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De Palma’s ‘Carrie’: a simple story transformed into a visual masterpiece

De Palma’s ‘Carrie’: a simple story transformed into a visual masterpiece

Carrie (1976)

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

It was the first film to be adapted from a Stephen King novel. Its leading ladies were acclaimed for their career-defining performances, and the film pushed its relatively unknown supporting cast into the limelight. It is one of the very few horror films to be recognised at the Academy Awards and has sincere spawned a musical, remakes, and a sequel.  However, 40 years on since the publication of the original novel, nothing has captured the sheer horror of Brian De Palma’s 1976 film adaptation. So, what is it about Carrietta “Carrie” White that makes her so special?

The film itself has a simple premise: Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a socially awkward teenage girl, abused by her unstable mother and mocked by her peers. She is invited to the school prom in a rare act of kindness, only to become the subject of a disgusting prank. This allows her lingering telekinetic powers to manifest, and in a fit of rage Carrie unleashes her revenge in a now infamous massacre.

What De Palma does is bring a level of suspense to what was perceived at the time as a risky move in filmmaking. Carrie was considered his first blockbuster feature film, which had a young cast in Spacek, Nancy Allen and John Travolta, to name a few.  However, the source novel had yet to appear on the bestseller list, so there would be little to no public exposure to capitalise upon. Yet, by adopting certain changes from the original story, it transformed a short novel into what is considered one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King story.

Carrie and Miss CollinsCarrie essentially highlights the psychological effects of bullying in high school.  She represents a target due to her sheltered background and her apparent inability to defend herself. In the opening shower scene, she is mocked by her classmates due to her own naivety. Her tormentors’ subsequent lack of remorse, for the most part, shows a level of cruelty and maliciousness that has been featured in some of the high school clique films of recent years, such as Heathers and Mean Girls, but there is a supernatural element in Carrie that makes the story much more than just backstabbing and bitchiness.

The theme of ignorance is also consistent throughout the film. In addition to Carrie’s inexperience to the most common occurrences in high school, such as relationships, friends, and even growing up, there is also her mother, whose religious devotion makes her believe that practically everything is a sin, as well as her classmates who disregard her. She is so unnoticed in her school that even her principal is oblivious to the fact that he is saying her name incorrectly. This blatant disregard towards Carrie paves the path to their untimely fates, which seem justified from the viewer’s point of view.

Carrie-OriginalThe prom scene is considered a classic because of its simplicity, the filmmaking techniques adopted by De Palma effectively creating the feelings of anticipation, dread and horror as the evening unfolds to its devastating conclusion: from the slow-motion shots of Sue Snell’s ‘banishment’ from the prom and Chris Hargensen’s ‘revenge’ on Carrie, to the use of split-screen, which emphasises the sheer scope of the massacre with fluidity. Symbolically bathed in red light, Spacek’s blank, wide-eyed stare during the scene shows Carrie’s terrifying indifference towards the people who mocked her. She is no longer afraid nor in need of compassion, which is evident in her violently killing Ms Collins, the only adult who showed her kindness – a very different fate to the original story, but one that truly strengthens the fear Carrie enforces through her powers. The shrill sharp strings during each telekinetic blow is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic Psycho and does little to cushion the jump factor in Carrie’s actions, especially during the shock ending featuring sole survivor Sue Snell.

So, what makes Carrie White so special?  She doesn’t get on with her mother, she has problems talking to boys, and the girls in her school are absolute bitches. In other words, take away the telekinesis and you end up with a typical teenage girl – one that everyone can relate to. Carrie has the rare ability to make you fear and pity its eponymous character. Under De Palma’s masterful eye in adapting a simple story, his cinematic creation hasn’t diminished in light of the modern horror trends, and is one film that is likely to remain one of his most acclaimed works in his fifty-plus year career.

— Katie Wong