Piper Laurie

‘Carrie’ (1976): Be Careful Who You Pick On

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Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) & Tommy Ross (William Katt) at the senior prom in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976)

Have you ever been bullied at school? At the playground? At work, or in your own home? We all have at one time or another. How did it feel afterward? Like crap, right?

Carrie White is a lonely, awkward teenager. She doesn’t fit in with the rest of the crowd, especially the girls. She can’t even play a decent game of volleyball. That’s made clear from the beginning. Her hateful classmates at Bates High School taunt her relentlessly for her failings. In this case, they badmouth and ridicule Carrie for her clumsiness in losing the game. Bullying is an everyday aspect of this high schooler’s lifestyle.

“Carrie White eats shit!” is their rallying cry. They write these words on the inside doors of the gymnasium, which a maintenance worker tries diligently to wipe off.

After the volleyball game has ended, the scene changes to the high school’s locker room and shower facilities. Most of the girls are in the nude, their femininity exposed to each other as the most natural, lighthearted thing in the world. But not for Carrie, who is out of their line of sight. She’s alone in the shower — an impossibly huge shower stall for the real world, exaggerated beyond all normal boundaries to accentuate the distance between her and the other girls.

Carrie (played by 24-year-old Sissy Spacek) is enjoying some down time, something she’s rarely been allowed to experience over the course of her young life. The slow-motion camera work focuses primarily on her hand as it reaches out for a bar of soap. She uses the soap bar to massage her body in a most pleasant, intimate manner. The music surges as Carrie cups her breasts in her hands. She likes the feeling it gives her, as she throws her head back in ecstasy. The water from the shower head splashes over her face and shoulders, soothing her bruised ego as much as it washes the sweat out of her hair.

Reaching down to her private parts, the viewer is made aware that Carrie takes pleasure in her own body, an all-too brief exercise in self-discovery. Naturally, this bit of business leads to what may be her very first orgasm. We see her hand brushing up and down her inner thigh, which borders on the voyeuristic but does not invite a puerile interest from the viewing audience. Still, it leaves no doubt as to what is happening. Minutes later, blood gushes forth onto Carrie’s hand and down her leg. Carrie takes immediate notice of the situation and reacts in horror at the sight. She has no idea what is happening to her.

Carrie is scared out of her wits at the sight of her own blood

In a panic, she rushes from the shower seeking help from her fellow seniors. But instead of aid and comfort, the girls in the locker laugh at and tease Carrie for her cluelessness. They corner Carrie in one of the stalls and throw white towels and tampons at her crouching form. Hearing the commotion, the fitness teacher Ms. Collins (Betty Buckley) pushes her way into the crowd and bends down to calm the hysterical girl. Ms. Collins slaps her hard across the face (there is a lot of slapping throughout the movie by both boys and girls, but mostly female to female — an early example of self-misogyny?) until Carrie gets a hold of herself.

What really gets their attention is when the overhead light suddenly bursts apart. Collins, along with the other girls — and especially the heartless school principal, Mr. Morton (who keeps calling her “Cassie” by mistake) — cannot comprehend why Carrie’s had no knowledge of basic female bodily functions. She’s given an early dismissal slip, which is tantamount to having her emotional and physical trauma dismissed as minor distractions.

Carrie’s body language reveals more about her predicament than anything else. Shy and reserved, her long reddish-blonde hair combed straight down the sides, which hide her raw-boned features, Carrie wears a shapeless, dull-gray outfit. She does this partly out of her mother’s puritanical dress code and Carrie’s own desire not to attract attention to herself.

Her dress is as formless and drab as her life has been up to this point. Her home, a rundown two-storey shack that’s up for sale, is in desperate want of a paint job. The chips and splits in the house’s framework signify a life that’s not at all what it’s “cracked up” to be.

Seeking the shelter of a mother’s arms, Carrie receives nothing but physical abuse and more holy-roller zealotry from her religious fanatic of a single parent, Margaret White (actress Piper Laurie, in a frizzy fright wig). Mom spouts pseudo-Biblical passages as a way of keeping Carrie in line. And Margaret’s solution to her daughter’s queries as to why she never told her about her monthly menstrual cycle is to lock her in a hall closet and demand that she ask forgiveness for her “sins.” Poor child.

As for the offenders, i.e., those nasty girls in the locker room, they are threatened with suspension and refusal to participate in the senior prom. However, one of the girls, Sue Snell (played by a young Amy Irving), has a change of heart and honestly tries to make amends. She asks her sometime boyfriend, a local jock named Tommy Ross (William Katt, in thick blonde tresses), to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. The suspicious Ms. Collins questions the couple when she learns from Carrie of Tommy’s plans. They insist it’s all on the level, but Collins remains unconvinced.

Earlier, in Carrie’s English class, the teacher Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick) reads a love poem purportedly written by Tommy. This scene, which one can tell had a huge influence on the work of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan (see The Sixth Sense, in particular the episode with Cole Sear and his teacher, “Stuttering Stanley”), is shot in such a way as to frame an extreme close-up of Tommy’s face at far left, placed directly in front of another student, followed by Carrie’s sad, downturned features at back and to the right. All three are in deep focus.

Tommy (Katt) listens to Carrie’s compliment in English class

Mr. Fromm seeks the class’s opinion about the poem, which, to the surprise of everyone (especially Tommy) Carrie volunteers a demure response: “It’s beautiful.” This has a positive effect on the jock, although at the prom he admits he did not write the poem. Nevertheless, Tommy thanks Carrie for praising his piece. In fact, she was the only one who did.

Meanwhile, another troublemaker, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen), has ideas of her own. Chris refuses to accept her punishment, so she hatches a plot with her none-too-bright beau, Billy Nolan (John Travolta, before donning the white suit in Saturday Night Fever), to get even with Carrie and Ms. Collins for being denied access to the prom.

That high school prom, however, will turn out to be the most “memorable” gathering in the sleepy town’s history. The flashing lights, the red-on-blue color scheme, the set design, and even the music (by Italian composer Pino Donaggio in the best tradition of Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho) foreshadow a series of supernatural events that will be the downfall of practically everyone associated with them, including Carrie herself and the meddlesome Margaret and Ms. Collins. The tension is stretched almost to the breaking point as the slow-motion walk to the podium (calling to mind the music and mood of the shower scene at the start) drags out the inevitable climax ad absurdum.

Carrie gets drenched in pig’s blood at the senior prom

Director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen’s 1976 film adaptation of horror-writer Stephen King’s fourth novel Carrie, from 1973, while deviating partially from its original conception, actually enhances this coming-of-age tale by concentrating on Carrie and her obsessively-minded mother, Margaret. We learn, during the course of the picture, that Carrie was conceived by a drunken ex-father, in a violent rape of her mother that permanently turned Margaret off to the sexual act (in particular, to penetration). That led directly to mom’s preoccupation with religion and her use and abuse of the first woman, Eve, as the architect of original sin (a favorite theme of director Alfred Hitchcock’s).

Sissy Spacek, near the start of a 40-year film career, is flawlessly cast as the wimpy but telekinetic Carrie. With her gaunt visage and lissome body shape, Spacek is introspective and vulnerable in the movie’s first half, who is then magically transformed into a swan by the second. It’s a reversal of the Cinderella story where, instead of a glass slipper, Carrie is regaled with laughter (in her mind’s eye, we presume) for which she exacts a swift and terrifying revenge.

As her mother, Piper Laurie is utterly frightening. Her demise is a classic comeuppance: with her arms held up between an archway by kitchen utensils, her body is pierced (thanks to Carrie’s mind-bending abilities) with knives and other sharp instruments in a Saint Sebastian-like pose. Martyrdom comes to Margaret in a most convincing fashion. Bookending Carrie’s first orgasm from earlier in the picture, we see Margaret getting her jollies out of finally being “penetrated” for keeps. Her writhing death rattle, which sounds like extended moaning and groaning in orgasmic pleasure, is pure camp but nevertheless effective.

Although the story takes place in New England, she and Spacek speak in a perceptible Southern twang. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were once expelled from their place of origin for their antisocial habits. For a horror flick, the film is laden with nuances more subtle than one would expect in your average “horny teenager movie,” as the late critic Roger Ebert once coined these pictures.

A girls’ best friend is her mother? Margaret White (Piper Laurie) in a prayerful mood

I first saw Carrie in the theater when it came out back in 1976-77. I was impressed by the tautness and compact quality of its screenplay that emphasized character development and plot over special FX. Yes, there’s gore in that elaborate prom sequence, but again it’s not what one would expect. Carrie gets a bucket of pig’s blood spilled on her (telegraphed beforehand, we should point out, by that initial scene in the girl’s shower!), as well as on her revealing, self-made party dress. And the tuxedoed Tommy Ross gets knocked unconscious by that same bucket (in the novel, he too is bathed in the blood and instantly killed).

Seeing the movie again after, oh, 40 years or so, I continue to praise Carrie as an exemplary horror flick, one of the best screen versions of a Stephen King novel anywhere. More than that, this is an exceptionally well made feature. Director De Palma, who came from the same generation that spawned such rising stars as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Joe Dante, and John Milius, has been unfairly neglected for his past efforts not only in the horror and psychological thriller categories (Sisters, Body Double, Blow-Out, Dressed to Kill, Obsession, Raising Cain) but for his financially lucrative ventures (Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission Impossible). Though not as highly touted as some of the above-named artisans, De Palma nonetheless has been widely acknowledged as a master of his craft.

While it’s true his earlier features were often considered bastardizations of better work by others (some say his “admiration” for Hitchcock led him to outright imitation, the so-termed “sincerest form of flattery”), in the case of Carrie De Palma’s genuine ability for getting the audience to identify quickly with the protagonist literally carried the film through to its unexpectedly shocking end — a conclusion that today has become a standard horror cliché. Back then, in 1976, it was a bold and fresh move.

Sissy Spacek as Carrie with director Brian De Palma

Few directors from his perspective, working in any genre, have so successfully captured on screen the awkwardness and alienation that teenagers feel when faced with unsettling changes to their bodies. Indeed, body horror as a movie genre has long been the province of Canadian filmmaker, actor, and author David Cronenberg, whose own series of nightmarish variations on this theme (The Brood, Scanners, The Fly, Dead Ringers, Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly, et al.) have outflanked De Palma’s output by a factor of ten.

In that sense, and in many others, I’ve gained renewed respect and tolerance for De Palma’s brand of filmmaking than I have ever had for Mr. Cronenberg’s. Mind you, it’s a personal thing with me, and not meant to undermine the talents of either of these fine artists who continue to work at the absolute peak of their form. Along with Roman Polanski’s atmospheric Rosemary’s Baby (1968), William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), and Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976), De Palma’s Carrie is a welcome addition to any horror buff’s expanding library shelf of shockers.

Experience these classics for their superb visual style and inventive casting and craftsmanship, say, around the end of October. During Halloween, or anytime, for that matter. You’ll be pleased and surprised at how well they have held up over time.        

Copyright © 2017 by Josmar F. Lopes