Brian De Palma
1 Hr., 38 Mins.
High school is its own special kind of hell. I personally enjoyed it, staying quiet around people I didn’t know very well, circling myself with a small group of friends I’m still close to. But I know of the loners, the miserables who never fit in and therefore never got a chance to know the joys of being young and carefree.
I distinctly remember a guy in my grade, chubby and prepubescent much longer than most, being endlessly teased by the jocks who found his weight, his pretentious and high-pitched manner of speech, something to make fun of. I was always nice to him, never mocking. I felt bad for him when he asked a quasi-popular girl to winter ball one year — she said yes, but the following week, the chatter about her immediately ditching him for her group of friends surrounded Spanish class for an amount of time that I’m sure felt like years to him.
Bullying is not uncommon in teenage youth, and the number of victims is startling. But even worse is the aggregation of bullies who don’t realize just how cruel they’re being. They forget about the person they’re targeting’s feelings, preferring to use them as a punching bag for their own sadistic enjoyment. For the bullied, sticks and stones would be much more desirable of a torture than lashings of words. Throughout their schooling, the chances of standing up for themselves weren’t there; decades later, they look back at high school not with nostalgia but with the sigh of relief that follows a nightmare. One can only wish that telling kids who hate their teenage years that the misery will soon send was advice that actually worked.
1976’s Carrie, the first adaptation of a Stephen King novel, is touted as a classic horror movie. But to me, it signifies a fantastical reconfiguration of the popular “high school is hell” sentiment, a reality where the bullied get their comeuppance, where the bullies realize what awful people they are, but get the satisfaction and epiphanies whilst surrounded by death and carnage. Exaggerated, melodramatic, but highly efficacious.
Its titular protagonist is portrayed by a doe-eyed Sissy Spacek, who, during filming, was 27 but appears to be more virginal, more fragile, than any movie teenager in cinema history. Picked on by the relentless Chris (Nancy Allen) and her reprobate cronies, no move she ever makes goes unnoticed — a simple glance in the wrong direction is seen as yet another leering bout from the school weirdo. Their evil comes to a head when Carrie embarrassingly gets her first period following gym class. Rather than help her in a humiliating time of need (though 18, she has no idea what’s happening), they decide to throw tampons at her, surround her, chant insults at her, as she sinks in panic in the corner of the locker room.
Most would then have the ability to go home and talk their sorrows away with understanding parents. Not Carrie. Her mother (Piper Laurie) is a religious fanatic who is, in no doubt, on the brink of insanity, so controlled by what she thinks is “holy” that the news of Carrie’s P.E. dishonor does not bring sympathy but abuse, as if she herself decided to become a woman and thereby sin in the eyes of her mother. The life of this poor girl is as close to resembling a living hell as anyone could experience. The only person who seems to care even a little bit about her well being is Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), the school gym teacher who sees a great deal of potential in the young woman.
If only she knew that Carrie, despite looking like a deer-in-headlights 24/7, possesses telekinetic powers that grow stronger the more emotional she becomes.
Her downcast life then briefly looks upward when one of the girls who harassed her in the locker room, Sue (Amy Irving), begins to feel remorse for her actions and reluctantly asks her hotshot date, Tommy (William Katt), to ask Carrie to prom and hopefully renew her in the views of the judgmental school. All seemingly goes well — Sue and Tommy are genuinely kind to Carrie — but when Chris and her cruel boyfriend (John Travolta) decide to rig prom court in order to inspire ultimate humiliation, Carrie may snap for good.
Spacek, Laurie (in Baby Jane form), Buckley, and Allen all give three-dimensional performances worthy of endless praise, but Carrie would certainly not have the same impact without Brian De Palma, a Hitchcockian stylist who, during his prime, specialized in thrillers inspired by the latter in seminal 1970s films such as Sisters and Obsession. While most of his most popular films (especially Dressed to Kill and Body Double) are adored for their evocative uses of cinematography (notably the utilization of the split-screen) and stylistic cues (slow motion, drawn-out tracking shots), Carrie is moving for its storyline, its style coming at an extremely close second.
But would it have the same strength without De Palma’s artful eye? Little touches, such as the way he zooms in onto Nancy Allen’s licking of her lips during the infamous prom scene, or the way many of the daytime scenes are drenched in a photographic fog that suggests a dream ready to turn into a nightmare, make the claustrophobic angst ready-to-break of the plot heighten to crushing extremes. His perceptive eye complements the already sinister tone of Stephen King’s work. The performances flow similarly.
And so Carrie is horrific, yes, and it is disturbing. But I don’t much think of it as being “terrifying,” “scary,” or whatever words used to describe a typical horror movie. It is, simply, an onscreen warning, like in Fatal Attraction or Basic Instinct, that it’s better to be nice, mild-mannered, than to be out looking to cause a commotion. Because pot stirring can only lead to a prom night embroiled in flames, and we wouldn’t want that. A-