“Most times when critics say I’m ripping off Hitchcock, it’s a shorthand way of describing me when you haven’t really thought about what I’ve been doing.” – director Brian DePalma on his career
The spellbinding horror film about a poor high school outcast who wreaks revenge on her classmates because there was nothing else left to do. Carrie (1976) is undoubtedly cruel for a horror pic, a film about a girl so shy there is less than any hope that she could grow up, make friends, fit in the workplace, and be anything but a hermit. Sissy Spacek is the charity case student, endowed with the gift of telekinetic powers which she keeps to herself until the fateful prom night. Piper Laurie is the crazed fanatical mom Margaret White who slaps Carrie and locks her in the closet as punishment. Actually, you kind of think this outcast would have a chance in life is she were given a best friend, a makeover, some confidence classes, and let her be torn away from her oppressive mother.
I think “Carrie,” based on the terrific nerve-jangling debut novel by Stephen King, is DePalma’s best film. It is simply masterful filmmaking by Brian DePalma, who I wouldn’t have called great before this film (1974’s rock opera “The Phantom of the Paradise” was irritating in how garish it is). DePalma would go onto a career of making lots of very movie-ish movies done with ubiquitous high style and vulgar shocks. Here’s a list: “Femme Fatale” (2004), “Blow Out” (1981), “Body Double” (1984), “Carlito’s Way” (1993); my next four favorite movies by him. Whether it’s hazy dreaminess, doppelganger killers, spinning camera tricks and split-screen devices, or obscene nudity – the vulgarity of DePalma’s movies get under your skin and make you feel something. Often lust.
Hair falls over her face, she looks down everywhere she walks, opens her mouth in a mousy way to talk, and thinks she’s bleeding to death when she experiences her first menstruation period (in the girls locker room). When Carrie White gets asked by Tommy Ross (William Katt) to go to the prom, it’s supposed to be a joke. Perhaps everyone will expect her to fall flat on her face. But she appears beautifully, has a soft-spoken grace, and is fairly normal edging towards a Cinderella happy ending. But the cruelest kids of the lot have the ultimate practical joke – one that’s too sick to be predicted. Nancy Allen, John Travolta, P.J. Soles and Michael Talbott play the worst anti-social teens.
Carrie, and Tommy Ross too (not a bad kid), are victims of this joke. She can’t even hear Tommy’s protest when it happens. Consider though this poor hermit’s history at school – she has never been through a week of school and not been abused. Because she thinks the school is against her, the class population is there to laugh at her, she has no other instinct but to wreak revenge on everybody. The horror. Like Amy Irving’s survivor, we’re all a little bit permanently destroyed by what we see.
The greatness of the film has to be given fair attribution to Spacek and Laurie. At the audition, Spacek arrived unwashed and dressed in a crappy sailor dress that wasn’t just nerdy, it was a travesty in appearance. She was cast immediately, and it helped that DePalma knew Spacek as the set dresser on his previous film “Phantom.” Spacek tapped into something pitifully shy and no self-esteem into the character that cannot be duplicated. Laurie hadn’t acted since 1961’s “The Hustler,” which she did there so brilliantly, and reluctantly signed on, not liking the script, and misinterpreting it as a satiric comedy. She was at DePalma’s Los Angeles apartment, grabbing her hair in anguish, parading the room and spouting the dialogue with overbloated largeness, until the director stopped her and said she was going to get unintentional laughs if she went that far with it. DePalma explained it was a horror film, that it was a Stephen King shocker (King’s novels weren’t famous yet, he was just starting), and Laurie put a leash on some of it. She kept some of her quirks in her rehearsal, but twisted the character into something nasty. Most evil mom roles are limp in comparison to Laurie’s work.
So beautiful one minute, and alien in appearance when Carrie goes into revenge mode. Nobody has telekinetic powers in real life (not like this), but if this story was done without it, there would be no transcendent metaphorical power to it. A masterpiece in horror and filmmaking craftsmanship, as well as a peering look into anti-social high school behavior – the whole lot of them.
The recent remake with Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore is very anemic, to such an awful degree to me that it upset me for days. Don’t get shortchanged by it.
98 Minutes. Rated R.
PSYCHOLOGICAL HORROR / DISTURBING / AFTER DARK NIGHTMARES
Film Cousins: “Sybil” (1976); “The Fury” (1978); “The Dead Zone” (1983); “Carrie” (2013).