-taker, he humiliates and destroys Carrie because she’s the girl who won’t put out. Take it from someone who is close to De Palma’s age and can recall the sexual mythologies of the sixties and seventies: All women were supposedly begging for it. Unfortunately, too many of them were repressed and wouldn’t come through.
That this notion wouldn’t occur to Katt Shea, the director of The Rage: Carrie 2, might be obvious merely from her credits. We first encounter her as an actress, whose career intersects in an interesting way with De Palma’s. She appeared in the role of Woman at Babylon Club in his 1983 Scarface. Other notable roles of the era included an appearance as a mud wrestler in My Tutor and as Dee Dee (a name at last!) in Hollywood Hot Tubs. Hired to be decorative and willing to do the job, Shea could not have felt that prudishness was the main problem in her life. Nor would she have seen herself as cowering before her sexuality, as De Palma imagined Carrie to do. A woman who can command money and attention through her body is someone whose power, however hampered, is real.
From actress to director and writer: With the occasional addition of the surname Ruben to her credits, Katt Shea began to make pictures of her own, beginning with the 1987 Stripped to Kill (the title, in itself, responds to De Palma) and continuing with movies that included the 1989 Stripped to Kill II (also known as Live Girls) and the gorgeously lurid Poison Ivy (1992). These pictures were remarkable for their disquieting themes (which had a lot to do with the possibilities and limits of a woman’s sexual power), for their style (which was bold, fluent and varied) and for being released at all. Over the past dozen years, only five or six American women besides Shea have managed to turn out a comparable number of commercial features.
With that in mind–not to mention the low budgets, the genre trappings, the seven-year gap between Poison Ivy and now–I will pose my questions yet again. What happens on the way to the bloodbath? What wrong must be avenged? Or, to put it another way: Does The Rage merely re-enact Carrie, as we’d expect of a sequel? Or does Shea’s movie exact a new punishment of its own?
The film starts: A brush, shown in close-up, dips into thick red paint and begins to trace a band across the walls of a shabby living room. We are back in the original Carrie‘s atmosphere of overwrought religiosity, with candles burning everywhere and Mom (J. Smith-Cameron) huskily warning the devil away from her daughter. But already Shea has let the situation get out of control in a way that De Palma would not. His preacher-mom was a half-sly, half-sadistic Jesus-shouter, offered up for the audience’s contempt. Shea’s Mom is crazy. She paints her protective band heedlessly, smearing it over anything that gets in the way: furniture, windows, photos on the wall. What’s more, when Mom is carted away, her little daughter feels devastated. For young Rachel, The Rage opens on a note of bewilderment and loss.
An overhead shot and a circling camera transform this child into the teenage Rachel, played by Emily Bergl. Note the baby-fat cheeks, the tidy nose, the Betty Boop lips over neat rows of little teeth. Were it not for the unmanageability of her dark curls and her funereal taste in nail-polish color, Rachel might seem half-infantile. But as Shea and Bergl conceive her (aided by screenwriter Rafael Moreu), Rachel is not only young but also guarded, defiant, alert, sympathetic and chatty by turns. When she feels the need, she will speak as if sunk two miles beneath her own surface. But unlike Carrie, who could barely meet anyone’s eye, Rachel is also capable of bantering on the school bus with her best friend, Lisa (Mena Suvari). The topic is sex; and far from shying away from Lisa’s tale of adventure, Rachel shares it eagerly, then responds by flashing a friends-forever sign: a view of the tattoo on her left arm, showing a heart encircled by ivy.
But for Rachel, forever does not last long. Lisa is already dressed like Ophelia, in trailing weeds. Within minutes (as you’ll know if you’ve seen the trailer) she dives off the roof of Bates High School, having learned that her virginity meant nothing to the football hero to whom she’d given it. The trailer does not tell you where Shea will position the camera. (The choice, let’s say, is made for maximum impact.) Nor will you understand, all at once and free of effort, the implications of the death. Yes, Lisa’s suicide sets off Rachel’s first big telekinetic blowout. But it’s only upon reflection, and with the playing out of the film, that you appreciate the intensification of the theme. Whereas De Palma in Carrie kept going over the mechanics of his set, Shea doubles back on emotions. First there’s the loss of the mother, then the loss of the girlfriend.
So the film sets out on the long road toward its preordained bloodbath. Here, the way is full of incident, which makes The Rage a far richer, more absorbing film than Carrie. But, more important, it’s a film that does not cheat on its chosen theme of abandonment–even during the lighter moments, even when Rachel finds new companionship by falling in with Jesse (Jason London), the high school’s only sensitive football hero. (In a reminiscence of the meet-cute between Claudette Colbert and Rudy Vallee in The Palm Beach Story, Rachel introduces herself to Jesse by shattering a strategic piece of glass.) The best thing about this deepening romance is that it actually deepens–which means that Jesse, estranged from the football brotherhood, becomes a virtual girl. (Trust me on this. It’s a question of the haircut.) But contrary to the fantasies perpetuated by single-decapitation horror movies, some losses are irreparable. Amy Irving, returned from the original film as the sole survivor of the Bates High School prom, keeps pursuing Rachel, pressing offers of help on her and trying to expiate her own guilt about Carrie. You will see from the climactic bloodbath how well these things can be made up.
Why does Rachel kill everybody? The explicit reason is that she’s been mocked and ostracized. The implicit reason is that her girlfriend died and her mother was driven crazy. And then there’s the third reason, which emerges when the film’s master revenge-taker, Katt Shea, appears on the screen. She has cast herself in The Rage as an assistant district attorney, who briefly attempts to prosecute the high school’s football heroes for using and discarding young women. To her disgust, she learns the job can’t be done: The boys’ club is too widespread, its power too entrenched.
Twenty-three years after De Palma joined the boys’ club, scoring his definitive hit with Carrie in those golden, innovative seventies, who can pretend that the girls’ ongoing loss is reparable? Look at the beauty and terror that Katt Shea can achieve, and ask whether there’s motivation today for The Rage.