Tuesday, November 19, 2013

CARRIE (1976)

Brian De Palma, 1976
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Nancy Allen, John Travolta

While showering after gym class, 17 year old Carrie White gets her period. Because her religious extremist mother has kept her ignorant about it, she thinks she is dying and hysterically begs the other girls for help. They make fun of her and pelt her with tampons. The gym teacher, Miss Collins, takes pity on her and punishes the other girls, particularly ringleaders Chris and Sue. At home, Carrie’s abusive mother hits her and locks her in a closet to pray for forgiveness. 

Sue genuinely feels bad about harassing Carrie and convinces her boyfriend, the very popular Tommy, to ask Carrie to the prom. One of the other girls, Chris, is banned from prom because she refuses to serve the detention given to her by Miss Collins for abusing Carrie. Chris plans to get revenge and solicits her boyfriend Billy’s help. Carrie learns that the strange events surrounding her are due to developing telekinetic powers, which allows her to finally stand up to her mother. Tommy invites her to the prom several times and though she thinks it is a trick, she eventually gives in. 

At prom, Carrie has her first dance and first kiss with Tommy and the rest of the students are generally kind to her. Falling in with Chris’s plan, Carrie and Tommy are announced as prom queen and king. Sue checks in on them and realizes, too late, that Chris is about to play a horrible joke on Carrie. Miss Collins kicks Sue out, thinking she is the one planning to ruin Carrie’s night, and Chris dumps a bucket of pig’s blood onto Carrie’s head during the distraction. Driven almost insane with rage, Carrie traps everyone in the gym to get the ultimate revenge. 

Carrie is a film of firsts. It was based on Stephen King’s first published novel (of the same name) and is the first adaptation of his work out of over a hundred other films and made-for-TV movies. This was director Brian De Palma’s first major mainstream film and it also helped start or boost the careers of a number of actors. P.J. Soles (Halloween, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School) had her film debut here in a small part as one of the high school girls, as well as William Katt (House), who costarred as Tommy. Both Sissy Spacek and John Travolta had their break out roles. Travolta would go on to star in De Palma’s Blow Out and Spacek was nominated for an Academy Award alongside Piper Laurie, who returned to acting after nearly 15 years for Carrie. 

Though the cast is great overall, Spacek and Laurie give the finest performances. The film benefits from their excellent chemistry and complimentary acting styles. Laurie nearly steals the film out from under Spacek and one of Carrie’s greatest overall benefits is that it revived Laurie’s career, paving the way for her wonderful role in Twin Peaks

Nancy Allen, the vindictive Chris, began dating De Palma during Carrie and the couple eventually married. She would go on to appear in his Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, as well as RoboCop. Amy Irving (Sue Snell) returned for De Palma’s next film, The Fury, as the telekinetic main character, and wound up marrying De Palma’s friend, Steven Spielberg. Her mother, Priscilla Pointer (Looking for Mr. Goodbar), actually appears here as Sue Snell’s mother. On an interesting note, Irving, whose Sue Snell is the grounding character of Carrie, returns as a telekinetic character in The Fury. Gillian, Irving’s character in The Fury, is basically the same as Sue: popular and pretty, but sympathetic.

Telekinesis is at the forefront in The Fury, but in Carrie it is more of an odd plot device. It allows the abused and browbeaten Carrie to stand up to her mother and get revenge on her classmates. While all of these acts of violence could have been accomplished with less supernatural weapons, telekinesis allows a more explosive, unpredictable degree of fury to unleash from Carrie. 

Carrie marks some of De Palma’s finest set pieces, which is saying a lot considering the director’s diverse career (The Untouchables, Phantom of the Paradise, Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, etc.). The introductory scene is as incredibly as the fiery conclusion, both marked by blood and Carrie’s cries of pain. De Palma’s filming techniques here are disorienting, including split frames, rapidly changing focus shots, odd perspectives, and changes between occasional slow and normal motion. The final dream sequence at the end was shot in reverse and played forward, something David Lynch would also memorably do for Twin Peaks

As a revenge film, I don’t think Carrie works in quite the same way as something like Ms. 45 or Oldboy. Carrie is a sensitive, sympathetic character, but there’s also something repulsive, unlikable, or monstrous about her. Her level of revenge is certainly disproportionate. There has always been something lacking about Carrie for me. It is about sex, sin, blood ritual, trial by fire, and revenge. While the set pieces are incredibly powerful on an individual basis, the main narrative is too simple to really make the best use of the film’s symbolic potential.

There is also something fairy tale-like about Carrie. Mrs. White is a stand-in for the wicked witch or evil stepmother that populates so many Grimm tales and the White home is a place of horror and Gothic dread, as well religious terror. The ethereal, dreamy score from Pino Donaggio (Don’t Look Now, Tourist Trap) and some wonderful cinematography from Mario Tosi (Sybil) enhance these elements. Carrie’s script is an improvement over King’s novel and was penned by Lawrence D. Cohen, who would go on to write some other King adaptations, such as It and The Tommyknockers.

Though it isn’t one of my favorite horror films, it is hard to deny the power of Carrie and on that merit it comes recommended. It is available on special edition DVD and on Blu-ray. This was followed by a distant sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999), a made-for-TV remake in 2002, and another remake in 2013, as well as a musical version that was one of the biggest flops in theater history. 

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