Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)
Meek and bullied (by cruel teachers and horrible school girls alike) Carrie White’s traumatizing first period leads her to come into her full telekinetic powers, allowing her to not only wrest control from her physically abusive, religious fanatic of a mom (Piper Laurie)… but to find herself on a seemingly magical trip to the prom… where, unfortunately, a precariously balanced hidden bucket of pig’s blood planted by queen bitch Sue Snell (Nancy Allen) awaits to turn things… even more bloody (and I’m not talking simple dripping menstruation bloody)…
It was a second night of Stephen King cinematic adaptions on my three-night joint of modern horror classic viewings with my daughter, and I thought what could be more perfect for a 14 year old girl than a portrait of high school alienation, bullying… and seriously violent retribution (considering how adamant she remained that it was wrong of female gym teacher Miss Collins to slap that nasty Sue Snell across the face, no matter how much I pushed my theory with her that perhaps these entitled students today could use the fear of a potential embarrassing crack to the mouth to keep them in line, I was quite sure she wasn’t gonna take in brutal violence as a final answer for empowerment, even without the film ending on such tragedy).
Of course, I had to provide a bit of explanation for the opening scene, with the – ahem, perhaps slightly questionable — way in which De Palma decided to lovingly shoot in slow motion all those naked high school girls frolicking about in the steamy showers, as if imagining the ultimate dream of the slinkiest of heavy-breathing voyeurs, peering through a hidden peephole, primed for self-pleasure. Even if the girls themselves are all being played by actors deep into their 20’s, I can’t possibly imagine anyone daring to shoot a scene like this today (though the naughtiness of it makes me wish someone would). On top of it, with De Palma then having this (sorry, gonna say it) stunningly beautiful sense of captured objectification come crashing to an end due to the reality of female yuchiness (well, from many a guy’s perspective anyway) all seems… well… shall we say… problematic. Beautifully shot and incredibly captivating, mind you, from a master craftsman… but questionable…
Of course, this slow-motion aesthetic around Carrie White will be replicated almost exactly at the prom, first as she dreamily walks to the stage with cute popular boy Tommy Ross (William Katt) to accept the vote of Prom Queen and King, only to end with her punished yet again by sudden, shocking blood on her body. Why, with poor Carrie White’s ichor-driven punishments in this film, and lonely Kate Miller in Dressed to Kill rewarded with the clap after cheating on her husband, and then that insanely long, thick drill driven through Jake Scully’s wildly gorgeous object of voyeuristic desire (as if a living presentation of what Scully really would like to do with that girl in Body Double), I might even think he had an issue or two with women… that is, if you didn’t always have the sense of De Palma back there, wringing his hands naughtily, cheekily knowing exactly what buttons he’s pushing (and perhaps even commenting on the underlying destructive patriarchal nature of much of cinema that he was replicating).
Carrie (Spacek) and her well-meaning teacher Miss Collins
I vaguely remember reading once super-influential and highly acerbic film critic Pauline Kael saying that where the pandering Steven Spielberg emotionally manipulated his audience to ultimately feel good, the much crueler De Palma manipulated them to feel bad. He certainly does that with the tragic fate of Carrie White and it makes me consider; De Palma’s cinematic canvas is, as has been stated over and over, derivative of Hitchcock, yet the particularly (modern) lurid quality he brings makes his vision unique, but at the same time… I wonder if this film would be anywhere near as effective without the brilliant performance at the heart of it by Sissy Spacek. While she would remain interesting for the rest of her career, this film and Badlands (where she plays another form of the ‘scarred’ innocent) are really the two moments of greatest synergy between role and her as the performer chosen.
Piper Laurie, always ready to jump in full throttle to any psycho role, imbues Carrie’s mom with a barely contained sexual fervor that her character deflects into religious ecstasy,.. and it becomes transcendent (culminating in that unforgettable crucifixion death by flying kitchen implements which becomes luridly – it’s De Palma after all — orgiastic). The entire cast, from the high school girls, to aforementioned hard-ass gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) who tries to help Carrie but ultimately tragically allows Carrie’s pig-blood humiliation to happen, to pre-Grease John Travolta as the dopey high school dropout that Snell leads around by his johnson, are all exceptionally well cast.
With Carrie, for better or worse, De Palma leaves behind for good the overt anti-military, anti-capitalist political messages that being a child of the tumultuous late 60’s imbued him with (which were a huge part of early efforts like Greetings and _ Hi, Mom_ and still showed up, less overtly, in films like Phantom of the Paradise made just two years before Carrie), though he couldn’t yet leave behind some of the wackier of his cinematic tricks at this point that are surprising he included in what was a large theatrical release (the fast-motion effects with the boys buying their prom dresses being the obvious one… I really wonder how audiences reacted to this at the time, or if they didn’t, and just let it go by without much thought of how overtly silly and throw-away it is).
It’s a film filled with in-your-face cinematic trickery, and questionable gender politics (with tongue firmly in cheek, however). It has the power of having within it some of the most celebrated imagery in modern cinematic horror. It’s one of De Palma’s most manipulative films, yes (and that’s saying something)… yet is elevated to true emotional heights through that poignant and tragic central character of Carrie White as played by Sissy Spacek.
Nancy Allen and a young Travolta
Regarding the book, Stephen King’s first, I’ve read it only once, many years ago at this point… and I remember not being all that particularly impressed. While it likely had to do with the fact that I’d seen (and loved) the film already, I found its epistolary approach of letters and newspaper clippings a bit clumsily handled. I also remember King’s penchant with this book of telling us of various characters not realizing that they would be dead within a few hours watered down a lot of the suspense. To be fair, as short as I remember it being (he hadn’t reached that state of over-indulgence his uber-success brought, that reached its truly lowest point with the endlessly repetitive monstrosity known as It, which the torturous reading of finally broke me of my Stephen King obsession), I should give it a re-read (not It – ever! – but Carrie).
One thing is for sure, as Kubrick did, De Palma used the book as a jumping off point to create a wildly different cinematic ride… and a better version than the source material.