Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976)

This entry contains spoilers, but seriously: is there anyone reading this who hasn't seen the movie?

"I wanna be normal, I wanna start to try me, a whole person, before it's too late."

-Carrie White

Although I wrote in an earlier post that I've been more than a little reluctant to cover the universally agreed-upon Great Horror Films from the 1970s, since they've been talked about to death, I think the time has come for me to stop being such a weenie and offer you a few entries on some of the established milestone horror films from the '70s; those films that are invariably on most, if not all, Top 10 Horror Movies of All Time lists. Besides, it's not like I haven't written about classic horror films from the '70s before.

My first entry in this quasi-category for this new batch of horror film assessments is Brian De Palma's 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's first published novel, Carrie, which is considered by many (including by King himself) to be one of the best adaptations of the author's work. De Palma's film is simultaneously realistic and baroque in portraying the high school caste system. (The latter of which isn't really in King's novel. The story in the book is told in retrospect, often in court transcripts, eyewitness testimonies, and news stories, giving the story more a police report/case study feel. That's not a criticism, lest you think I'm disparaging the novel.)

Carrie is a very simple and straightforward story about a very withdrawn, socially inept and unpopular high school girl who has the ability to move things with her mind. She's mocked and hated by many of the other girls in school and emotionally stunted by her religious fanatic of a mother, who believes she has been tainted by the devil.

The movie opens with Carrie White in the shower after gym class, and getting her period. Since she's unaware about women's menstrual cycles, she panics and thinks she's dying. The rest of the girls taunt the hysterical loser. (Even Miss Collins, the one teacher genuinely sympathetic towards Carrie, can't deal with her histrionics, and slaps her to calm her down.)

The makers of Carrie also reveal how easy it is for even the "nice kids" to get caught up in mob mentality. When we're first introduced to Sue Snell, who's actually a kind-hearted character, she's joining her schoolmates in mocking Carrie and cruelly tossing towels and tampons at her in the shower room. Sure, she regrets her behavior later, but at the time, it doesn't even occur to her to go against the grain and try to help her classmate (De Palma doesn't show any shots of Sue looking reluctant to join in the mockery; he shows her diving right in).

After this incident, Sue and another girl, Chris Hargensen, use their boyfriends to deal with the aftermath. Sue wants to help, so she asks her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to prom. Chris wants revenge, so she gets her boyfriend, Billy, to humiliate her at said prom.

Although Carrie reasonably suspects that Tommy's request to take her to the prom is part of a scheme to make fun of her, she eventually believes him, and reluctantly accepts his invitation.

I always have a problem with pretty actresses playing nerds or geeks in movies, the casting of Sissy Spacek as Carrie works perfectly, perhaps because she isn't a typical nerd or geek. Spacek, though very pretty in this film, still conveys a painful awkwardness that makes it clear that no one would be caught dead hanging out with, let alone dating, her. Her mousy manner, her stringy hair always covering her face, only to occasionally be pulled back to reveal her innocent-bordering-on-psychotic bulging Kewpie doll eyes. In fact, the movie takes great pains to point out that she is in fact quite easy on the eyes, but that her demeanor and personality (as well as social status) prevents her from being remotely attractive to the boys in school.

(Though this really is a device used in films in later years, Carrie mercifully doesn't use the hatefully clich├ęd and lazy, "Girl Gets Jaw-Dropping Makeover Based More Or Less Solely On Getting New Hairstyle And Removing Glasses" device.)

Watching the movie again, I forgot that, in the scene where Carrie and Tommy dance (with the camera spinning around them faster and faster until the viewer gets motion sickness), Tommy kisses her, which really opens a whole can of worms for the three characters (Carrie, Sue and Tommy). Originally, Tommy takes Carrie out at the request of his girlfriend. He's clearly a bit chagrined and amused by this task, until this scene. He's not just kissing Carrie to make her feel better about herself. I wondered if this weren't a film about a telekinetic girl, would a whole new story have followed this trajectory? Would Tommy tell Sue about the kiss? Would he then stop interacting with Carrie after the prom, or would he develop feelings for her and break up with Sue? And if so, how would Sue react? I would imagine not too well: after all, Sue's trying to do something nice for Carrie, and in turn, Carrie steals her boyfriend.

Of course, there's no opportunity for this can of worms to be dealt with. Chris gets her revenge by rigging the prom king & queen election so that Tommy & Carrie win, then dumping a bucket of pig blood on Carrie when she's up on the stage with her bouquet of roses and tiara, reminding the school that she's the outcast of the social order, not the prom queen. The bucket then falls on Tommy's head, knocking him unconscious.

Then, all hell breaks loose.

Unfortunately for Chris and virtually everyone else in the school, Chris' revenge scheme works. Carrie, pushed too far, unleashes her telekinetic fury on the bulk of the school, killing and maiming many, many people (including Chris and Billy later).

When she goes home, her mother, vindicated in her assertion that everyone was going to laugh at her if she went to the dance, tries to kill her daughter. Carrie uses her powers to impale her mother with as many kitchen utensils as possible, killing her.

Consumed by rage, humiliation and physical pain (her mother has stabbed her, after all), Carrie brings the house crashing down on her and her mother with her mind. She is buried in the rubble and killed.

It would be incredibly vulgar and tasteless, not to mention dunderheaded and inaccurate, to suggest that King and De Palma "predicted Columbine." They didn't "predict" anything. What they did was tap into that hurt and rage that many alienated and outcast teens stuck at the bottom of high school's social pecking order feel.

Revisiting this film (and skimming through the novel again), I found the prom scene almost unbearable, knowing how it would all turn out. You have this outcast who's finally coming out of her shell (and looking absolutely beautiful) and developing the inklings of something resembling self-esteem and confidence, only to have it come crashing down horribly in the blink of an eye. It's crushing and to see that her mother's nasty predictions all come true (and Mrs. White really isn't a character you want to be right).

(I was almost tempted to cover my eyes at the shot where the pig blood is dumped on an elated Carrie, but I didn't. I came here to do the job, and do the job right.)

The scenes I found the most horrific were the ones grounded in reality (I mean, sure, I jump when Sue has the dream about Carrie's hand coming up from the ground to grab her, and wince when De Palma cranks the soundtrack for those other obligatory "boo" moments): when Carrie freaks the fuck out in the shower in the opening, when she pleads with her mother to comfort and love her (to no avail), seeing hope and happiness register on Carrie's face through the course of preparing for and attending the prom with the knowledge that Chris will succeed in taking that all away, forever.

Ultimately, Carrie is a tragedy about an outcast girl who just wants to be normal before it's too late, and is very close to fulfilling her very simple and not-terribly-ambitious goal, yet fails.

And that's horrific.

Glad he's out of high school,

James "Not So Nostalgic" Comtois

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Blogger joshcon80 said...

Now you're speaking my language! This is one of my all time favorite movies and one that I'm super passionate about. If people ask me what my favorite teen films are I'll always say "Carrie", "Heathers" or "Battle Royale". They're the only ones that get that sting right, you know? here is an incomplete list of why this movie owns:

1. This (and John Waters' movies) is where my love of mean girls comes from. I ADORE the popular girls in this, and I totally ripped off -er- was inspired by this while writing "The Chalk Boy". Lauren Radley is a total Sue Snell and Trisha Sorensen almost wore a hat with rainbows on its side as an homage to Norma. Plus, a teenage Edie McClurg in enormous glasses? Yes, please! PJ Soles is my goddess.

2. The scene at the prom where the camera spins around them makes my heart swell. As you might have noticed, I'm kind of a sucker for slow dancing. Beautiful.

3. The pop song at the prom "Education Blues" is one of my all time favorites. It's so awesome. Some trivia: The band had two lead singers and the girls in the audience were supposed to clap for which one they wanted to sing each song.

4. I wanna do it with a late 70s/early 80's William Katt.

5. Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!

6:38 PM  

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