This weekend, a new film version of CARRIE arrives in theaters, directed by Kimberly Peirce and starring 16-year-old Chloë Grace Moretz. This feels like a good moment to look back at the 1976 version, directed by Brian De Palma and starring a then-27-year-old Sissy Spacek — not as a compare-and-contrast, but as an appreciation of the earlier film.
For a very long time, CARRIE was been a noticeable empty spot on the list of major horror movies I’ve seen. There was actually a pretty good reason for that: CARRIE is so entrenched in pop culture by now that it’s one of those movies that everybody knows, with or without seeing it. It was released before I was born, which means by the time I was remotely of age to see it, it’d already been spoilered to death eleventeen different ways. This is a very famous piece we’re talking about. If you’re a horror fan, there’s a chance you may not know it as Stephen King’s first novel, but you’d know it as Brian DePalma’s breakthrough mainstream film. If you don’t know it as Sissy Spacek’s star-making role, you know it as John Travolta’s first major movie role. If you don’t know about the whole telekinesis aspect, you’ve probably heard about the prom and the pig’s blood. You don’t need to know who Piper Laurie is to have heard Adam Sandler’s impression of her classic line from CARRIE, “They’re all going to laugh at you!“
In short, there aren’t a lot of people who know about movies but aren’t very familiar with this image:
At this point, it can be fairly called iconic. It’s the climax of the movie, yet there’s no book, documentary, magazine article about horror movies that seems to have neglected revealing this image. In a way, that’s a dick move — being shown this image kind of ruins a major moment of the movie for those who haven’t seen it. If you know the scene pictured above is coming, you can’t help but wait for it. But the spoiler is understandable too — I mean, what better single image encapsulates the history, politics, sexuality, conflict, the impact of the entire horror genre than a pretty red-headed girl covered in blood standing in the middle of a blazing inferno?
Once I began immersing myself in horror movies, I decided it was time to start filling in those gaps, or at least to finally see this movie. Once I did, I realized that there were still some surprises left on the picked-over craft services table that has been the critical acclaim and endless popular referencing which surrounds CARRIE. And I realized how I had a handful of misconceptions that were ripe to be disproved. Here are some:
The movie CARRIE is about the character of Carrie.
Well, it is, obviously, but also it kind of isn’t. The story follows Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a high school girl raised by an insanely religious mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie is tormented at school by a group of popular girls, ranging from Sue Snell, the nicest (Amy Irving) to Chris Hargesen, the meanest (Nancy Allen), with PJ Soles from HALLOWEEN and STRIPES falling somewhere in between on the meanness scale. When Carrie experiences the first blushes of puberty, it coincides with a growing and dangerous telekinetic ability. Noticing how Carrie is having such a hard time, Sue Snell takes pity on Carrie and has her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) invite Carrie to the senior prom. Unwilling to let this go off without a hitch, Chris Hargesen and her own boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) plot the world’s goriest practical joke.
The movie begins in a strange way, if we’re meant to align our sympathies with Carrie. It starts in gym class, where Carrie has yet again embarassed herself in the eyes of the other girls during volleyball practice. Which is standard enough high school stuff, but then that credit sequence happens.
It’s a slow-motion pan through a fogged-up locker room, with Pino Donaggio’s swoony orchestral score playing up the romance of what in other movies would be pretty damn gratuitous, as we see all the pretty girls in the class frolicking with each other, some wrapped in towels, some wrapped in nothing at all. It’s a partial lesson in 1970s grooming practices, is what it is.
I dug up Pauline Kael’s review, where she complimented DePalma for blending “old-movie trash and soft-core pornos to provide ‘heart’ for a thriller.” That’s definitely true, although the effect of all this youthful beauty is that, by the time the camera arrives at Carrie’s corner of the showers, she seems like all the more of an outcast. Carrie is alone, huddled in the shower, hands between her legs. Anyone who’s seen PRIME CUT can vouch for the fact that a young, unclothed Sissy Spacek is not at all an off-putting thing, but in CARRIE it somehow becomes the first creepy image of the movie — having everything to do with how Carrie sees herself and how the other girls see her. Carrie is terrified to find blood between her legs (that first blush of puberty), and runs towards the other girls, begging them to help her. This makes Carrie an outcast not only to her schoolmates, but to the viewer as well! I can’t speak to how a female audience would interpret this scene, but I think I understand how a male audience is supposed to see it — she killed our buzz. We were enjoying all that softcore, and then this one weird girl had to go freak out and end the scene.
The first time I saw CARRIE, I didn’t get why DePalma would start the movie this way, but now that I think about it, it makes sense. This is one way to estrange the audience from Carrie, who in any other high school movie would have our sympathies for the volleyball scene alone. With the locker room scene, we’re told right from the start that there’s something not right with Carrie.
Which explains why, for a movie with her name in the title, Carrie isn’t exactly the point-of-view character. We care about her, because she’s played by Sissy Spacek, but we’re also creeped out by her, because nearly everyone else in the movie is, including herself. The story frequently shifts between its principal characters; in other words, Carrie’s not in every scene. Certainly, the most memorable scenes are the ones in which she does appear, but the script by Lawrence Cohen (based on King’s novel but making digressions with DePalma’s input) has several scenes depicting the actions and conversations of the other characters, most of whom are talking about or plotting against Carrie.
So yes, we do get all the scenes of Carrie being terrorized by her mother (“They’re all going to laugh at you!”) and demonstrating her emerging psychic powers, but we also get scenes that are entirely carried by the rest of the cast, whether it be Sue Snell persuading Tommy Ross to cut Carrie a break and escort her to the prom, or Chris Hargesen and Billy Nolan scheming to ruin it. Which brings me to my next preconception/misconception…
Travolta is in this movie.
Everybody’s favorite Scientologist is part of it, but not as much as I was led to believe. He’s definitely in there, but really just serves as Chris Hargesen’s ridiculously-coiffed henchman. DePalma eventually got great leading man work out of Travolta, in BLOW OUT, but this was Travolta’s first major movie role, where he’s cast as the pretty boy, actions playing against looks as he takes part in some cruel business. I was surprised to see that the way Chris and Billy get that pig’s blood is to actually slaughter a pig. Kind of unexpectedly awful. Like this hairdo.
And he’s this movie’s notion of a dreamboat. No wonder it’s classified as a horror movie.
Speaking of which, here’s something about CARRIE which a lot of people seem to think, but I was surprised to find untrue after my first viewing:
The movie is scary.
Not really. It’s a lot of great things, but scary it is not — to me, anyway. Maybe that has something to do with the impact of the prom scene being lessened by its familiarity, as I discussed earlier, or maybe it’s because every time Carrie uses her telekinesis, the highly-recognizable violin shrieks from Bernard Herrmann’s score to PSYCHO play briefly, constantly reminding the viewer [me, at least] that it’s only a movie. There’s one great jump-scare that I have no intention of ruining, but that ties into another misconception I had about the movie.
The prom scene is the end of CARRIE.
It isn’t. It’s the climax. There’s a denouement. Meaning: Other important things happen, even after Carrie burns down her senior prom. The prom scene is probably remembered as the culmination of the movie because it’s the big extended setpiece, and the moment of collision of all the most disturbing aspects of the movie. In his book Shock Value, Jason Zinoman writes of the moral ambiguity that makes Carrie’s revenge so unsettling. She doesn’t just wipe out her tormentors — in fact, Chris Hargesen and Billy Nolan aren’t even in the gym when it burns down — but she actually wipes out scores of innocents, all those faces in the background we never met, along with teachers such as Mr. Fromm (the likably odd Sydney Lassick from ALLIGATOR, THE UNSEEN, BODY SLAM, COOL AS ICE, and ONE OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST) and Ms. Collins (Betty Buckley), the one teacher who tried hardest to defend Carrie. Carrie’s vengeance is not righteous. In fact, her vengeance against Chris and Billy, which is the vengeance we would have most wanted to see, is far more impersonal than what she does to that crowd in the prom scene.
This is why that prom scene is so indelible. This is what is so unsettling about the movie. It’s set up as a conventional story of a high school outsider who has her moment and triumphs over her bullies, but as the audience we never quite root for her the way we should, and her ultimate revenge is way more horrible than we ever wanted. CARRIE isn’t as much viscerally terrifying, spooky or eerie, as it is psychologically unsettling, maddening and unforgettable. It more than warrants the high regard which surrounds it. It’s a classic.
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