Primal Fears


Emily Bergl is a young actor of uncommon talent, great integrity, and no particular beauty. I doubt that any male director would have cast her as the central character in a horror film update aimed at a teen audience. She’s neither a toughened-up but fashionably proportioned object of desire (à la Neve Campbell in Scream) nor a barely formed, barely human wraith whose very fragility is a mask for the monster within (à la Sissy Spacek in the original Carrie).

The brilliance of the original Carrie lies in the explicit connection it makes between Carrie’s telekinetic power and menstruation, the body function that, come adolescence, irrevocably separates the girls from the boys. The fear and hatred, i.e. the horror, that Carrie inspires is primal. It’s the horror of the feminine body, the body that bleeds, the body of the all-powerful mother, the body that must be kept under wraps lest it overwhelm the patriarchal social order. “Plug it up, plug it up,” scream Carrie’s female classmates, as they pelt her with tampons.

If women can be complicit in their own oppression, they also can be exhilarated when one of their kind rises up and takes revenge. Like Carrie, The Rage is a revenger’s tragedy, but its
grisly denouement is its least interesting aspect. Director Katt Shea, who got her start working for Roger Corman and surfaced into the mainstream (or a prominent tributary thereof) with Poison Ivy, is perhaps a shade too willing to cater to the teenage exploitation crowd. “That was really disgusting,” said one teenage girl to her friend as they exited the preview screening. (It didn’t sound like a recommendation.) She was, I presume, referring to the
orgy of shattered glass and sheared bodies that climaxes the film. Heads roll— literally, they do.

Undistinguished as filmmaking and too over-the-top to be at all scary, this finale could blind audiences to the many virtues of The Rage, which include Shea’s dead-on articulation of how class operates in the formation of high school hierarchies, how misogyny is an essential element of jock culture, and how women lose their lives when they allow men to determine their value. What makes the film startling, however, is Bergl’s performance as a young woman whose traumatic childhood taught her to trust no one other than herself. Like Claire Danes, Bergl has a strikingly real presence. She seems less like an actress and more like a person you might actually know. Which might get you wondering about why you’ve never seen anyone quite like her onscreen before.

Rachel Lang (Bergl) has been raised by foster parents since her schizophrenic mother was committed to a mental institution. Rachel knows there’s a one-in-eight chance that she’s inherited her mother’s schizophrenia, and indeed, when objects in her vicinity start crashing about seemingly of their own accord, she fears that she’s
becoming delusional. What Rachel doesn’t know is that her father was also Carrie White’s father (the infamous Carrie who 22 years earlier caused the local high school to burn to the ground) and that the gene for telekinesis is transmitted by fathers.

The loss of her mother has made Rachel extremely wary of relationships. Her only close ties are to her dog, a shambling, arthritic bloodhound, and to a girl in her class (Mena Suvari) who shares her taste for dime-store goth clothing but who otherwise is her opposite— and maybe her ideal. Rachel is small and sturdy with a head that seems slightly too large for her body; her friend is as ethereal as a Pre-Raphaelite muse. When she’s seduced and summarily dumped by one of the school’s reigning jocks, she commits suicide. Her death makes Rachel more guarded, but not invulnerable to the attention shown to her by Jesse (Jason London), a star athlete who’s begun to have doubts about his membership in the high school elite.

Fathers, father surrogates, and boys who unquestioningly emulate their dads are the collective villain of The Rage. Shea tears through the macho facade of jock culture to show the squirmy castration anxiety underneath. “Bend over and pull down your pants,” yells the coach at a player who has been slacking off. “I thought I’d find a tampon string hanging from your ass.” It’s a neatly feminist twist on the shower scene in Carrie, and there are about half a dozen other twists that are just as sharp. Shea gets into trouble, however, when she uses bits of the original
Carrie as flashbacks (the two films don’t seem to take place in the same world, let alone the same small town). The film nearly goes down the tubes in the scenes where Amy Irving recapitulates her role as Sue Snell, one of the only survivors of Carrie White’s senior-prom shenanigans. I never could stand Sue Snell, and given the fate assigned her here, I suspect Shea felt likewise.

Inside The Rage: Carrie 2, a smart, realist drama is taking form. If Shea could free herself from the genre trap, she might make some great films in the future. Still, you take what you can get, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this one winds up on my 10-best list for ’99.

James Foley’s The Corruptor, on the other hand, is the kind of film that gives exploitation a bad name. An imitation John Woo policier, it stars Chow Yun-Fat, the Jean Gabin of Hong Kong cinema, as a pragmatic New York cop and Mark Wahlberg as his new partner. The Chinatown they patrol is a teeming cesspool where dumpsters are the last resting place of murdered prostitutes and nightly gang warfare leaves streets littered with corpses. If Giuliani’s figures are to be believed, then more people are murdered in Chinatown in the course of this movie than in all of New York during 1998.

The time may be right for a movie that’s about a cop who’s not
a pillar of virtue, but when that cop
is Asian, and his white buddy is the one who’s pure as the driven snow, I’d say we have a bit of a problem. The
is as racist a movie as I’ve seen in years. But as unforgivable as
Foley’s depiction of Chinatown society is, it’s nothing compared to what he does to Chow Yun-Fat, turning
his best moves to shtick by
depriving them of any context. That in such a miserable film I could still care whether his character lived or died
is, perhaps, the greatest proof that he’s a movie star.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 16, 1999

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