Carrie (1976)

Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles

As part of my review of “The Breakfast Club,” I brought up the social hierarchies of high school and submitted that if everyone recognized that they share similar worries and doubts, our children might be less likely to be burdened by the need to fight for position. That might work in an ideal world, but the problem is that we do not exist in an ideal world. There will always be fragile creatures who, try as they might, have a hard time integrating themselves into the rest of society, their long and difficult road made worse by bullies who are quick to attack what they don’t understand. Occasionally, you get a truly horrific story of a child or children inside whom something snaps. Maybe their parents are just as screwed up as they are, or worse are just as culpable for the cause of their pain as the kids at school. With no one to comfort or relate to them, the only release for their inner turmoil is violence. This is the tragedy of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), but unlike her real-life modern day counterparts, Carrie does not put dozens of holes in her abusers with a high-powered rifle, for hers is a weapon that is far more dangerous: her mind.

Chances are, you’ve known someone like Carrie in your life. She’s the girl who sits in the back of the classroom and rarely speaks, hoping that by hiding behind her long hair no one will take notice of her. This is the case for some but, for others like Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), it is all the more reason to taunt Carrie. When Carrie has her first period in the girls’ locker room shower, Chris leads the charge as Carrie is pelted with tampons by her female classmates. Apparently, Carrie had no prior knowledge of the menstrual cycle, and believed herself to be bleeding out. She has her ultra-repressive, religious zealot mother (Piper Laurie) to thank for her ignorance, as well as the other half of her mental abuse. Your mother should be the one you can come home to and seek advice from when the kids at school have been mean. But Margaret White would rather lock her daughter in the closet until she admits that her period is a sin. Although Margaret’s history with Carrie’s father is briefly touched on, I have to wonder at what point this woman went off the deep end, or did she simply start out life as an undiagnosed psychopath?

Despite the fact that the ending is already known to us by the time we first sit down to watch “Carrie,” whether because of Stephen King’s novel, the movie’s promotional material, or the remakes on the big screen, TV or on Broadway, there are characters and situations introduced which give one hope that, somehow, it’ll all turn out differently than we know it will. Sue Snell (Amy Irving), who originally joined in on the tampon incident, later feels the need to make it up to Carrie by having her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) take Carrie to the Prom. Sadly, it is this very act of kindness that allows the tragedy to unfold. But that’s how you know that “Carrie” is not simply a collection of “stuff happening.” Every action has its cause and effect. The tampon incident leads to detention for Carrie’s tormentors, which leads to Chris’s Prom privileges being revoked and Sue asking Tommy to take Carrie in her place, which leads to the prank with the bucket of pig’s blood devised by Chris and boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta), which leads to Carrie unleashing her fury. Take out just one of these steps, and maybe everyone has a happy ending.

Stephen King’s protagonists often are unfortunate souls cursed with powers that no mortal human should ever have to be burdened with. Carrie White’s supernatural talent is telekinesis, or the ability to move objects with your mind. Unlike Jean Grey of “X-Men”… and unlike the 2013 version of Carrie as played by Chloë Grace Moretz… she does not have to extend her arms in order to make her powers work. When Carrie’s powers explode at the Prom, Sissy Spacek is able to convey this just by looking in the direction of the object she wants to affect with widened eyes. This is also effective in showing how traumatized Carrie is, and in how she has in this moment allowed her powers to completely overtake her.

Brian De Palma’s early films all seem to share a certain style. Many of the more obvious characteristics seem to congregate within the Prom sequence. There is the split-screen technique, which is more effective here than in any other De Palma film in which it appears. Also used here is the extended period without dialogue. De Palma, never afraid to remind us how much he appreciates Alfred Hitchcock, also loves shower scenes. They are never gratuitous, nor are they particularly sexual. No, it seems to me that De Palma’s shower scenes are generally meant to make you feel uncomfortable, particularly the one that comes during the opening credits of “Carrie.” It isn’t just because Carrie is experiencing her period; you also are mindful that this is supposed to be a 17-year old child you’re watching (even though Spacek and the other actresses are all clearly older than that). Also, and I’m not sure whether this was intentional or not, but in this opening scene that sees pretty much the entire young female cast in a state of undress, one of them at least manages to keep her bra and panties on. I bring this little detail up because the casualty list at the film’s climax will include everyone in this scene EXCEPT for that person.

As easy as it would be for me to choose the mayhem at the film’s climax as my favorite part of the movie, I find that there are two other moments that stand out for me, one for its clever use of music and the other for its camerawork. Firstly, there is the detention scene, where the girls are all being forced to workout for a fifty minute period. The very 70’s musical track starts out as fast paced as the exercise, then slows down to a crawl as the girls continue to grow fatigued. I can’t help but chuckle. Secondly, I choose the scene where Tommy and Carrie are dancing at the Prom. An otherwise sweet moment seems almost to spiral out of control as the camera begins to spin around the couple at a very dizzying, somewhat nauseating pace. A brilliant sign of the dark times that lie in wait.

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