Carrie White, a shy awkward teenager, believes she is developing telekinetic powers just before her senior prom.
While I haven’t read Stephen King’s ‘Carrie,’ I have read a lot of his other books. I’m a big fan of the author’s easy prose and distinct dialogue, and of course his stories are delightfully creepy and frequently wonderfully weird. Up until recently, it’s been hard for us King fans as far as horror movies go (Horror films specifically- I’m not counting “Stand By Me”, “The Shawshank Redemption”, or “The Green Mile”). Of course “The Shining” is the best movie based on King’s work (though not incredibly accurate); but there are other decent movies like the latest version of It, Cronenberg’s “The Dead Zone” (not even that much of a horror movie), Rob Reiner’s “Misery”… and that’s about it (I think the Mist is okay, but a lot of people think its garbage). All of King’s other films have, sadly, been rather cheesy, or aged poorly, or were just plain bad to begin with. Carrie is a stand out even among King’s better films because of DePalma’s outstanding direction, and some truly great acting from Sissy Spacek (“Badlands”) in particular, but also Piper Laurie (“The Hustler”), Nancy Allen (“Dressed to Kill”) and Amy Irving (“Traffic”). I will admit that the first time I saw this film (in high school) I didn’t find it particularly scary, and I will admit that it isn’t incredibly terrifying, but as far as a story and the craft with which this movie was made, I think it succeeds brilliantly.
“They laughed at me.”
One day after gym class, shy teenager Carrie White (Spacek) gets her first period while in the shower. Unsure of what’s happening to her, Carrie panics and thinks she’s dying and the other girls all make fun of her, only to be rescued from her humiliation from Miss Collins (Betty Buckley, “Split”). Carrie’s mother, Margaret (Laurie), a religious zealot, punishes Carrie for getting her period because she believes it is a sign that her daughter has sinned. Meanwhile, Miss Collins punishes the girls who teased Carrie by giving them an hour of detention in gym. Sue Snell (Irving) feels terrible for Carrie and asks her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt, forthcoming “The Other Side of the Wind”) to take Carrie to the prom to make it up to her. Chris (Allen) is furious with Carrie for the punishment and recruits her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta, “Pulp Fiction”) to help in a plot against her.
To begin with, I actually really just like this story because there are plenty of moments where there could be redemption, plenty of likable and detestable characters, and plenty of moments where people do the right thing, but in the end it’s all messed up by a couple of people- it’s incredibly tragic in a way that only the best horror movies are. I think one of the best things about this film is the way that it repetitively uses a similar scene structure that resembles the overarching feel of the movie: things seem to be going fine from the outside, but we as a viewer (and an omniscient presence throughout) know that there is turmoil waiting below the surface, and at the end of the scene the turmoil manifests itself and something bad happens. The first example of this scene structure is at the beginning of the film, when DePalma’s camera slowly tracks through the girl’s locker room, until it finally settles on Carrie in the shower right as she has her period- the scene, and this film, both end in blood. Another example of this is when Chris and Billy are riding in the car, driving down the road, enjoying themselves, when suddenly the happy moment is broken, and we realize that their relationship is one that is filled with abuse. Carrie’s mother gives off the appearance of a Christian woman (though a bit zealous) on the outside, but inside the White’s home there is much tension between the occupants. Another scene shows Chris, Billy and a few others walking outside a slaughterhouse which is painted on the outside to look like happy farm, but when the teens get inside the slaughterhouse we see that it’s just a bunch of filthy pens. There are plenty of other examples of this as well, but I believe DePalma and King were trying to make the point that beneath a seemingly pure surface, there might be some real violence and evil. While the story might be relatively simple, it’s filled with moral complexities that make the film as a whole far more interesting.
There are lots of great director flairs in this movie as well. Scenes where DePalma uses compositions of shots so that objects close and far away are both in focus. There are other scenes that use split-screen, something I’ve noticed DePalma really seems to enjoy. There are some great long tracking shots with deep staging; some really cool montage sequences, and some pretty awesome special effects that still hold up. All of the lead actors do a fine job, but Sissy Spacek was the stand out for me (Spacek and Piper Laurie were both nominated for Oscars for this film).
I enjoyed this film far more my second viewing, and I think many cinephiles would find this film to be a treat. For the average horror fan, I will state again that I didn’t find the film itself to be incredibly terrifying (disquieting, certainly). But while the movie might not be horrifying, it is an incredibly well told story that really works well as a character study of an outcast. Really powerful stuff from DePalma and from King- if you’re a fan of either of their work, this movie is a must see!
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