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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 20: Carrie (1976)

carrieDirector: Brian DePalma

Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King

Cast: Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Piper Laurie

Plot: Slow-to-develop Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a high school senior, the frequent scapegoat of her classmates due to her sheltered life and the oppressive nature of her mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s troubles are compounded on the day she gets her first menstrual cycle, without any idea what it means. The other girls torment her mercilessly, and Carrie is sent home. But along with the changes to her body, something is happening to Carrie’s mind as well. In moments of stress or anger, she finds herself moving objects without touching them. When her mother learns about the incident, she tells Carrie the “curse of blood” is punishment for sin and locks her in the closet to pray. The girls who mocked Carrie are given a harsh detention with the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty about tormenting the girl, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask her to the prom. The ringleader, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), wants to get back at Carrie for her trouble, and convinces her high school dropout boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to help her get a brutal revenge. Carrie agrees to go with Tommy, but her mother forbids it. Carrie lashes out wither powers, declaring that she’s going to go and sending her mother into fits of prayer. Billy and Chris, meanwhile, set up a bucket of pig’s blood above the stage of the gym, waiting for Carrie’s big moment. At the prom, Carrie unexpectedly finds a measure of acceptance from her classmates, who treat her as just any other girl – something Carrie has wanted all her life. Her joy is shattered when Chris springs her trap: she’s rigged the prom election so Carrie will win, and just as she comes up to the stage, the pig’s blood spills on her. Tommy is knocked unconscious when the bucket itself falls and strikes him in the head, and the audience erupts in laughter.

If you’ve ever watched a horror movie, you probably recognize this as the point where the students made a particularly stupid mistake.

The already-fragile Carrie snaps, locking the doors to the gym and setting it on fire, trapping everybody inside. When she leaves the burning gym, Billy and Chris try to run her over, but Carrie simply flips the car and causes it to explode. Returning home, Carrie cries to her mother, who now believes her daughter to be the product of the devil. Margaret White stabs Carrie, and Carrie uses her powers to hurl dozens of blades at her mother, killing her. Finally, Carrie destroys her mother’s house and kills herself in the process. The film ends with an image of Carrie crawling from her own grave, but it’s only a bad dream for survivor Sue Snell, whom one suspects will never have a good dream again.

Thoughts: I became a fan of Stephen King in high school, probably when I was about the age of Carrie White in the film, but I didn’t get around to reading his early works until many years later. In fact, by the time I actually read Carrie or saw the movie, I was already a high school teacher myself, so I think I have something of an odd perspective on the story. King was ahead of the curve when it came to depicting the victims of high school bullying becoming monsters in their own right (he explored a similar theme, sans the supernatural element, in his novel Rage), and these days when I see a kid in the sort of dire straits Carrie finds herself in, I feel particularly strong about trying to help them before it goes bad. Sometimes, though, you just can’t do anything.

It’s hard to see Carrie White as a monster, though. She lashes out, and she causes an incredible amount of death and destruction, but it’s hard to say that anyone else wouldn’t have reacted the same way in her situation. Her overbearing mother is a chilling creature, and would drive anyone mad.

Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie make the film, Laurie being cruel and sadistic, Spacek being a broken, shattered creature even when we first meet her, which makes those moments when Chris snatches away her brief moment of happiness all the more tragic. In fact, if Carrie’s rampage had ended with the deaths of her tormenters instead of spreading out to the rest of the school, the audience likely would sympathize with her entirely. The deaths would be understandable, if not entirely justified. But at that point, she can’t control herself. She gets her tormentors, but she also gets Tommy and Miss Collins, the two people who have never been unkind to her at all (even Sue, the lone survivor of the massacre, joined in on the initial mocking of Carrie at the beginning of the film). Sometimes you’ll see that the one person who treats the “monster” well is spared its wrath. Not so, in the case of Carrie White. By then, Spacek’s face grows hard and her eyes empty, as if she’s no longer even in control, just an uncontrollable force of nature being used to guide the chaos all around her to its horrific end.

Even then, though, she’s never as horrible as Piper Laurie in her final moments, walking towards her daughter with a bloody knife in the air, smiling with the confidence that she’s doing God’s work. The last moment of horror comes when Carrie slays her, pinning her up in a sort of grotesque crucifix that mirrors the unsettling one her mother forced her to pray under in the closet.

The story itself is actually very simple – I’m pretty sure this is the shortest plot synopsis I’ve written in weeks – but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Sometimes it’s those simple beats that hit close to home. We see the archetypes here – Carrie as the victim-turned-killer, her mother as the iron fist that squeezes until her child pops, Chris as the cruel one, Sue as the guilty party that tries to make good. We recognize all of the characters, and that helps us get into the story easily. There isn’t much of a backstory behind Carrie’s powers, but again, one isn’t really needed. She’s telekinetic, and at this particular time in the 70s that was something that was making the rounds of speculative fiction.

The film draws from interesting sources to create its mood. The musical sting we hear whenever Carrie uses her powers is inarguably reminiscent of the legendary shower scene from Psycho, for example. It’s Carrie lashing out, but the music brings Norman Bates to mind. Otherwise, the music is fairly unremarkable – perhaps even a little too soft and lyrical most of the time. It’s there to disarm you, of course, to prevent you from being prepared for the incoming horror, but it doesn’t really succeed.

The odd moments in the movie are when Brian DePalma works in a few moments of comedy, particularly as Tommy and his friends try on tuxedoes. For some reason that still doesn’t make any sense to me, he goes into fast-forward just for a few seconds, speeding up the conversation so the boys sound like the Chipmunks. It’s a bizarre moment that doesn’t fit at all with the atmosphere of the rest of the film. DePalma also works really hard to artificially draw out the tension. From the time Carrie steps on stage until the blood falls on her head we’ve got a long, protracted scene of Sue discovering the prank and trying to warn Miss Collins, all stretched out due to slow-motion and made a little more horrible by the lack of audio. He goes into split-screen at this point, alternately showing Carrie herself or various points in the gym as she begins to trap her victims. Strangely, the split screen works very well, allowing you to see more of the terror and give it a sort of real-time element. I’m reminded of the TV show 24 whenever it breaks this way, although whether the producers of that show were specifically influenced by Carrie, who can say?

The measure of any movie is really the way it’s remembered, of course. Carrie is still considered a landmark horror film, with echoes in every story of high school terror that came afterwards, everything from A Nightmare on Elm Street right down to The Faculty. Horribly, you can see the reactions in the real world as well, any time some high school outcast snaps under the pressure and turns on his classmates. How many times have you seen a story like that on television or in the newspaper that compares a real-world killer to Carrie White? Carrie should have been a simple little horror story. Instead, it became part warning, part social commentary, part prophecy. I liked it better when it was just a horror story.

We’ve spent most of our time on this project in America, mainly because I don’t really know the history of foreign horror enough to speculate on it. But there are a few foreign films with a large enough footprint to make it on to my radar. Tomorrow, we go to Italy, for Susperia.