Carrie is without a doubt, the first great horror film I watch this horror watching season. De Palma’s confident camera and pendant for stylization create a truly unique horror atmosphere, that makes an over the top… even silly narrative an emotional experience. Though few people live through the extreme alienation and abuse that Carrie experiences, at the hands of both peers and parents, there is something about her fragility that nearly anyone can relate to. This to me becomes the cornerstone of truly great horror, and my own dislike for gore and slasher films. Great horror inspires empathy in the audience, and perhaps that is not intimate enough a descriptor. It’s not so much that we feel or even vicariously experience Carrie’s emotion, but we are able to relate her experiences to our own…
It is Carrie’s subjective point of view that really dictates and enhances the film’s look and feel. Sissy Spacek’s wonderfully sensitive and frighteningly focused performance, allows for the stylistic flourishes that De Palma employs liberally. This becomes especially apparent in the iconic prom sequence, which was far more powerful than I could have imagined… though ingrained in popular culture, nothing really prepared me for the scene’s weight and length. The slow build up of Carrie slowly warming up to the idea that she is wanted, and accepted is never rushed. We see her initial reluctance to even go to the prom, and how slowly realizing her own specialness and power, she turns over to the idea that she is control.
Even so, the fear of social humiliation keeps her “powers” under check. William Katt’s morally ambiguous performance is both a comfort and a source of great anxiety for the audience. His first reaction to taking her out is less than enthusiastic, and as we are not allowed into the real motives behind his girlfriend’s insistence that she take Carrie out, his sincerity and understanding nature is always in question. We feel though as he brings Carrie out of her shell, never pushing her, but only encouraging and supporting her. As she becomes completely wrapped into his attentions, and her emotions dizzy out of control (quite literally, as they spin on camera in a dance for several minutes… a particularly daring stylistic choice that might leave some reaching for a bucket), the camera and the dynamic motion reflects this new emotional and social freedom that Carrie is experiencing for the first time in her life.
Then of course… comes the announcement of prom king and queen… and time slows to a standstill. At once, the agonizing extension of time can be seen as a reflection of Carrie’s state of mind. This is the greatest moment of her life, not only has she been accepted, but she is being held above them all… she is finally special and loved. Time stands still so she can savour this, it all seems like a dream, completely unreal and completely wonderful. This only makes the suspense of knowing what is coming all the more horrific; there is absolutely no joy in the moment for the audience. We know what is coming, and we dread it, oh how we dread it.
It’s a scene I’d like to see again, maybe look at with more depth, even on a shot to shot basis. It’s remarkably constructed, especially in relation to the rest of the film. Tonally I think part of its success is how the use of extended time and “horror” revelation is presented in the opening sequence, and therefore, there is a sort of parallelism that makes Carrie’s vengeful outburst far more impactful. Though the settings are so completely different, the lead up, Carrie’s apparent “peace” and the use of blood as a catalyst remain the same.
Though beyond the confines of these scenes the film is simply good (hardly a criticism! If only more films were simply good!), the film overall remains a strong portrait of adolescent fears and insecurities, especially as an internal battle between right and wrong. At heart, this is what worries Carrie more than social problems… her mother’s strict teachings, however well meant, disturbed her perception of the world. Carrie has very heavy emotional baggage that is near impossible to decipher at a first glance. Her struggle between being normal and special, her rebellion and her obedience, and of course her final violent outburst that destroys everything that sought to tear her down.