There’s been enough ink spilled about Carrie to fill the buckets laden with the pig’s blood at the prom, that another article seems superfluous (a word I love to use whenever I can). Still, you can’t talk about Brian DePalma’s movies without mentioning Carrie. Based on Stephen King’s debut novel (published in 1974), it was also the first of King’s novels to be adapted to film. To this day I think it’s still the best adaptation of his work that I’ve seen. It has spawned a remake, sequels, plays, and a Broadway musical. Carrie is an ingrained into the psyche as much as any other work of King’s, and it’s themes of bullying and alienation are as valid today as they were nearly 40 years ago. 40 years! Jesus Christ, I’m old.
My introduction to Carrie was a copy of the paperback my sister had. She wasn’t a voracious reader, and most of what she did have were romance novels, but there Carrie was sitting on her shelf. Looking back I shouldn’t be surprised, as at the time my sibling was about the same age as Carrie, and identified with her on some level (though she would have been Sue Snell more than Carrie). I read it in one night, and thus began my love affair with Stephen King. You never forget your first, and to this day Carrie holds a special place in my heart (even if King’s writing in it doesn’t).
While dated by today’s standards (teacher and principal smoking in his office? Really?), Carrie still holds up as a visceral, emotional thriller that truly cemented DePalma’s reputation as a top tier filmmaker. With a 1.8 million dollar budget, it went on to be a critical and financial success grossing nearly 15 million dollars in box office receipts. And those clothes. My god, those clothes! What were we thinking?
The film opens with a volleyball game, quickly followed by a slow motion pan in the girl’s locker room with a lush, gorgeous score by Pino Dinaggio. As we move along, we see them in various states of dress, and undress (and my the 70’s were a bit bushy weren’t they?) and we then see through the steam, Carrie White, soaping herself up (in a scene that would appear again in Dressed to Kill with Angie Dickinson masturbating with a bar of soap in the shower). As she washes up, blood starts to trickle down her leg, and she freaks out, having never had her period before. Much to the delight of her classmates they begin taunting her with cries of Plug it up! Plug it up! Miss Collins the gym teacher breaks things up, and after talking with the principal allows Carrie to go home for the day. AS he continues to get her name wrong, we see Carrie staring at the ashtray which is beginning to shake, then flips onto the floor after she has reached her breaking point.
Once home, she waits for her mother, who had been out saving the neighborhood (with little success). After the school calls, Carrie is confronted by her mother, and berated by her Christian fundamentalist mother. After being dragged into a closet littered with Holy relics and icons, Carrie prays to St. Sebastian, and is let out of the prayer room much later. Once she’s in her bedroom, Carrie stares at the mirror (reflection of a picture of Christ in there as well), and it shatters.
Miss Collins gives the class a week’s worth of detention, with the threat of refusal of their prom tickets if they don’t comply. Chris Hargensen, refuses to participate and storms off. Sue Snell, feeling guilty for what they’d done convinces her bf to ask Carrie to the prom. After some persistence, she finally relents and accepts his offer. And that sets up the last half of the movie which is as nearly perfect as you can get.
At this point, I can’t imagine anyone not having seen it, or the godawful remake from 2 years ago, so spending time recapping the plot is somewhat silly. Besides, I really want to spend some time talking about other aspects of the movie.
Carrie for me, typifies the horror movies of the seventies. Very plot and character driven, low on the gore, and high on the creepiness factor. There wasn’t a reliance on jump scares as there is now, as directors knew how to manipulate an audience without resorting to cheap tricks. That’s not to say they didn’t exist, but it certainly wasn’t the norm One could argue that the last scene in Carrie, with the arm shooting out of the ground is perhaps the ultimate jump scare-and while it still makes me jump, it’s not on par with say, the cat jump scare in Alien. That last scare was meant as much for Sue Snell as it was for the audience, and it works perfectly.
What doesn’t work quite as perfect, is some of DePalma’s ham handed symbolism. The shower nozzle as penis in the sequence for example. Or even the chalk markings on the volleyball court that could easily be interpreted as a penis about to enter a vagina. Let’s face it, he’s never been what you would call subtle, and in Carrie he wields the religious symbols like a hammer Which is okay, as I think it works quite well and complements Piper Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s mother.
Ahhh, Piper Laurie, I barely know where to start with her. She truly is Margaret White, and when she’s onscreen you’re glued to her. Yet, in spite of her religious euphoria, mistreatment of her daughter, there’s something pitiable about her. Yes, you dislike her, but there’s also the sense of a wasted life, and when she gets her comeuppance it’s not quite the relief and sense of justice you would expect. The orgasmic way she cries out as she’s being penetrated by the flying kitchen ware is at once creepy, scary, and not a little bit funny. And again we have some more symbology as we see her crucified and filled with arrows in the same spots as we see the statue of St. Sebastian in the prayer closet. The fact this was Laurie’s first acting role in 15 years, and earns a nomination again is nothing short of astonishing. Piper of course would go on to star in Twin Peaks as the evil Catherine, a role that made me fall in love with her ability all over again. There’s absolutely no surprise she was nominated for best supporting actress for Margaret White-the only shock is her not winning.
Ditto for lead actress Sissy Spacek, who also was nominated for an Oscar as best actress, and also lost. A bitter disappointment as I think her performance as Carrie is one of the best performances in a horror movie period, and one of my top ten all time performances. Her running naked in the locker room, arms outstretched grunting and crying, looking for help and being laughed at is one of the most poignant scenes in the movie, and certainly tells us all we need to know about her character. The strength in her performance lies with her eyes, and here DePalma uses his close ups on her pale blue orbs to great effect. She is somehow able to convey more in a glance than most actors can with their whole body. Aspiring actors and actresses should make Sissy Spacek a case study of how their craft is done, whether here or in any of her other numerous movies. She simply shines on screen no matter what the film happens to be.
The cast of Carrie is rounded out by a plethora of then unknowns’ who would go on to greater acclaim in their careers, except perhaps for Nancy Allen, and I think, rightfully so. If there’s a weak link here it’s Nancy. In spite of a relatively easy to portray cliché of a spoiled bitch, the simple one note tone proves even too much for her to handle. In spite of her pivotal role, her weakness could have brought down any other film, but there are so many strong supporting beams, that one rotten one can’t do harm to a solid foundation. Amy Irving as Sue Snell has the right amount of good will, and sheepish, following the crowd, and it makes us identify with her, and becomes the audiences touchstone almost for humanity. William Katt as Sue’s boyfriend, and Carrie’s prom date is perfectly cast as the surfer looking, jock type. Although one would think his role would be somewhat one dimensional, he proves to break the mold, by not being a dick and writing poetry. Katt gives a great performance and rises to the challenge of keeping up with the others. John Travolta as Nancy Allen’s knuckle dragging beau is kind of charming in a douchebag kind of way, and gives of a Vinnie Barbarino vibe that he would perfect in Welcome Back Kotter.
The score by Pino Dinaggio is absolutely gorgeous, and utterly horrific at times as well. The themes he creates for Carrie and her mother are unforgettable, and I really wish the soundtrack wasn’t so damn hard to get as it’s one of my favorites.
DePalma’s directing reaches heights not seen previously. It’s readily apparent he has some affection for the source material as he takes great care in translating the book to film treatment. His use of slow motion, split screens, bright and vivid lighting during the climax are near genius. No one, and I mean non one does split screen better than DePalma. It’s a shame he was hampered by such a limited budget, as I can only imagine what he’d have done with more money. One can’t completely credit DePalma for such a fantastic adaptation, as some of that belongs to screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen. He was able to adapt what was really a non-conventional novel (in terms of structure, anyway) and parse it down into something more coherent than the book. There’s not a wasted word, or scene, and Cohen quickly became one of my favorite screenwriters (he also did the adaptation of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story, another perennial favorite of mine).
Carrie is about perfect, in spite of how dated it looks (and some really bad porn music during one scene early on where the girls are being punished). It’s a smart, literate, adult movie, which is everything lacking in the remake, as well as most horror films today.