Monday, June 22, 2015

Carrie - You Can't Top or Recreate This One

There’s a lot to say about Brian De Palma’s 1976 film, Carrie. As I discovered while researching the movie, it came out only two years after Stephen King’s novel – which was the book that turned King from an unknown writer to one of the most successful (and adapted) novelists in American history. There’s a lot to say, but I wanted to write a more stripped-down review for this well-known movie, and so I will try to be brief.

Carrie is a surprisingly-delicate tale – surprising in that it’s directed by a man, and based on a man’s book, and yet handles its primary subject with a delicate sensibility. It’s also delicate in that it tackles a sensitive time: when a girl becomes a woman. In a moment of daring perv, the movie opens with a long shot of a high school locker room. The camera pans across young women as they remove or don their clothes... And then it settles on the shower, and Carrie White (Sissy Spacek at 26, but seemingly much younger).

Carrie soaps herself up, her head twists to let the water spray along her form... And then she notices the blood that’s seeping straight down her legs. Apparently, Carrie has had no manner of sex ed, as she completely freaks out. Ms. White runs from one girl to another in a panic, screaming for help. But she’s already unpopular, all the other ladies can’t believe that she’s this ignorant, and Carrie makes the mistake of getting her blood on the white sweater of Sue Snell (Amy Irving), which is received quite poorly by Sue's alpha-female friend, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen).

This unfortunate incident – which the school responds to with a perfunctory, self-protective ferocity - kicks off a sequence of events that will lead to an incredible tragedy for everyone involved. No one knows about the abuse that Carrie suffers at the hands of her insane, hyper-religious mother (Piper Laurie earned her Oscar nomination, as OTT as her role is). No one knows that this high school senior is not weird, but shy, and so naïve as to almost redefine the word. And no one knows that when Carrie gets emotional, objects have a tendency to fly around although no one touched them.

If you don’t know the story already, then do yourself a favor and get the book – it made King a name for a reason – and then see the movie, which is also great. I may mock De Palma now for his overwrought scenes, continuity errors, the poor quality of his late-era works, and his weird sex thing... But, in the 70’s, Brian was a red-hot director with an amazing, fresh visual sensibility, always drawn to pulp stories that were satisfying on a narrative and emotional level. If you want to know why De Palma used to be so respected, you need only see this film.

With all that out of the way, I can just freely talk about the picture. In some ways, this is an amped up ep of The Twilight Zone – folks act naturally, yet cruelly, people discover unnatural powers that scare them and cause harm, and it ends on a moral lesson about showing decency and understanding before it’s too late. In this beautiful-looking movie that frequently resembles a Dario Argento giallo pic, no effort is made to explain why Carrie can move things with her mind. And I love that the film uses Hitchcock’s Psycho sting, slightly edited, whenever the lead’s powers are used.

I should note that there's a lot of women slapped in this film. I hate it, but you must accept that it's a part of this picture. C--p, at least it suits the genre.

Carrie has a slow, dreamy atmosphere and pace, qualities that it shares with De Palma’s The Fury - but which feel all the more appropriate here as a reflection of the dream-like nature of youth. I often think that De Palma is a pervert who can’t keep his kink out of his art, but the music and camerawork is legitimately delicate as it pans across Carrie while she soaps herself up... And “delicate” is exactly the word that I would apply to the physical features of 1976 Sissy Spacek. Her nose and cheeks are very slight, which is heightened by the color of her hair and skin - and she's as thin as a rail. Only "fragile" can compete, in the adjective department.

There are so many gorgeous shots here, and Brian's relentless grab-bag of tricks has an even more powerful, more beautiful impact than in The Fury. I was blown away by the different effects he gets from repeatedly placing two distant objects in the same frame. The famous prom scene shot is masterful, and a real wonder. All of it just makes me want to say: F--K CGI.

It's similarly stunning to see this one-woman revival show called Carrie's Mom. I don’t know how it was for 70’s kids, with their lousy clothing and hair styles, but we’ve all met people who commit themselves to religion in the worst, unhealthiest ways. All Margaret White does is hit her kid and spout scripture, which makes it an extremely odd touch that she gets the same wounds as seen on the weird crucifix of her personal denomination. The abuse really is terrible to see, harrowing even, driving home the distinct tragedy of this poor girl's life. It’s genuinely touching and sad: Carrie never had a hope in hell of a normal, happy, productive life.

The amazing thing is that if you know this is a horror film, or read the book, or had it spoiled for you, then you still have a nice little disaster movie. Everything that causes this catastrophe falls into place in just the right way - the girls already dislike Carrie when she has an annoying freak-out, the school punishes the mean girls long enough to make Carrie an even bigger target, and the destruction that follows is less a “I’m a loser and I’m gonna kill my classmates” incident than it is natural conclusion to one person’s singularly despairing existence. God, I’m so glad Spacek got an Oscar nod for her work here.

The inevitability of this poor young woman's tumble is demoralizing. And the big payoff scene is emotionally interesting, because we care about the lead, and because her first attacks can be chalked up to pure shock. When she flips, it's amazing how her anguish hits a crescendo, then Spacek has this extremely wide-eyed look that screams of nothing more than being utterly-offended. But, mere moments later, it's damn clear that the young lady has truly snapped, and is intentionally lashing out.

It’s smart, too, that the picture has a lot of highs to balance out the lows; this is the story of the delicate flower of womanhood opening up - only to be trampled, cruelly. The scene where Carrie asserts herself against her mother is satisfying, but full of so much effective tension. It hits the viewer even harder, as it comes before the conclusion, which we know will be ugly, although the details are kept from us. It's that easy use of suspense that made me love Brian's work back in the day.

I still remember the first time I saw Carrie. I remember how easily she makes the viewer feel empathy for her, how touchingly-pathetic it is to see her perk up and smile at nothing more than decent treatment. De Palma does a great job of recreating a high school environment and all the attendant frivolities and stupidities that come with it. It’s a masterful directing effort, although I was terribly confused by the "fast forward" sequence wherein the school’s boys go tuxedo shopping. I wondered whether I was watching a bad copy of the film, then realized that Brian was exactly the sort of auteur who would include a sequence like this and yet simultaneously undercut its actual content in such a fashion.

The 70’s may be four decades old, but they live on in the form of great films that influenced a lot of what came after them. Whether you’re looking for a scary film, or just want to watch one of the most impressively-shot movies of the last 40 years, Carrie remains a “stand up and pay attention” picture to this day. As dated as the politics and fashions may be, we’ll always have girls who learn painfully what it means to become a woman, we’ll always have bullies and outcasts, and we’ll always have De Palma’s brilliant style – an inspired careful effort that created one of the most iconic horror films of all time.

She's unusual-looking, and yet quite pretty. Homegirl does look like she could use a sandwich, tho.


  1. The fast forward sequence is confusing to a lot of people,a weird filming choice there by De Palma(there isn't any major "guys on their own" scene in the book, other than Billy and his buddies getting that special something for the prom).

    Spacek's performance is what sells the character and Piper Laurie as her demented mother makes for one of the best on screen duos in film history, in my opinion.

    De Palma did use plenty of European touches in this film(that mother being crucified bit wasn't in the book;Carrie gave her a heart attack with her powers instead) and I still appreciate most of his 70s-80s genre flicks. Sisters is a good one, if you haven't seen it and Dressed to Kill most definitely.

    1. And 5 months later, I completed this post =)

      I like the choice well enough, because let's face it: guys getting ready for prom is (a) not very emotional, usually, and (b) a lot of goofing off - which the guys do, and the fast forward basically states is skippable.

      Yes, it's no surprise to me the attention that they both got for their roles. They're so good, there's almost nothing more to say about it.

      Yes, I've seen both of those movies and liked them a lot. I also enjoyed Phantom of the Paradise quite a bit... And you're dead right, there's a lot of merit to his 70s-80s work.

      Thanks for adding the book reader's perspective, lady t!

  2. Nice review, with some interesting observations. For a deeper understanding of the men's tux/fast-forward sequence, check out a couple of De Palma's earlier films, GREETINGS (especially the first 20-30 minutes), and THE WEDDING PARTY. On a separate-but-related note, in the latter movie, you will also notice a sequence of cuts and angles involving trees that De Palma repeats to unnerving effect in CARRIE, when the boy is on his bike (and then falls off).

    1. Thanks for the info, Geoff, I will definitely check that out. I especially appreciate hearing about Greetings and Edding Party, as I've never seen De Palma's short films.

      I have been a little hard on the man's post-80s work, for which I feel little conflicted. It's unfair to castigate the man, but his prior work showed a hell of a lot of promise, and I don't think his latter material holds up very well.

      At the very least, it's not rare to respond poorly when a true artist seems to lose their way a bit...


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