Carrie (1976)

The best comedy is understated because it attacks our conscience and not just our senses. When someone pops out of a pratfall with a straight face, we gain the ability to relate to them even as we’re laughing; it would be much less funny if they screamed in pain. 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 story. 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 a monster, 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 he builds into it. The opening is like a construction of the film's myth, its twisted “Once Upon a Time.” It's 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 evilness).

Using harsh, downward angles and movement that tracks at a slither, 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 robs of their normal symbolism. He turns our idea of beauty into a grotesque mosh pit, 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 of the world through her. Spacek could be called gangly on the best of days, but the lens and the steam turns her nymphic, pure as a child who hasn’t yet learned to be ashamed of herself. 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 in a way that De Palma sees as statuesque, not because the film alters her body to be so, but because De Palma admires it in her nature to be so.

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 from hatred, exactly (which usually has its own twisted rationale), but from pure, unjustified prejudice. 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. I'd like to imagine it as metaphorical. But 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, and how this makes her come of age.

Of course, possessed and powerful children are not anomalies in the daycares of movie horror, and neither are internet search scenes. The fact that the supernatural is trivial in Carrie compared to the significance of its humanity is a brilliant De Palma touch (no other reasoning is necessary to discover why the 2013 remake fails itself).

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, just as she accepted a prom invitation she'd assumed must be a gag. More importantly: she accepted that wanted to go even if it was a trick; so 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 we suspect might have conceived Carrie. She blames her for her own sins like the Virgin Mary contemplating an abortion. Laurie makes it universal with her eyes, which seem to have been sculpted for sadness, and to find horror in them is a stroke of brilliant casting. Carrie just wants to be a normal girl and she finds herself in a place where normalcy is the scariest thing in the world. 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 because it requires 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 of years earlier in Phantom of the Paradise) to preserve time so the direction can play with it like sculpture. 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 eyes 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 way of life. It’s like if Dazed and Confused ended with a school shooting.

Like Richard Linklater's ode to hanging out during puberty, Carrie has another current that runs through it that makes it all the wiser, even after it's been imitated so much. 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 the whole 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 by name so you can’t exactly condone her either. The explosion of emotion is both the most desirable thing and a true shudder of horror against people whom we can all imagine that we've met before in our own lives. Carrie excites because of its beautiful central character but it may endure because of how it draws us to the people that hate her. It makes her seem empathetic, yes, and inevitable. 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

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