US (1976) Dir. Brian De Palma
Bullies always get their comeuppance, but it is a shame that when the victim finally retaliates it is they who are persecuted and not the culprits. As someone whose school and early work life was ruined by bullies, I can always sympathise with the victim.
16 year-old Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a shy high school girl with nascent telekinetic powers, outcast from others and controlled by her religious fanatic mother Margaret (Piper Laurie), who has kept Carrie sheltered from everything she considers a sin. When Carrie has her first period in the school showers, she doesn’t know what is happening and the other girls mercilessly tease her, saved by gym teacher Miss. Collins (Betty Buckley).
As punishment, the girls are put on detention and failure to attend means a barring from the school prom. Bully ringleader Chris Hergensen (Nancy Allen) defies the order and is barred, blaming Carrie and vows revenge. Meanwhile, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty and has her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) ask Carrie to the prom to cheer her up. Carrie reluctantly agrees, giving Chris the perfect place to put her plan into action.
Yes, I know this is a classic that has spawned an unsuccessful sequel and a remake but Carrie and I have never crossed paths, until now. I’m not sure why though; perhaps it is because it has a very famous scene that has been shown on TV in isolation many times over the years, as well as being referenced and lampooned ad infinitum, that it feels like I had already seen it.
The first adaptation of a Stephen King novel, also King’s first novel, Carrie was the film that put Brain De Palma on the map, having only made a small splash with such films as the musical horror Phantom Of The Paradise and psycho thriller Obsession. It seems that even United Artists had little faith in De Palma, giving him a budget of $1.8 million, which is quite evident in the production values.
Looking rather dated to modern eyes, Carrie still has the power to shock and unnerve thanks to the performances that go a long way to elevate this above the B-movie fare it resembles. More problematic however is the male gaze approach De Palma revels in, going too far in sexualising what are supposed to be 16 year old girls; soft focus close ups Carrie’s naked body in the shower in the opening sequence is arguably creepier than the horror of her powers.
More disturbing than this is Carrie’s mother and her zealous devotion to her faith, that has made her into a stringent, intransigent monster in her own right. Constantly quoting the Bible and sheltering Carrie from anything sinful (read: sexual) hence Carrie not knowing about menstruation, Margaret is almost a parody, just like the large mural of the Last Supper in the dining room, and other religious paraphernalia about their spartan abode.
In truth, most characters will be considered hackneyed tropes by modern standards but in 1976 there were probably still relatively less over exposed. Chris is the good looking, self-absorbed popular girl with the bad attitude; Tommy is the jock; Sue is Chris’s friend who reveals her conscience later on, and so on. They may not have much depth but again, the cast do a good enough job to make us hate them beyond superficial reasons.
Sue’s plan to make amends by having Tommy ask Carrie to the prom comes out of leftfield, the only predicate being Carrie liking a poem Tommy submitted in class which nobody else did. Tommy of course is resistant to the idea, and when Miss. Collins finds out, she tries to shut it down but Sue is insistent it will help Carrie integrate with the others more.
Obviously forgetting it take two to tango, the news of Tommy and Carrie as prom dates is greeted with derision and mockery, but Carrie blindly immerse herself into indulging this fantasy and even stands up against her tyrannical mother to do so. It is here that Carrie reminds her mother of her abilities and uses it to her advantage; this is fine, but the subject is never broached before this, leaving us with questions of whether Margaret knew, how long for, if it was hereditary, and if Carrie knew before her prior seems to trigger it.
Regardless, everyone will soon know about it at the prom when Carrie’s dream night becomes her – and everyone else’s – worst nightmare. De Palma does something quite interesting here, not just playing that classic scene it in slow motion but also in silence, so whilst we watch through our fingers, we are guided only by the sounds invented in own heads. The split screen for when the carnage begins (which he also used in Phantom) heightens the chaos of it all.
Despite being 27 at the time, Sissy Spacek is sublimely convincing and compelling as timorous teen Carrie, yet the otherworldly persona she adopts when in full demon mode, just from her rigid movements and widening of the eyes – not to mention being drenched in blood – is where she peaks for my money. Forget CGI and make-up, this is how you perform in a horror film!
By 1976’s standards, this had little to compare to, but viewed today the fashions alone will have some treat this as a relic, let alone the modest presentation, but luckily the strength of the story and efforts from the cast more than compensate. De Palma relies on atmosphere as much as the performances to great effect but shows some ingenuity with the camera work when needed, notably in the prom scene and inside the White household.
Putting aside the discussed issues, Carrie has earned its classic horror film status and shows what a little imagination can do when a filmmaker has has a good story but a limited budget to work with. Oh, and there is an early John Travolta appearance too!