Directed by Brian De Palma
One doesn’t necessarily have to be a horror aficionado to instantly recognize the monstrous image of Sissy Spacek covered in blood from Brian De Palma’s masterpiece, Carrie. Yet while Spacek’s performance in the title role is no less integral to the horror canon than that of Jack Nicholson in The Shining and Anthony Perkins in Psycho, what separates Carrie White from the vast majority of iconic horror movie “monsters” is the viewer’s reluctance to label her as one in the first place. No matter how horrible Carrie’s actions are in the film’s last twenty minutes, she is the one we feel most sorry for in the end, thus making Carrie a horror experience like no other.
The plot is almost ridiculously simple: Bullied teenage girl discovers she has mental powers. Girl gets pushed over the edge by a cruel prank at the prom. Girl unleashes hell on her tormentors. (On a side note, it’s ridiculous how much of the film was revealed in the original theatrical trailer, which can be found on the Special Edition DVD. Apparently, trailers were no more discreet in the 70s than they are today.) In the wrong hands, Carrie could’ve resulted in a stiff block of cheese, but De Palma manages to acknowledge the inherent silliness of the story, while uncannily tapping into the unholy horror of adolescent angst.
Of all the depictions of teenage bullying to be captured on celluloid, Carrie features one of the most merciless. Brian De Palma has been accused of being a misogynist for the way many of his female characters have been portrayed. But if his misogyny is in fact a reality, I daresay that, in the case of Carrie, it only helps him generate sympathy for his protagonist. The teenage girls who torment Carrie, particularly Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen, (who all but orgasms at the moment she pulls the string unleashing the pig’s blood), are not meant to come across as “real” teenagers who are clearly just taking out their own insecurities on poor Carrie, but rather as empty-headed sociopaths who can only express glee when Carrie, believing she is bleeding to death when she has her first menstrual period in the gym shower, starts freaking out. What follows is Carrie being cornered, naked and screaming, while her classmates relentlessly throw tampons at her. That this disturbing scene only occurs within the first ten minutes effectively catches the viewer off-guard, thus leaving him unsettled for the rest of the film.
De Palma’s films make no secret of their debt to Hitchcock, and Carrie is no exception – even those who aren’t well-versed in The Master of Suspense will likely notice such nods to Psycho as Carrie’s school being named Bates High. What makes Carrie a contender for the title of Greatest Film Hitchcock Never Made is De Palma’s ability to wink at his audience while always staying one step ahead of them in order to keep the suspense at a maximum. Most emblematic of the film’s tone are the scenes involving Piper Laurie as Carrie’s sexuality-fearing, religious fanatic mother, Margaret White. In a bold move, De Palma makes Laurie’s first appearance, where she attempts to educate a neighbour on “the gospel of God’s salvation through Christ’s blood”, one of pure comedy. Out in the open, Mrs. White is a ridiculous nuisance. However, once we enter the White’s creepy old house, where mother and daughter eat in darkness between walls covered with images preoccupied with the violence and suffering of the crucifixion, Laurie’s character becomes a truly fearsome figure. While Lawrence D. Cohen’s script fills Laurie’s scenes with ridiculous lines, (“Take off that dress. We’ll burn it together and pray for forgiveness.”) De Palma never restrains himself in establishing a spook-house atmosphere, and the result manages to creep out even the most jaded of viewers. Aware of the satirical implications of her character, Piper Laurie pulls out all the stops, and her unforgettably chilling performance, (not to mention her Oscar nomination), only confirms that “over-the-top” need not always be frowned upon by fellow thespians.
But as brilliant as Laurie is in her role, the film unquestionably belongs to Sissy Spacek. Perhaps one of the most unconventional-looking actresses in Hollywood history, Spacek plays Carrie as tormented to the point where she cannot so much as form a sentence without coming across as a terrified, feral figure who seems so much younger than her sexually liberated classmates. As a result, everything that happens to her seems especially traumatic. Her mother may be a joke to the neighbours, but to Carrie she is a malevolent demon that must be overcome. De Palma uses Spacek’s vulnerability to make the climactic prom scene a brilliantly sadistic piece of cinema; through such stylistic techniques as a maniacally spinning camera when Carrie and her date dance, and slow motion when she actually wins prom queen, De Palma focuses on Carrie’s joy as much as possible, while never ceasing to remind us of the impending horror lurking in the shadows, eventually torturing the viewers with their own anticipation.
Carrie is admittedly not without its flaws. While most of the supporting cast is perfectly competent at making their characters as likable or unlikable as need be, Amy Irving’s consistently dazed expression makes it difficult to identify any signs of guilt or sympathy the character is supposed to be feeling. Furthermore, the goofy music that plays during the girls’ detention seems to belong to a different movie altogether. And as creepy as Spacek’s final confrontation with Laurie is, the script ends up focusing a little too much on the religious implications of Carrie’s power, veering away from the unifying “adolescence as horror” idea. But these are minor flaws in a film that, no matter how much it flirts with camp, never loses sight of its nightmarish and empathetic vision of a hell most of us know too well.