Carrie, Stephen King’s debut novel, turns 40 next year. Since its publication in 1974, it has been the subject of three movie adaptations, a sequel, and one of the biggest flops in the history of Broadway. The latest cinematic version, directed by Boys Don’t Cry‘s Kimberly Peirce, opens this weekend. It, like the Broadway show and the original film, is adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen. I can’t speak for Peirce’s version, the only one unseen by me, but no other iteration of Carrie thus far has matched Brian De Palma’s Oscar-nominated 1976 classic. In preparation for Friday’s remake, I took another look at my favorite De Palma flick.
I remember the weekend Carrie opened in 1976. Two of my older cousins went to see it. Upon their return, they acted out the entire film for those of us too young to see the R-rated feature. They were surprisingly thorough, with one cousin playing Carrie and the other playing everyone else. When I finally saw the film a few weeks later, I was stunned by the amount of dialogue they remembered, and how well they described the film’s visual elements. Since spoiler warnings didn’t exist in 1976 (but they unfortunately do today, so SPOILER ALERT from here on), I knew about Carrie’s most memorable moment before I walked into the theater. It didn’t matter; when it occurred, I hit the movie theater ceiling and clung to it like a cartoon cat.
Actually, there are two scenes most people remember in Carrie: one of directorial lechery and one of directorial treachery. The treacherous one closes out the film, and is such a doozy it was ranked #46 on AFI’s 100 Years, 100 Thrills list. The lecherous one is the second scene in the film, which plays under Carrie’s opening credits. This slow motion ballet of the inner workings of a girls’ locker room is both ethereal and pervy. As De Palma’s camera pans smoothly from aisle to aisle, Amy Irving, P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, a surprisingly young Edie McClurg and others cavort in various stages of nudity. The bright red credits battle the exposed flesh for the viewer’s attention. Editor Paul Hirsch must have pissed off someone at United Artists; his name appears at the most inopportune moment in credit sequence history. As with Touch of Evil and Crooklyn, the director’s handiwork deserves to be seen sans credits.
De Palma’s credit appears just as we meet our protagonist, Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), in the shower. Spacek is comfortably nude, but the full brunt of the actress’ fearlessness is felt with the first of the film’s cruel tricks on the viewer. The eye-catching nudity is a rope-a-dope setting us up for a knockout punch. Carrie’s female trouble, and her lack of understanding of such matters, leads to the horrific moment that establishes the victim vs. mean girls dynamic she has with her classmates.
When Spacek asked De Palma how he wanted her to play this scene of panic, he told her to act “as if you’ve been hit by a truck.” Spacek responds accordingly, and De Palma shoots the sequence as a terrifying, humiliating violation. I knew it was coming and I still wasn’t prepared for how horrible it is; to this day it still leaves me shaken. The only curiosity I have about Peirce’s version of Carrie is how she’ll handle this and other female-centric scenes. A woman’s perspective will certainly be less leering, though De Palma’s staging evokes immense sympathy for Carrie White.
While reading King’s novel, I sensed a fair amount of disdain for its put-upon protagonist. Some of that disdain finds its way into Carrie courtesy of Betty Buckley’s gym teacher, Miss Collins. After Carrie’s locker room freakout, Miss Collins says, “I wanted to slap her! It’s just her period!” Carrie positions Miss Collins as a sympathetic figure, yet as my number of viewings progressed, I concluded that Miss Collins is far more pitying of Carrie than empathetic. Sure, she punishes the girls who threw tampons at Carrie, but her inability to listen to anyone, least of all the one person who genuinely acts charitably toward Carrie White, triggers the unforgettable last reel carnage.
Sue Snell (Amy Irving) is Carrie’s biggest locker room tormentor, but unlike her cohort Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), Sue feels guilty. Her level of guilt matches Chris’ level of anger. In Chris’ mind, it’s Carrie’s inability to take a joke, not Chris’ own disrespect toward Miss Collins, that costs Chris her prom privileges. With her mean girl cohort Norma (Soles), Chris plots revenge against the school’s least popular student.
Carrie follows Sue and Chris down parallel tracks to the same destination. While Sue plans to do the ultimate nice thing to make Carrie’s prom night memorable, Chris plans a far nastier memory-maker. Both involve asking their respective boyfriends to help out. Sue convinces her main squeeze Tommy Ross (William Katt, aka The Greatest American Hero) to ask Carrie to the prom. Chris asks her goofy, macho boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta, still a Sweathog back then) to help her humiliate Carrie in front of the entire school. De Palma shows unusual restraint in depicting both Chris’ methods of sexual persuasion and the resulting gruesome act of animal cruelty that Billy perpetrates. But his dark humor is still present. Travolta and Allen run a steady stream of comedy through their viciousness—they’re the most dangerous kind of idiot.
When Carrie is asked by Tommy to go to the prom, she senses foul play and refuses. But Tommy is a persuasive, drop-dead gorgeous golden boy. His curly blond Farrah ‘do practically glows in the sunlight. It’s apparent he’ll do anything for Sue, which makes him the nicest person in Carrie. Of course, he’s doomed. Carrie agrees to go with him, but she has two big issues she must overcome before attempting a Happily Ever After-style end to her high school years.
The first is her newfound telekinesis, which manifests itself on numerous occasions, each more powerful than the last. The second is her mother, Margaret, a religious fanatic prone to locking Carrie in the closet with a nightmarish, mutilated Saint Sebastian statue. Margaret White is Carrie’s trump card, a funny-scary over-Jesused spectacle played with reckless abandon by Piper Laurie. Margaret equates female sexuality with Satan, and her wide-eyed line-readings are a joy to behold. “You’re a woman now,” she tells Carrie ominously before launching into a diatribe about how PMS is a curse from God. There’s a direct tie between Carrie’s time of the month and her telekinesis, a tie made more explicit by Margaret’s belief that both elements are unholy. Carrie’s acceptance of both, for better and worse, is the film’s theme.
Laurie’s Oscar nominated performance is only over-the-top to those who have had no interaction with fundamentalists. Though apparently Catholic, Margaret White reminded me of the religious Baptist folks who populated my childhood. By comparison, their fervor made Mrs. White look as religious as Bill Maher. In 1976, she may have been dismissed as crazy, but today, Margaret White would probably be the Republican Congressional representative from whatever Podunk hellhole Carrie White resides in. Her final scene violently thrusts her into an exalted, orgasmic state, and why not? She’s finally going to meet her Maker, which is the happiest moment of any fanatic. I’ll be disappointed if Julianne Moore takes a naturalistic approach to this role in Peirce’s remake.
As the remake’s Carrie, Chloe Moretz has big shoes to fill. Oscar nominee Spacek creates a three-dimensional portrait of a shy girl realizing her womanly powers in more ways than one, and her physical transformation is truly beautiful. One feels genuine affection for the mousy girl turned natural beauty, especially when she sticks up for herself against her anxious mother. But Carrie’s good fortune is yet another rope-a-dope. When she reaches the prom on the arm of Tommy Ross, blood-soaked misery is waiting to rain down from above.
Carrie builds slowly to its angry, cathartic payoff. In the world of De Palma re-doing Hitchcock, Carrie cribs from Psycho while being paced like The Birds. It’s never boring, and De Palma’s visual style sends jolts of (literal and figurative) electricity through the film as Carrie lays her vengeance upon the population of Bates High School. In post-Columbine times, the murderous carnage plays differently; scenes of kids unsuccessfully outrunning their demise evoke a sense of unease. Yet the bullied kid I once was often wished I’d had Carrie’s power growing up. I always reconnect with that kid when I watch this movie, coldly feeling no sympathy for anyone but poor Tommy Ross, who never sees what hits him. His road to Hell is paved with good intentions.
Speaking of Hell, this brings us to the other famous scene in Carrie, the one on the AFI Thrills List. If you haven’t been traumatized enough by the Bates High massacre, the hilarious yet brutal demise of Margaret White and the murder of her only daughter, De Palma and company have one more surprise in store. Shot backwards to appear more dreamlike (you can see a car going in reverse if you look closely), Carrie’s last scene finds Sue Snell going to pay her respects. “Carrie White burns in Hell” reads the graffiti on the For Sale sign, the last remnant of the burned down White house. Sue Snell reaches to place flowers under that sign, and Sissy Spacek makes her final appearance in the film. It’s a total blindside, and a terrifying one at that.
When Spacek’s hand reaches out from beyond the grave, the audience I saw Carrie with screamed louder than I’ve ever heard an audience yell. Even I screamed, and I knew it was coming. The timing is just perfect for the greatest of all jump scares, and no matter how good the remake may turn out to be, I doubt it will top this scene. It was so effective that De Palma repeated this type of final scene wackiness at least twice more in his oeuvre.
The directorial tricks De Palma used in Carrie—split screens, long takes, noticeably complex camerawork, a dirty eye toward hot actresses—are still integral parts of his style. Passion, his latest, is an entertaining parody of Carrie-era De Palma, right down to the lush Pino Donnagio score. Donnagio’s score for Carrie is rich and gorgeous. The haunting main theme contributes greatly to its two most famous scenes, and lingers in the mind long after the closing credits. Like the film it supports, its niceties are not to be trusted. When least expected, it gives way to the shrieking strings of Bernard Herrmann’s most famous score.
Watching Carrie, we’re all Sue Snells, constantly getting goosed from beyond the grave by the unexpected hands of Brian De Palma and Stephen King.
One thought on “They’re All Gonna Laugh At You: Revisiting Brian De Palma’s ‘Carrie’”
Great read! That opening is so integral to the film’s success, I’m glad you spent time discussing.