Friday, September 11, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Carrie (1976)

Although he had directed many fine feature films before this 1976 thriller (including the exquisite Sisters [1973] and the wacky Phantom of the Paradise [1974]), it was Carrie that truly landed Brian De Palma on the cinematic A list.

The director's critically and financially successful adaptation of the Stephen King novel not only assured De Palma a long and storied career in Hollywood, it also set off a virtual blizzard of celluloid King adaptations vetted by high-profile film directors (Tobe Hooper and Salem's Lot [1978], Stanley Kubrick and The Shining [1980], David Cronenberg and The Dead Zone [1981], George Romero and Creepshow [1982], John Carpenter and Christine [1983], Rob Reiner and Misery, etc.). This is a horror trend that endured well into the 1990s, and even to into this decade, though to perhaps a less-significant degree.

Carrie proved so resonant as a horror genre initiative, in fact, that it spawned a fad, a significant number of B movie imitations. These were films about wronged, lonely teens seeking bloody vengeance against their cruel school mates. These films had titles such as Ruby (1977), Jennifer (1978), Laserblast (1978) and Evilspeak (1981)

With his keen and accomplished visual sense, De Palma creates an intimate portrait in Carrie of this aforementioned adolescent, high-school cruelty. It's Lord of the Flies in a locker room...only with mean girls instead of wild boys. In her review of the film for New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael noted that prior to De Palma's film, "no one else has ever caught the thrill that teenagers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture," terming Carrie a "terrifyingly lyrical thriller."

Most critics strongly agreed with the assessment that King's novel found perfect expression in De Palma's capable hands. Film Quarterly, Volume XXI (page 32) in 1977 noted that "De Palma develops his familiar motifs of exploitation, guilt and sexual repression with a sure hand, so that his visual fireworks for the first time do not seem themselves obsessional and out of control." Roger Ebert wrote in his review of January 1, 1976 that: Brian De Palma's Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that's the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It's also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn't another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she's a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who's a lot like kids we once knew."

Today, no less than three major sequences in Carrie have entered the pop-culture lexicon (and endured there for over thirty years.) These three sequences are so well-directed, so brilliantly-staged that they jump immediately to mind when considering the film. More importantly, they visually support the film's narrative: forging an understanding of Carrie's world and what it means, in some cases, to "grow up." Those scenes are set in a girl's locker room, at the senior prom, and finally, (ominously...) grave side.

We're All Very Sorry For This Incident: The Curse of Blood

In part, Carrie works so splendidly, because of the universality of the high school experience. Sometimes it feels like high school is a realm where cruelty -- along with apathy -- has become institutionalized.

Teenagers often seem to boast a sixth sense (or is it a killer instinct?) about those students who are less well-adjusted, who come from bad homes, or who are just more sensitive...and therefore vulnerable. And then those kids are ridiculed, teased, shunned and mocked sometimes, to the point of sadism.

Probably nothing could expose this milieu more clearly (or more artfully) than the locker room scene that opens Carrie. After a game of volleyball (shot from a high angle, as if to clue in the audience to the fact that something terrible is soon to occur...), De Palma cuts to the gym locker room. The steam from the showers softens the image on screen, providing the impression of a lulling dream, or even a sexual fantasy. Immediately, we start to understand how high school represents a time of sexual awakening.

As the camera pans right, accompanied by the romantic strains of Pino Donaggio's score, the audience sees gorgeous young women frolicking, nude or half-nude after their exertions on the court. As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s, this is an "erotic image of wood nymphs at play," one intended to arouse, titillate and stimulate. But as the camera moves past this fanciful action in a forward motion, we soon spy Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) alone in a shower. It's a strangely solitary, personal and erotic moment too. The young woman caresses herself in slow-motion. Glistening water drops decorate her euphoric face. A phallic-shaped shower-head sprays water down upon her.

Carrie's hands wander innocently down to her stomach, then her legs -- and, as curious viewers -- we wonder how far this scene is going to go. As Carrie's hands continue to spiral downwards to her legs, scarlet blood suddenly stains her skin, mixing with the pounding water. It's menstrual blood. On her fingers, on her legs. On the floor.

This is a typical De Palma bait-and-switch, a deliberate reversal or undoing of expectations. Those males in the audience aroused by the sight of female nudity are no doubt -- much like the disturbed school principal featured in the next scene -- not at all aroused by the visual of a high school girl getting her period. A sexy fantasy has given way to common reality

The dream-like nature of this sequence dissipates quickly now, giving way to abject horror. Carrie does not know or understanding what is happening to her. She believes she is dying. From a subjective point-of-view shot, we now see harsh reality: the other high school girls categorically reject Carries' entreaties for help and the "misty" look of the scene has evaporated. With startling cruelty, the girls even toss tampons at the desperate Carrie. We get close-ups of taunting, ugly faces, and hear the girls' mean chants. Those beautiful bodies in the slow-motion dream have given way to the cruel reality of high school. Mocking, teasing, the mob mentality. Like pack animals, the teen girls can smell the weak number in their pack...and go in for the kill.

This scene serves a few important narrative functions. First, the visual obsession on young, sexy bodies (and Carrie's body, in particular...) serve to note the full extent of this character's burgeoning womanhood. Though shy and awkward, Carrie is also beautiful in an innocent way...stepping into the realm of sexual maturity with awkwardness.

Secondly, the hurling of the tampons and the close-ups of twisted, evil faces mocking Carrie help to dramatize what a delicate, uncomfortable, embarrassing time this can be for those undergoing puberty. Through the cruelty of the girls in the locker room, we comes to sympathize for Carrie's feelings of isolation and separation. In addition to her sexual maturation, this scene charts Carrie's first steps into "psychic" maturity as well. Her outrage at the cruel treatment causes a telekinetic burst: the shattering of a lamp bulb over the shower enclosure. This is clear foreshadowing...

Another scene -- less showy and far less notorious than the locker room sequence -- also reveals much about Carrie's school life and builds on our compassion. The only bright light in Carrie White's world is her quiet, heretofore secret affection for classmate Tommy Ross (William Katt). De Palma finds a unique way to connect these characters visually the first time that they share a scene. In English Class, Tommy is highlighted in the foreground of one shot, in an extreme close-up. Meanwhile, Carrie is depicted as diminutive and tiny, in the background of the self-same shot. Interpreting what our eyes see, he is thus paramount -- a towering paragon -- and she is literally almost a midget, an after-thought in distant orbit of his "star." Yet importantly, the characters share the same frame. De Palma's choice of shots here expresses Carrie's own (insecure) view of self. To her, Tommy is "big" and "shiny," at center stage, while she is "small" and far from attention. Almost unseen.

In Horror and Science Fiction Films II (Scarecrow Press, 1982, page 52), critic Donald C Willis noted that "it's debatable who's meaner to Carrie - her fellow students or her director, who draws out their elaborate prank for 90 minutes, then lovingly shoots its penultimate slow motion."

I understand his point, but, as always, we should ask the question "why?" I submit that that De Palma makes much of the film a torturous build-up to Carrie's moment of explosive rage not so we can mock her; but so we sympathize with her. The film spends much time on Carrie's home life with her stark-raving-crazy mother (Piper Laurie), a zealous, Christian, fundamentalist freak. Between these harrowing home sequences and those set in high school, the audience rightly wonders how much this poor girl can endure Then, De Palma grants us that gleaming moment of hope as Tommy and Carrie appear to develop a meaningful relationship. De Palma again pulls a bait-and-switch (with his lying camera, dammit!), letting the hope linger in our minds that perhaps, just perhaps, Carrie has found the very kindred spirit who will allow her to join the rest of the world and vanquish her intense loneliness and awkwardness. Of course, this is not to be...

Split-Screen Prom Queen

De Palma is renowned for the cleverness of his climactic set-pieces, and Carrie gives us one of his most terrifying, and his most accomplished. His camera prowls the prom as Carrie and Tommy attend the dance and Carrie -- for the first time in the movie -- is all smiles. She is still tender, vulnerable, but her hopes have been raised (as have ours). The gym coach, Mrs. Collins (Buckley) even shares a tender story with Carrie about her own prom.

This is the brand of personal, human story another horror film might not pause to record with such meticulous attention, but again, De Palma pulls the rug right out from under us (and his characters). Mrs. Collins' anecdote -- like the dream-like moment in the shower, or like the hope of a relationship with Tommy -- encourages us in the hope that Carrie is going to have a beautiful experience too. To that end, De Palma's camera dizzily revolves around the happy couple (Carrie and Tommy) as they dance together.

At first, these camera revolutions are euphoric and romantic, an intoxicating moment of hope realized, dreams come true. But then the rotating accelerates, out of control, faster and faster. Because of the off-kilter, fast-moving camera, we just know things are not going to go well. When De Palma's camera then tracks one of the mean girls, P.J. Soles, onto the stage, and the camera determinedly banks up to the rafters, to a shaky pail filled with pig's blood, our hearts sink.

The trap is set.
And again, De Palma gives us a happy moment. Carrie and Tommy are crowned king and queen of the prom, and this revelation is shot using triumphant slow-motion photography. Only this time, we don't feel dreamy or intoxicated...or even triumphant. On the contrary, we're agonized. We know what is coming now, and the slow-motion victory lap drags out our tight-throated feelings of anticipation and dread to an almost unbearable degree. We see what is going to happen but we can't stop it. Now the film marches inexorably towards terror, and the explosion of Carrie's monstrous rage; the force of her anger.

When Carrie is finally "crowned" in pig's blood on stage, the horrifying moment is a specific reflection of the locker-room/shower debacle at the beginning of the film, wherein Carrie first confronted the flowing of her vaginal blood; her messy, confusing entrance into adulthood. Her mother has told her that blood represents sin ("First comes the blood, then comes the sin,") so imagine poor Carrie's terror at being covered in such blood in public; worse -- on stage. By loving Tommy, she must fear, she has again brought the flowing of blood.

Carrie's climactic psychic outburst is depicted utilizing one of De Palma's favorite techniques: the split screen. In this case, the split-screen connotes the instantaneous, light speed transmission of telekinesis; the cause-and-effect relationship of the psychic power. Visualized in one side of the frame, Carrie turns her head, widens her eyes, and casts her gaze upon a specific tormentor. In the other side of the frame, we see the simultaneous psychic effect of the murderous gaze. Someone falls down, someone catches fire, or there is an explosion.

The prom apocalypse also flashily reflects the film's themes. Adults in Carrie are depicted in various shades of negativity. They are colored as uncaring (the principal, who can't remember Carrie's name), utterly mad (Mrs. White), sedated and drunk (Mrs. Snell), or heartless and bitter (Carrie's mocking English teacher). At their very best, the adults might come off as capricious, like Mrs. Collins, whose draconian punishment of the mean girls spawns the revenge against Carrie.

But now that Carrie is an adult -- covered in blood -- we can therefore no longer sympathize with her. Accordingly, she goes beyond the bounds of the "sane" during her incredible telekinetic attack, killing friends (Mrs. Collins) and foes without distinguishing between them. The innocent and the guilty both fall to her wrath and in the end, that's what makes Carrie a monster adult monster like all those around her. De Palma has proven successful at making Carrie sympathetic until this point, until Carrie's "real" entrance into adulthood. The world has taught Carrie to be cruel, and at the Prom, she learns that lesson too well.

Carrie White Burns in Hell. Or, Did You Ever Stop to think that Carrie White Has Feelings?

The third "famous" moment in Carrie arrives at film's end. It's possibly the best sting-in-the-tail/tale ending ever captured on film. It's certainly the most-imitated. Shot in misty slow-motion (again like the locker room sequence preamble...), Sue Snell (Amy Irving) lovingly deposits flowers on Carrie's grave. Her intentions had been good; and despite all the horror Carrie wrought, Sue still has some residual feelings of compassion for the girl who everybody teased. But then, without warning, Sue is pulled down into the grave by Carrie's groping, burned claw. The message: even the innocent must fear Carrie, because she has lost control of her hate.

Sue awakens from the nightmare, traumatized and terrified, and the movie ends with heart-pumping, breathless intensity. We understand that Sue will never be the same; will never view the world the same way. If Carrie has moved into adulthood in the film; so has Sue. She has learned that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Carrie is a terrifying film dominated by the three memorable scenes I have outlined in this review (the locker room opening; the prom set-piece, and the terrifying coda). But it is more than that too.

Again, as I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s, what you ultimately take away from Brian De Palma's adaptation is a sense of growing frustration with a world that allows good people to be tormented and then turned into monsters themselves. Carrie was so harried, so abused by everyone in her life that she finally retaliated with the very force of hatred she despised so much in others. In charting this story, Stephen King and Brian De Palma chart a cycle of violence. They remind us how children turn to us -- adults -- for guidance and compassion. How they turn to us as role models, and how they sometimes fall through the cracks and find themselves lost, rudderless..emulating only the worst angels of human nature.

De Palma executes Carrie like a perfectly-realized cruel practical joke indeed; but not to debauch us; not to make us gawk or laugh at lonely Carrie White. On the contrary, De Palma victimizes the audience, much as Carrie is herself victimized throughout this harrowing film. He reminds us that in youth (and indeed, adulthood) we've all had to contend with our own Chris Hargensons and Billly Nolans: people who are cruel simply for the sake of cruelty. With his dream visions shattered by harsh reality, with his dazzling split screens, even with his anticipatory, anxiety-provoking slow-motion photography, De Palma reminds us to stop and remember that other people have feelings too.

Carrie White burned in Hell all right. But that Hell was called high school. And the real thing could hardly have been worse than gym class.


  1. Anonymous10:40 AM

    The soundtrack for the film also has a little surprise in it for the home video/dvd viewer. I doubt it's intentional, but it's nice to think so.

    On the soundtrack, on the cue used for Amy Irving's approach to Carrie's grave and the grab from the grave, the switch from melancolly to menacing (the signals the grab) happens a few bars later than in the film.

    Anyone listening to Pino Donaggio's score enough times to be familiar with it, expects that when they see the film again, they'll know EXACTLY when the hand is going to reach out and grab her. But a few bars early--wham! You get surprised because it seems as if the film has been re-cut--an illusion, of course.

    It was just Donaggio deciding to record a longer version for the soundtrack than that used in the film. I wonder if this happened to anyone else?


  2. Great review, thank you.


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