Carrie (De Palma, 1976)

800 large carrie blu-ray10

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.

8 responses to “Carrie (De Palma, 1976)

  1. You’ve evoked the strange disequilibrium of that great set-piece very very well–though I’m surprised, but also delighted, that you’ve just now seen this for the 1st time.

    I think I read once that Carrie is one of Agnieska Holland’s two favorite films.

    As a relatively minor sort of recommendation, have you seen Lucio Fulci’s The House by the Cemetery? I’m on a tiny bit of a Fulci kick, and I enjoyed this one more than I thought I would.

    You covered so many films last October that I’m fearful to start tossing out names that you might have done already– but I think you’d be quite welcome to revisit some of the classics if you’re so moved, since I think your readers can rely upon you to always have something fresh and evocative to say!

  2. that was a really good write-up, it’s gotten me in the mood to give Carrie another look. I was way too young when I saw it, covertly and late at night with my finger on the off button on my remote so my parents wouldn’t know I was watching it, that I need to see it with more…intellectual eyes. Just make sure you avoid Carrie 2. That movie was just…baaaad.

  3. Jason: I don’t know why I didn’t see it last year, because I was certainly missing out on a great thing. Interesting about Holland, I cant’ say I’d ever guess it was among her favourites! Major points though, people need to love horror!

    I’ve not seen any Fulci, so it’s safe to say, I’ve not seen that one. I’ll try and check it out though, thanks for the rec.

    Simon: Heh, I did that a few times… though mostly for tv shows I liked that played beyond my “bed time”. Nothing too risque.

  4. I too was probably too young when I first saw “Carrie”, now having watched it again, it is one of my favorite horror films. I enjoyed your review of it.

  5. I can relate, because I just saw Carrie for the first time too. Like you, I knew what was coming but I didn’t know it was only one girl’s prank and that Carrie then avenges herself on all the wrong people (she eventually gets to the right ones, but I almost though she shouldn’t have – the ending was more powerful and upsetting knowing that she’s killing people who did her no harm, including the teacher who’s the only one that cares for her).

    Actually, I just did a video piece on De Palma which includes lots of clips from Carrie, particularly the prom sequence. You should check it out and let me know what you think, as it’s built around some of the themes you mention (with Scarface’s violent and jealous Tony Montana playing the masculine yin to Carrie’s violent and humiliated Carrie); it’s linked up on the front page of my blog.

  6. “overtly and late at night with my finger on the off button on my remote so my parents wouldn’t know I was watching it”

    personally my long finger has been located in my off hole way too many times in my youth…

  7. So many Carrie virgins… or ex-Carrie virgins. That scene is terrible for that reason movieman, ahhh, it’s all just a grand “misunderstanding”. Though, even the audience is left in the dark about the whole thing. We assume they’re involved, until it’s far too late.

  8. I have recently been reading Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, in which he discusses the film and the book Carrie. Interestingly, he actually speaks much more highly of DePalma’s film than his own book, saying that DePalma took the story much further, thematically, than King himself had.
    I also recently saw this film for the first time (all the way through) this October and was equally impressed. DePalma did make some good films (and some bad ones).

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