Brian De Palma’s ‘Carrie’ is nothing short of brilliant

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Carrie posterCarrie
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Lawrence D. Cohen
USA, 1976

This classic horror movie based on Stephen King’s first novel, about a pubescent girl with telekinetic powers, remains Brian De Palma’s best film. Sissy Spacek stars as Carrie White, a shy, mousy teenager who is the victim of both her evangelical mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), and of her cruel high school classmates, who bully her constantly. Her mom shelters Carrie in a closed-off, claustrophobic household, due to her psychotic fear of sexuality and twisted religious beliefs. She punishes the girl repeatedly and prohibits her to develop friendships with other teens. As a result of ignorance and religious guilt, Carrie remains shunned by society, and viewed as an outsider who is the butt of practical jokes. When the school’s popular girl, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) organizes a wicked prank at the school prom, Carrie lashes out in a horrifying manner, displaying her deadly special abilities in the film’s infamous climax. This landmark of cinematic horror gives us a terrifying look at high school cruelty. Many films have featured school bullies, but Carrie is one of the first to focus on the cruelty inflicted by teenage girls. This is Stephen King’s first book-to-film adaptation, and undoubtedly the best.

Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Academy Award nominations for their performances, a rarity in the horror genre. Sissy Spacek showcases her range of acting ability with her convincing portrayal of Carrie’s pain and longing for acceptance. Carrie would be less of a film without her talent to convey enormous conviction. Her performance is close to perfection, balancing the difficult task of playing both vulnerable and menacing. She was 27 when the film was shot, but looks half her age, and her uncanny combination of maturity and innocence makes us like and fear her all at once. Meanwhile, Piper Laurie powers through the picture as the fiercely religious, sexually repressed, and unbalanced single mom. The talented supporting cast includes a young and then-unknown John Travolta, P.J. Soles, William Katt and Nancy Allen (later Mrs. De Palma) as the uber-bitch diva.

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De Palma is at the top of his game here as a master of visual flamboyance. Carrie brims with stylistic flourishes, including his trademark slow-motion and effective split-screen sequences. The film’s audacious technical excesses and homages to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some to be the film’s greatest strengths, while others criticize De Palma as a hack. Carrie is arguably the most stylish of De Palma’s films, but whatever side of the argument you stand by, the film arguably features two (if not three) memorable scenes that have entered the pop-culture lexicon.

De Palma’s deliberate undoing of expectations is what made the filmmaker stand out in his heyday. The best example can be found in Carrie. Carrie instantly became a tragic figure in the opening shower scene, beginning with images of naked teenage girls washing in an extended soft-porn slo-mo sequence, and culminating with the camera panning over to our titular character, who unexpectedly receives her passage into womanhood. It’s a typical De Palma bait-and-switch technique: the scene starts as a personal and erotic moment, and ends in horror with Carrie’s screams drowning out the soundtrack, and the sight of blood flowing down the drain. As a film about women written and directed entirely by men, some have criticized the film as exploitative, calling De Palma a misogynist. The debate has reached the point of such repetition that decades after its release, it has grown quite tiresome. Misogyny arguments are primarily based on assumption. These critics believe the onset of menstruation is the cause for Carrie’s destructive supernatural abilities to be born. In fact, her telekinetic powers are brought on, not only by fear but by the violent attack of her classmates. The scene alone speaks volumes about how the teenagers then felt discomfort with the socially taboo subject of menstruation, and it is this discomfort that causes them to react, and act as they do. Ignorance and fear are the driving force of terror here. More so, Carrie’s telekinesis seems genetic. In a sense, Carrie is a victim to her curse. She is hopeless and doomed right from the start.

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The prom climax is so brilliantly staged that it justifies classifying Carrie as one of the greatest horror films ever made. From the long tracking shots (including one take that took an entire day to shoot) to the split-screen; the climax in Carrie is De Palma working at his best. Elsewhere, De Palma runs rife through religious imagery and the recurring visual motif of blood. Although De Palma’s images usually attain symbolic overkill, everything seems to work in Carrie. In one scene, Spacek and Laurie are seated at the dinner table lit by lightning, which reveals a gorgeous tableaux of The Last Supper in the background. In another scene, Spacek is tossed into a closet with a glowing figurine of St. Sebastian featuring arrows poking through its sides. Later, during Carrie’s revenge on her mother, Laurie symbolically becomes a similar figure stabbed repeatedly by sharp kitchen knives. Perhaps the one aspect of Carrie that doesn’t quite work comes in the film’s conclusion. After Carrie literally brings down the house using her telekinetic powers, a typical De Palma cheat ending was tacked on, if only to manipulate the audience into one last jump scare.

– Ricky D

****

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Other Notes:

One can’t review Carrie without briefly mentioning the production design by Jack Fisk and William Kenney, and the evocative score by Pino Donaggio, who managed to find room to use the four-note violin theme from Psycho throughout the film. These men played a major role in the success of the final product.

The film was followed by a terrible sequel The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999), as well as by a famously unsuccessful Broadway musical adaptation. It was later remade in 2002 as a three-part TV mini-series and is being remade again in a film starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, directed by Kimberley Peirce.

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Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows.
  • Patrick

    Awesome review. I’m in the camp that loves De Palma and his Hitchcockian style. Like his idol though, he’s long been accused of mysoginism, and whether or not that’s true in his other films, I think you nailed the themes here perfectly. This movie is cinematic heaven for me.

    • Thanks Patrick. I love his films and plan on writing about The Fury next.