ShrieksOut Horror Classics: Carrie (1976)

        Sometimes, moments in pop culture cast shadows that stretch far ahead of their initial time, place, and context. Sometimes these shadows can mask flaws and imperfections (Madonna's iconic Like A Virgin wedding dress spectacle seems awkward 30 years later, with nothing of the polish the singer would apply to subsequent performances, but it is remembered as a defining moment in pop culture).

       Those that have never seen Brian DePalma's 1976 adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie could nevertheless identify the "plug it up!" sequence, and the image of Sissy Spacek wide-eyed and blood-drenched in her ruined prom dress is nearly as recognizable as Superman or a 90's cereal mascot.

       The tragic tale of Carrie White has been assimilated into our cultural mythos, and is used as a cautionary tale against the dangers of bullying. Last weekend, a remake attempted to modernize this story to make it relevant to today's current teen generation, and did so with (what I'm generously calling) mixed results. In light of that film's mediocre returns, I decided to go back and try to take a critical look original. Does it stand the test of time, or was it in need of an update?

       For those of you in a hurry, I'll save you some time: yes, Carrie is as powerful and relevant today as it was almost 40 years ago. Let's examine the reasons why this film still works.

       First, there is the strength of the story itself. Carrie is not Stephen King's best book (in 1974, that was arguably still four years away). However, as I said in my review of the remake, this short, simple story speaks to the realm of myth making and archetype. Though the events surrounding the shattering of Carrie's psyche are a disctinctly modern American high school experience, below the surface there is an undercurrent of truth that speaks more deeply and universally to the seeds planted by the traumas of childhood -- and how the powerful hormones of adolescence can bring all these experiences to a combustible blossoming. Brian DePalma's Carrie was a story that relied on these truths to reach audiences, rather than taking a blood-and-gore grossout approach. Like The Exorcist, there is a lot more going on here than simple horror movie cliches and carnage, and that is a big part of why it holds up better than something like Friday the 13th.

       Second, there is Brian DePalma himself. DePalma, like Kubrick in his famous treatment of another King novel four years later, took his craft seriously and brought a legitimacy to what could have easily been a throwaway genre film. These days, there are very few directors working in the mainstream that will attempt horror with any degree of seriousness. James Wan and Guillermo del Toro have both made some admirable attempts, but there is still often something gimmicky in their films that can limit cross-genre appeal. For DePalma (as with Kubrick, Polanski, and Friedkin), the characters came first, before the importance of the horrible things that would eventually happen to them, and that is precisely why their efforts worked -- and still work -- as horror films.

      For stories that only have one real moment of "action", the director has a difficult job to do in crafting the appropriate level of buildup and atmosphere to keep things feeling tense and disturbing throughout. In this way I feel that Carrie is almost more of a tragedy than a horror film, with the downfall of its characters taking on an inevitability that in many ways has more in common with a film like Titanic than The Shining. A big part of the reason why so many of the moments in this film are so iconic and well known today is because of DePalma's skill with the camera. King's source material was a little sloppy and not particularly film-ready. DePalma's lens deserves nearly as much credit as King's typewriter for much of what we remember about Carrie's story. Even though I have seen this film dozens of times and (perhaps problematically) watch it for "fun", those early scenes of Carrie starting to bleed and the other girls getting caught up in brutal pack behavior are still disturbing and heartbreaking. Likewise, his use of slow motion in the prom sequence makes the inevitability of the moment that much more nail-biting, and his famous split-screen technique occurring at the time that Carrie's grip on reality itself is split lends a disturbing dichotomy to the climactic moments that has been often imitated in the years since but never quite successfully duplicated. DePalma deserves much praise for taking King's sometimes scattered novel and turning it into a cohesive and filmmable narrative, and all subsequent attempts at retelling this story are culling from his vision whether or not they claim otherwise.

        Despite DePalma's obvious skills as a director, he needed a talented cast to bring his vision to life. And what really solidifies this film's place among the best of American cinema is two names that I have been impatient to type since my opening paragraph: Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.  

       With last week's remake, there were many complaints that Chloe Grace Moretz was too pretty to play Carrie. I think that not only was that a lazy and obvious complaint (Moretz was easily the best part of that film, to my surprise) but it's also somewhat insulting to the great Sissy Spacek.

       What makes Spacek's performance here so memorable (I consider it to be one of the greatest performances in all of film, and I say that in complete seriousness) isn't that they made her look ugly. Spacek channels something in this performance that makes even those who aren't familiar with the story or filmmaking or anything beyond just wanting to get fucked up and watch a horror movie believe in a sense of otherness. For every young actress in subsequent years that thought they could portray a high school victim simply by putting on a pair of glasses and clutching books tightly to their chest, I want to sit them down, Clockwork Orange style, and force them to watch and rewatch Spacek's performance here and make them take notes on how to cast an invisible target on oneself. Carrie White is a girl that is a byproduct of a tyrannical and repressive maternal figure and as such is developmentally behind all of her peers, and Spacek embodies all of this in her performance without DePalma needing to tell us anything. We can infer much about her family life before we ever meet her mother.

       And then, oh boy, we do meet her mother. Piper Laurie as Margaret White is truly one of horror's greatest villains, and she remains so despite the fact that she never actually kills anyone and has no supernatural abilities of any kind. Carrie may be the one with telekinesis, and the one responsible for all of the film's (human) murders, but it is Margaret White that we fear. Margaret's "power" is the power of a woman burning so hot with the confidence and certainty of her own beliefs and values that it overpowers any sense of ration or reason from the outside world. This makes her queen of her own crumbing castle with absolute power and authority. Laurie plays this role very big, which lends itself well to fun campy interpretations (as anyone that has attended one of my trivia nights knows) but -- and I realized this while watching Julianne Moore's portrayal last weekend -- this character does not work any other way. Actually, Julianne Moore -- like the wonderful Patricia Clarkson, the other actress to have attempted Margaret -- is probably a better actress overall than Piper Laurie, but in this role, she ultimately fell flat because she doesn't bring the gravitas and the power to the screen that Laurie did. Laurie's power on screen is such that even after you see her daughter destroy an entire school and massacre all those within, it is still Margaret, not Carrie, that you fear. And you fear for Carrie when she arrives home after her big night out.  I never question why she allows her mother to overpower her and doesn't (at first) use her powers to defend herself until the fight-or-flight adrenaline kicks in automatically to save her life. In fact, I believe that if Spacek's Carrie had the same control over her abilities that Moretz's had, I think she would have let Margret kill her. There's no question about it -- Carrie might have been able to destroy an entire town, but that was only because Margaret so completely destroyed her.

       The film is at its best when it is centered around this mother/daughter relationship, but they are well supported by the rest of the women in the cast. Betty Buckley's portrayal of Ms. Collins captures something that none of the three filmed versions of Carrie have quite managed to properly convey to the extent that the novel did -- that Carrie is not only to be pitied, but also hated. Spacek and Moretz are, if anything, too sympathetic -- Carrie in King's novel was a self righteous and sententious prude on top of all her other unenviable traits, and much of the internal conflict in the novel has to do with how the more empathetic characters like she and Sue are driven by the guilt they feel over hating Carrie as opposed to someone like Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) who is just driven to rage. Allen is fantastic in conveying someone that is intensely hateable. PJ Soles and Edie McClurg, two of my favorite actresses, have bit parts as Norma and Helen, and although they are given very little screen time, DePalma shows them to us in such a way that we can infer much about their characters and their position in this clique of popular girls that drives the events of the film forward.

       It is Amy Irving's take on Sue Snell, however, that I feel is the most under appreciated part of this film. Alongside her real life mother (the fabulous Priscilla Pointer) , Irving brings a lot of layers to a somewhat problematic character.

       King himself has said that he never quite trusted Sue and her motivations for trying to make amends for the guilt she feels in her part of bullying Carrie, and DePalma and Irving play with this ambiguity throughout the film. Rather than playing Sue as a straightforward nice girl who feels bad for Carrie, Irving brings something somewhat dark to this performance. It comes across clearly that she is the only one of the group that has the courage to stand up to Chris, and also that her ineffectual boyfriend Tommy Ross had no choice but to go along with her plans regardless of his own feelings about Carrie. You're never quite sure until the final moments of the film how much Sue knew about Chris's plans for sabotaging Carrie, and whether or not this ambiguity is intentional, I think it does work very well here. I often lament that Amy Irving didn't pursue more of a career in horror, because she would be a fantastic final girl, an early progenitor of the kind of character Heather Langenkamp would go on to play some years later in A Nightmare on Elm Street.

       Carrie is an example of a simple and straightforward story that is elevated by the talents of a great director being able to coax great performances out of a talented cast. While the recent remake was not a complete failure, a side-by-side viewing of the two films just goes to show how unnecessary it was. Carrie is just as relevant today as it was 40 years ago -- maybe even moreso -- and I don't think any October film lineup is complete without it. The added terrors of what technology brings to the high school experience and the ability to bully on a large scale notwithstanding, this version of Carrie is the definitive version, and is a story that should be revisited over and over again to remind ourselves of how easily we can all become a raging Chris Hargensen -- or, worse, a red hat wearing Norma or bespectacled Helen that mindlessly goes along with a Chris Hargensen. Rating: A



read my review of the remake here: