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Back to the Feature: Carrie (1976)

                

                Okay, just putting it out there, if you’re going to kill a pig just for a prank, you’re a freakin’ psycho and you totally deserve to be crushed and exploded in your own car!
                Carrie’s one of those movies I’ve heard a lot of good stuff about and been meaning to get around to watching for a while. It’s based on the novel by Stephen King (his first published novel) and seeing as two other of his stories, The Shining and Misery are horror favourites of mine, it’s Halloween, and this is one of the revered horror classics I decided to finally check out King’s twisted take on Cinderella. And it’s good. Not great I have to say, but good, and certainly has some exceptional moments of terror. But maybe it’s not quite the classic I was led to believe.
                Carrie is directed by Brian De Palma and is about a seventeen year old girl Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) who is tormented both at home by her abusive Christian fundamentalist mother (Piper Laurie) and at school by her classmates who constantly bully her and use her as a scapegoat. In the showers after gym one day she experiences her first period something her mother never told her about (you see THIS is why we need sex ed in schools!), and the other girls all laugh at her and pelt her with tampons chanting “plug it up!” The only person to show her sympathy is the gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) who harshly punishes the class by remitting their prom tickets. Soon Carrie begins to express telekinetic abilities. At the same time one student Sue (Amy Irving) feels sympathy for her and sets her up on a prom date with popular student Tommy Ross (William Katt). But another girl Chris (Nancy Allen) plots revenge with her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) to humiliate Carrie at prom.
                This is certainly an interesting film with a pretty good story. It’s the Cinderella story if she decided to kill her stepsisters and stepmother (and frankly who wouldn’t). For a debut Stephen King adaptation (of his debut novel) it certainly shows him off as a writer who’s really able to master uncomfortable terror. The setting of a then contemporary-now clearly ‘70s school hadn’t been used much in horror, this film having predated Halloween and the slasher genre by two years. And even today it manages an unsettling atmosphere aided by an eerie score and dank set design. You look at this school and compare it to the one in say Grease and you’ll notice the complete difference in mood. The student body itself though is portrayed in the worst possible light. Carrie clearly attends America’s worst school with the most awful collection of students and it requires a fairly substantial suspension of disbelief that teenagers would treat each other quite THIS harshly. But to the film’s credit, in the end it’s only a handful who are this bad. When Carrie is drenched in blood at the film’s climax, we see Chris is the only one laughing desperately trying to encourage others who see how monstrous she is for pulling this act.
                The school stuff is countered by scenes of Carrie’s home life which play out in a more interesting, more intense way. The relationship between Carrie and her mother is like a ticking time bomb that you never know when it will go off. The home setting itself has a dark atmosphere of its own complimenting the abuses Carrie is prey to there. At least at school she has a degree of protection from Miss Collins and for a large portion of the film, things seem to be going well for her. Because of that and the insanity of her mother, the home scenes are slightly more gripping.
                Her mother Margaret is quite a character. She’s the kind of woman who keeps a Bible under every dresser, who’s still holding on to a Rick Santorum 2012 banner, and who would semi-regularly have tea with Norma Bates. Piper Laurie is terrific in her portrayal of this mad woman who thinks everything is sinful and is trying to keep her daughter far away from the vices of a godless world. But while she is despicable in how she treats Carrie, she’s never really horrifying. Unlike King’s later creation Annie Wilkes, we see that she’s not always the one in control, Carrie is able to defy her to the point that her mother begs her not to go to the prom. Even though she’s the victim at school, Carrie’s demonstration of her telekinetic abilities in front of her mother gives her power, at least until after the prom. Carrie’s mother also has different facets. Her revelation that her daughter’s conception was a product of marital rape is disturbing but could explain her madness. It’s a good lead-in to her subsequent attempt to kill Carrie, and adds layers to a villain who didn’t necessarily need them. But it comes so close to her demise that it doesn’t have much menace. But again, Laurie is able to pull it off very well! Sissy Spacek is also apt at playing Carrie. She worked very hard for the role and it shows. The character has a lot of cruelty thrown her way by the plot. There’s a good chunk of the film devoted to building her spirits up with Tommy and Miss Collins genuinely treating her nicely. She’s finally catching a break, more than a break but her biggest dream coming true. And how cruel is it that it all comes crumbling down in the most humiliating way? It’s really dark, especially in that Carrie gets no justice. Sure she brings the whole school down with her, but she resigns herself to death in the end. By the finale there’s an empty feeling that nothing was resolved. Carrie gets back at her tormentors but it costs her as well. No one, not even Sue the sole survivor now gone insane for what she probably feels she caused, gets off. Everyone pays even if they had nothing to pay for. That may be the single best functioning element of the film’s horror.
There’s a creepy tone no doubt about it for much of the film, but as I said a lot of the middle part just feels like a teen romance movie; a John Hughes film only less funny and/or poignant. A lot of this section is just waiting for the ball to drop which does increase suspense but is also too slow of a build. Particularly leading up to the climax. The film spends way too much time waiting for the pig’s blood to spill on Carrie when she’s up on stage being crowned prom queen. Some slow motion could increase tension yes, but the way this film handled it, especially by including Sue and Miss Collins’ every reaction to what was about to happen, it just felt strenuous. You know the best part is coming but it’s taking too long to get there. Luckily though that sequence doesn’t disappoint. As the only legitimately scary part of the movie it does its job terrifically. Carrie’s wrath is fantastically executed, greatly paced, and edited nicely. Though I’m not sure why De Palma used some split screen shots, it’s definitely effective. One moment we see the gym doors locked shut, the next Carrie is darting her head and eyes in various directions, students being killed off left and right. And this removed automaton transformation of the character is conveyed excellently by Spacek. She creates a sense of fear of what’s been unleashed like Mr. Hyde or Hulk (if Hulk wasn’t a nice guy). While we’re glad to see her abusers get their comeuppance, we’re also shocked by the kind figures being disposed of to (though of course from Carrie’s perspective, they merely set her up for this). And then we get to her confrontation with her mother. And while in light of her mother’s revelation she’s not as menacing an overall character, the scene where she stabs Carrie and follows her down the stairs is great. I particularly like the camera angles where we see the scene from Carrie’s point of view, looking up at her mother with a lost smile on her face and clutching the knife. It’s really psychotic and escalates the terror. Though it doesn’t last long before we (at the same time as Carrie) remembers she’s in no real danger with her telepathy. Margaret being stabbed to death in the symbolic stature of a cross isn’t that clever, but I love the addition of her orgasmic gasps as she dies, in reference of her having “enjoyed” being raped in the first place, which really gives the scene an extra element of disturbing symbolism.
So while Carrie does drag in some places, creates an exaggerated environment, doesn’t quite utilize or focus on Margaret White as much as the character could necessitate, has some odd directorial choices, and doesn’t scare until the last act despite an eerie atmosphere, I’d still recommend it as a good horror movie. For how good that last act is, how smart the story on a whole is, how the resolution feels empty in the best possible way, and how good the acting and characters are. As much as it’s a horror film, it’s also a bullying revenge fantasy, which though doesn’t come to a good end, certainly is effective. This film may be the best anti-bullying ad there is (“don’t bully someone cause you might just awaken telekinetic powers that’ll kill you and everyone you know”). It would certainly have dissuaded my childhood bullies. Thanks Stephen King!

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