Carrie (1976)

CarrieSynopsis: At the center of the terror is Carrie, a tortured high-school misfit with no confidence, no friends…and no idea about the extent of her ‘secret powers’ of telekinesis. But when her psychotic mother and sadistic classmates finally go too far, the once-shy teen becomes an unrestrained vengeance seeking powerhouse who, with the help of her ‘special gift,’ causes all hell to break loose in a famed cinematic frenzy of blood, fire and brimstone that will take you to the very depths of horror – and beyond.

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Carrie 7.75

eyelights: Sissy Spacek. the core plot. the pacing. the pay-off.
eyesores: the heavy-handed, rip-off score. the speedy development.

“I mean, all the kids think I’m funny. And I don’t wanna be. I wanna be normal. I wanna start to try and be a whole person, before it’s too late…”

‘Carrie’ is a 1976 paranormal thriller based on Stephen King’s first published novel and directed by Brian De Palma. It revolves around an outcast high school student who is openly mocked, if not bullied, at school, psychologically abused by her fanatically religious mom at home, and imbued with a telekinetic ability that she doesn’t entirely control.

It’s part coming-of-age story, part horror. And, of course, it’s considered one of the greatest horror films in American cinema.

I don’t remember when I first saw the movie because it was many years ago, and I have seen it many times since, but I still recall when I first read the book. I was in my first year of high school, had fallen hard for King’s ‘Firestarter’ – which lead me to take on all the other books that I could get my hands on, and eagerly devouring them one by one.

‘Carrie’ was one of the earliest books that I read. I actually still remember where I was when I started it, bizarrely enough: I was on the bus, going to the west end of town , in the middle of a grey -perhaps even rainy- day. I should have been in school, so perhaps I had an appointment of some sort (it wasn’t a school outing because I was on my own).

It’s funny that I can remember when I started the book, but not where I was going. Clearly, the book had left its mark because it’s the only one that I can pinpoint accurately (aside from ‘Firestarter’, which I remember poring over at the back of the class, when I should have been listening to the teacher!). I remember that the shower sequence really troubled me.

I should probably read the book again, because it would be nice to compare it to the movie, which I suspect is largely different (from what I’ve read, De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen took liberties with the material). Apparently, Stephen King is quite pleased with the end result, so whatever they did must be in keeping with his intention – he’s not always this supportive (case-in-point: ‘The Shining’)

The thing that struck me the most when I watched it this time, is just how pervasive the bullying theme was. Perhaps this is due to the fact that bullying has become an omnipresent topic of discussion in the media and in politics in recent years, particularly after a number of disturbing incidents that were exacerbated by the use of social media.

Of course, it’s quite possible that I’m hyper-sensitized to it at this point.

Still, it seems to me that ‘Carrie’ is THE anti-bullying film du siècle (which may account for its recent remake – timing is everything). However, considering the levels to which bullying have risen in recent years, I can’t help but wonder if anyone’s  learned anything from it. Maybe, as a society, we need for situations to hit a breaking point before we act?

I always find that strange… why clean-up when you can pre-empt?

This problem seems endemic in our society, whether we talk about health, the environment, violence, …etc. It seems as though taking responsibility for the impact of our (in)actions and developing long-term strategies is too difficult for our ADD-addled brains – hence the valuing of expedient political decision-making over challenging but visionary ones.

I also find it peculiar that ‘Carrie’ (both the novel and film) came out but a few years after the peace and love movement, whose intent was to be revolutionary, to make the world a better place. Is this story truly representative of what high school was like in the mid-’70s? Or was it simply a dialed-up rendition, a worst-case scenario for entertainment’s sake? (One that has sadly become reality since…?)

It also bring to light the issue of violence against women in the form of Chris Hargensen, as played by Nancy Allen. It was so shocking to see Chris keep getting slapped around – by the teacher and many times over by her boyfriend, played by John Travolta. That would not stand today (although the Chris Brown/Rihanna incident brings pause), but I’m surprised that, in the heat of the ’70s feminist movement, such actions would be naturalized on-screen.

Similarly, given the era, I was taken aback by the softcore opening shower sequence, which felt exploitative to me, what with all the nude girls (complete with ’70s muff!). Was it necessary? Was it even representative of a girl’s locker room at the time? Or was this merely a genre convention? Perhaps it was simply a male fantasy? Either way, I loved watching it – I’m not exactly immune to such things, exploitative or not.

At least it’s not entirely gratuitous: it eventually pays off, showing us (via her horrified howls and terror from seeing her menstrual blood for the first time) just how sheltered and fragile Carrie is. What a disturbing moment that is, especially considering the treatment she’s subjected to by the rest of the girls afterwards; if Carrie wasn’t already traumatized, then that sealed the deal. No wonder she’s inches from the breaking point.

Sissy Spacek is amazing as Carrie. She’s creepy as hell, what with those googly eyes and that Michael Jackson nose, but she is by far the best actor of the lot. And when she loses it, covered in pig’s blood, that stare of hers is absolutely devastating, eerie as !@#$. Spacek is also terrific at playing both sides of Carrie’s character – it’s just too bad that she’s forced to transition so quickly (within days, according to the film’s timeline).

Meanwhile, Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie’s raving lunatic of a mom, is all theatrics, taking it to a hysterical degree. Her character could be considered utterly insane, though, so it works in some ways – which might explain why she was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the Academy Awards (while Spacek was nominated for Best Actress): it’s a brilliant, if slightly unrealistic, performance.

If anything, Carrie, is worth seeing for the casting alone! What an amazing cast it managed to reel in: Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, William Katt and Edie McClurg.  None of them looked of high school age, most of them being at least 25 years old, (Spacek was 10 years older than Carrie, for instance), but it doesn’t matter much when you get such tasty assortment of up-and-comers.

The true problem is that the film doesn’t really explore its characters’ motivations adequately. It hints at what’s lying behind those eyes, but it never really goes any further – which is a darned shame, because it transforms complex behaviour into mere sketches. This may be due to a limited runtime, of course, seeing as properly exploring them would have added at least an extra 30 minutes to the picture.

But it would have benefited from it:

  • Why would Chris allow herself to be slapped around repeatedly? She seems like a headstrong person, so why would she even be around people who would abuse her this way? I’m sure that the answer is casebook, but it’s not explored at all.
  • Why would Sue and Tommy go through with their plan of Tommy taking Carrie out at the prom, even though the couple has been together for so long? Sure, there’s guilt, and perhaps even pity, involved, but it’s not enough to translate thoughts into action here. As well, they don’t even seem to struggle with their feelings for each in this context. Why would Tommy agree? Isn’t Sue jealous, or worried? Conversely, why aren’t they proud of what they’re doing for Carrie? It’s all so vacant; they’re like zombies, going through the motions.
  • Why would Carrie switch over from being a timid, mousy girl to a more daring one (who doesn’t even wear a bra to the prom) overnight, …etc.?  Wouldn’t she require some transition time? It all happens far too fast, given her personality type. Perhaps this can be explained somehow, just not here.
  • Why would all the kids go from tormenting Carrie to celebrating her in the course of one night? There is nothing in place to indicate why there is such a shift in their groupthink. Perhaps they were impressed with her that evening, perhaps they simply reassessed their opinion, but we will never know.

There are too many shortcuts or unexplained behaviours. Even Miss Collins switches over from being disdainful of Carrie to being protective of her, consistently watching her back and even trying to reach out to her. It’s suggested that she pities her, but that’s never really expanded upon in the film; one has to assume the reason behind this sudden shift.

The only truly consistent behaviour in the whole picture comes from Margaret, Carrie’s mother, who is persistently crazed, spewing her zealotry in an over-the-top fashion that can only remind one of the nuttiest televangelists. Oh, sure, she’s a bloody lunatic, but at least everything she does makes sense, contextually, if one considers her perspective.

The next issue with the picture is Pino Donaggio’s score: while it had an amusing and impressive Grand Guignol quality to it, it also ripped off Bernard Herrmann’s strident strings from ‘Psycho‘ all too liberally, using it any time the filmmakers needed to jar the audience a bit. The problem is that those notes belong to another movie – and a classic at that, so it felt completely out of place.

Of course, having said this, there are two things to consider: 1) Firstly, Herrmann himself was originally due to compose the film’s music, but passed away before he could (although no doubt he would have picked a different tack). 2) De Palma was frequently accused of stealing from Hitchcock in the early part of his careers, so he may have coaxed Donaggio into ripping off ‘Psycho’.

Essentially, in this case, I wouldn’t blame Donaggio; his many collaborations with De Palma would suggest that he was doing exactly what De Palma wanted. But it doesn’t change the fact that the score annoyed me to no end with its blatant, incessant rip-off of Herrmann’s classic: it stunk of unoriginality and exploitation, which is not something I particularly appreciate.

Having said this, there is the ending, which makes up for any flaws that the pictures has. While the rest of the film feels like a cookie-cutter ’70s teenage drama (with a minor supernatural twist), the ending destroys that conception completely along with everything else it had set up until that point. In so doing, it elevates ‘Carrie’ beyond the realm of the cheesy melodrama.

And the way that De Palma did it is fabulous: he shot it in such a dramatic way, including a split-scene effect that contributes an erratic quality to the sequence. Sure, the effects are cheesy by today’s standards, but De Palma’s expressionistic style made it work to a larger degree (the car accident and the destruction of the house were a bit wonky, however).

All in all, ‘Carrie’ remains a pretty effective thriller. I loved the pace, which is slower than today’s ADD-addled films (which makes me curious to see how the 2013 version, or even the 2002 TV version,  will compare), the cast is everything you might want it to be, and the picture pays off in spades. So, despite a number of flaws, it will likely remain a prime example of Stephen King’s oeuvre on the silver screen.

Story: 8.0
Acting: 7.5
Production: 7.5

Chills: 3.5
Gore: 2.5
Violence: 2.0

Date of viewing: October 16, 2013

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