The best comedy is understated because it activates our conscience and not just our senses. When someone pops out of a pratfall with a straight face, we gain the ability to feel bad for them even as we’re laughing. For the same reason, the best horror isn't jumpy or loud or even gory, but a horror of the mundane, horror that invokes our most trivial rituals and unacknowledged fears. Carrie is great horror because it basically isn't horror at all – beneath its skin, this film is really a coming of age tale. It takes the innocence of growing up and warps it into a Jungian nightmare realm of laughing faces and perverted desires. When Carrie ultimately becomes the villain, she does it with a straight face, which gives us the ability to understand her. It's scary because it is so familiar, and so likely.
Brian De Palma is a connoisseur of opening scenes. But unlike some of his later work where he choreographs a brilliant opening and nothing else (see Snake Eyes), Carrie absorbs the emotions the emotions he builds into it. The opening is like a construction of the film's myth, its twisted “Once Upon a Time.” The first scene is like a hieroglyph to its whole feeling: of a meek conscience haunted by itself, the phantasms of people that storybooks told her would be her friends, the betrayal of her body, and the mutation of her mother figures into torturers. De Palma extracts this all from Sissy Spacek, so much that you leave Carrie wondering if there’s anything else she could possibly do in the movies (see 3 Women for further proof of her inexhaustibly quirky humanity).
Using harsh, downward angles and movement that tracks at a slither, in the opening De Palma films the beautiful, desirable high school in-crowd as a clique of monsters. In a courtroom movie about an unjustly accused man, you would film the rabid jury as De Palma films these post-pubescent flowers in their locker room. Their breasts dangle grotesquely, their teeth flash, their eyes shine like polished beads. These are idols that De Palma rapes of their symbolism. He turns our idea of beauty into a grotesque mosh pit, a place harsh, ugly, and wild.
Then he hits us with the moment of contrast. Carrie showers alone in the locker room, and De Palma rights his view the world through her. Spacek could be called gangly on the best of days, but the lens and the steam turns her into a statuesque water nymph, pure as a child who hasn’t learned to be ashamed yet. None of Spacek is particularly well-formed in the classical sense, but her graceful manner doesn’t let De Palma's physical obsession become ironic. She is beautiful, not because the film alters her body to be so, but because De Palma admires it in her naturally.
Then he drops in his special ingredient. Everything is established in minutes in Carrie: the social norm, the standard of beauty both in the film’s world and in the audience, and now, the horror. Carrie encounters her first period and (if it could be possible) gets paler. Her eyes flare. As her intimate self-cleansing becomes an unexpected body horror, she reaches out at other girls and begs for help as though she's been raped. Their uncomprehending cruelty hisses back at her not even from prejudice (which usually has its own twisted rationale), but from pure, unjustified stigmatization. They condemn Carrie for no other reason than the fact that in-crowds can’t exist without out-crowds. The girls who rear up like cobras at her misfortune, dress her in toilet paper and laugh as she cringes, bleeding, blending into the linoleum and the steam, are dead to us already, without the help of telekinesis.
In fact, it’s strange how the supernatural element even exists in a film about normalizing extreme horror into everyday sensations. Carrie's search for definitions at the library is classier but not different in principle than a Google search scene in a thousand other horror films. It’s unnecessary: I believe with even less explanation we could have believed that Carrie's powers were an extension of the film demonstrating her emotional wrath visually, as I suspect was the intention. With her explaining and defining it, it seems like she's actually telekinetic, like a member of the X-Men, which is a trivial discovery compared to the depth of her feeling for murdering people with it.
Of course, possessed and powerful children are not anomalies in the daycares of movie horror, and neither are search scenes. The fact that the supernatural is as trivial as it is in Carrie compared to the significance of its humanity are both brilliant de Palma touches (no other reasoning is necessary to discover why the 2013 remake fails so much).
Spacek pours Carrie from her eyes and from the marrow of her nose. Her wrist bones stick out when she fumbles her thin hair behind her ear. Her flat lips creep around smiling until the last sequence when she's finally accepted her role as the monster everyone accused her of being, as she accepted a prom invitation she'd assumed must be a gag. More importantly: she's accepted that even if it's a trick, she wants to go. Even if she’s not a monster, she’s willing to act like one. Her mom (Piper Laurie, who had not appeared in film since playing the love interest in 1961’s The Hustler) congeals the worst in religion and in mothers, forbidding Carrie to express pleasure, damning the prom night that might have conceived Carrie. She blames her for the sins of her mother like the Virgin Mary contemplating an abortion. Carrie just wants to be a normal girl and she finds herself in a date movie, full of dolls. By her own standards, if she can’t act the part of a woman, she can only be half-alive, hidden, noncomprehensive, and all dead. Without being beautiful, Spacek manages a greater feat of imagination: in this context, we want her to be.
The prom is the second masterclass of framing in Carrie, taking a view side-by-side (De Palma tried this out a couple years earlier in Phantom of the Paradise) to preserve time so the direction can play with it like putty. He stretches it to accommodate danger and clinches it to accentuate death. Carrie enacts kinky disaster scenarios on all her classmates and teachers, like they all got dressed up for the torture, and we get to focus on her flickering from one event to the next like it all happens in a single moment, even as we’re watching the carnage on the other side of the screen. Our view of this is as remorseless as Spacek's frightening wide eyes. Even if telekinesis is silly, the swirling familiar images of social turn-ons and rejections and trivialities gets a cruelly concrete end in Carrie, like a mousetrap snapping on a whole generation. It’s like if Dazed and Confused ended with a school shooting.
As Linklater's ode to hanging out during puberty, Carrie has another current that runs through it that makes it all the wiser after all our other horrors. You kind of know everyone by the end, not by name but by association, like Nancy Allen and John Travolta become bits of your real high school memories. There's an element of reverse hanging out in Carrie that makes you culpable in the horror, like you've been fraternizing with the enemy until you can’t live with yourself anymore, or victimized by it, like they’re sneering at you at the same time. When Carrie roars against them and unburdens herself from compassion, who could blame her? The movie makes sure you know everyone at the receiving end of her rage so you can’t condone her either. The explosion of emotion is both the most desirable thing and a true shudder of horror against people who all probably have corollaries in our own lives. Carrie lasts because of them. Who can relate to the people from Jason X?
Image is a screenshot from the film.
Cast & Crew
Brian De Palma
Lawrence D. Cohen (screenplay)
Stephen King (book)
|Carrie White||Sissy Spacek|
|Margaret White||Piper Laurie|
|Sue Snell||Amy Irving|
|Tommy Ross||William Katt|
|Miss Collins||Betty Buckley|
|Chris Hargensen||Nancy Allen|
|Billy Nolan||John Travolta|