Carrie (1976)

Directed by Brian De Palma


Carrie is one of Brian De Palma’s most well-known films.  It might be that, this being a horror film, the all or nothing style of his filmmaking becomes a little more accessible.  This film is way over the top, like just about every De Palma film, but I think that style is a little more ingrained to the horror genre, where everything is a little ‘out there.’  The happy scenes of Carrie, though, are just like the happy scenes of Obsession or Sisters or Carlito’s Way, for example.

What De Palma does well is heighten absolutely everything.  He makes the bad, bad, and he makes the good, very good like a comedian arranging a joke for the maximum effect of the punchline.  In Carrie we know it’s about to go down, basically the whole movie is a lead up to the infamous prom scene, and De Palma really amps up and stretches out the joyous moments right before all hell breaks loose.  The scenes between Carrie (Sissy Spacek) and Tommy Ross (William Katt), could feel quite cheesy and overly sentimental, but here it works, and maybe that’s only because we know what’s about to come next.

Carrie is an outcast at school, and another girl, feeling sorry for her, asks her boyfriend to take Carrie to the prom.  We know that Carrie has no friends, she has a deranged, religious fanatic of a mother, and she has no self-esteem.  She’s a wounded bird, in other words, and for a moment, at the beginning of prom, she is cared for.  It’s heartwarming to see Tommy be so tender with her, and I can’t really even believe that sentence I just wrote.  This whole thing should feel like an excerpt from a bad Lifetime channel movie, but I also think that’s the point.  Carrie is like a bad lifetime movie, but it just ends in bloodshed.  The massacre at the end of the film is almost so ludicrous, I mean it is ludicrous, that all the stuff before it feels more necessary to the story.  The fluff, the sentimentality, it’s all a part of the joke.

Really, it’s only worth writing about the final act of the film, the prom night.  Everything before that sets up the pieces to clash that final night.  Carrie has an embarrassing moment at school one morning, and the girls are ruthless in making fun of her.  Because of that, the girls are punished and threatened with not being able to go to prom, which is, you know, it’s the worst punishment of all.  This story really immerses us in this social world where all that matters is who you’re dating and what you’re wearing to prom.  Nothing else matters.

And I suppose that makes sense, even though we don’t completely get a sense of what Carrie prioritizes in her own life.  Part of that is because she’s so victimized at school and at home that it’s hard for her own personality to develop.  She wants to fit in, sure, but at the start of the story that doesn’t seem to be her goal.  She really just wants to survive, but there’s also a sense that she’s just floating through this part of her life, afraid to want anything but unable to completely remove herself from this ecosystem.  She participates in gym, showers when the others shower, and she participates in classroom discussions even if minimally.  She’s just there, like a fly on the wall, but she keeps her head down.

When Tommy asks her to prom, she’s at first disturbed, sure that this is another attempt to ridicule and mock her, but when he continues pursuing her, she opens up, excited at the opportunity to fit in with everyone else, even if most of those other people are likely to mock her.  Because we spend half the time away from Carrie, we know there is a plan to trap her.

Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), is one of the more popular girls, banished from prom for her role in bullying Carrie and for refusing to take part in the subsequent detention.  While the other girls mostly backed down, with one even finding newfound sympathy for Carrie, Chris doubles down, deciding to have all her fury taken out on our titular character.

Chris and a pre-Grease John Travolta, playing her boyfriend, slaughter a pig (offscreen), and dump its blood in a pail which they suspend above the stage at prom.  They arrange to have Carrie and Tommy elected as prom queen and king so that they can dump the blood all over her.  It’s… pretty horrific.

Carrie is probably the most frightening representation of high school I’ve ever seen, now that I think about it.  And of course this isn’t realistic.  The circumstances that have made Carrie an outcast are outlandish, just as the behavior of her bullies is over the top.  But so much of the terror Carrie experiences feels relatable, to some degree.  School can be a very frightening place for so many kids, maybe not because you fear for your safety (though sometimes that comes into play), but just because sometimes survival in school is dependent on being relevant.  And being relevant might just mean not making a fool of yourself.  You want to fit in, maybe stand out, but mostly you just want to be accepted, and a lot of those feelings are harnessed in Carrie, but they’re blown up to a much larger scale.  It’s like De Palma took Fast Times at Ridgemont High and oversaturated everything.

So the movie really lives in this world, as any movie should with its own universe.  All that matters for Carrie and for us, is that she’s happy.  She and Tommy get along famously, and the sequence before the blood is dropped is long and tense.  When they’re elected prom king and queen, we just keep waiting… and waiting… and waiting for the pail to drop.  There have been several shots of the pail, balancing precariously above them, as well as of the trembling rope which holds it up, held by Chris who hides under the stage.

There are some slow motion shots as Tommy’s well-meaning girlfriend, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), notices what’s about to happen, tries to warn them, and is quickly ushered out of the gymnasium for causing a distraction, I think.  The events which lead to her being escorted out are a little unbelievable, but it’s just a plot mechanism to make sure she doesn’t die because Sue is the person we end the film with as everyone else dies.  In the Stephen King book from which this is adapted, Sue’s narration, I believe, starts and ends the film, much like how Red (Morgan Freeman) is the person through which we see the events of The Shawshank Redemption, even if Tim Robbins’ character is the protagonist.

So when the pail is dropped, Carrie is drenched, and Tommy soon dies, the pail itself falling on his head.  Then Carrie sees everyone laughing at her, even though we know that many of these people (including a teacher who deeply cares for her), aren’t really laughing.  This is just what Carrie sees, but not what’s going on in reality.  She effectively snaps, and using her telekinesis, oh yeah she has telekinesis, she wreaks havoc and everyone is killed.

So what fascinates me most is that Carrie is someone we root for because we identify with her struggle, even if she snaps and becomes the most destructive force in the movie.  We’re not meant to root for her at the end, but there is some amount of triumph I think we’re led to feel when Chris and her pre-Saturday Night Fever John Travolta boyfriend get their comeuppance at the end.  But Christ and her pre-Look Who’s Talking John Travolta boyfriend are the only real characters we want to see get what they deserve.

The teacher who so cared for Carrie is killed, along with, like I said, everyone else.  The one character Carrie doesn’t kill, but who dies anyway, is Tommy.  And we like Tommy.  He’s charming and compassionate towards Carrie, so to make sure we don’t watch this poor boy get slaughtered, there is some deus ex machina to have the metal pail fall and kill him before Carrie can.  And based on what follows, Carrie most definitely would have killed him considering her fractured state of mind.  But why have Carrie not kill Tommy if she kills the teacher, whom we greatly adore?  There is never the impression that Carrie feels like both she and Tommy have been attacked, just that she is being mocked once more.

There’s Sue, of course, who survives only because she’s not inside the gym when all this goes down.  The violence is, like other De Palma works, cartoonish and bright.  Everything is blood red, whether because of actual blood or the fiery lighting which engulfs the building.  Eventually Carrie returns home where her mother, sure she has become one with the devil because she disrespected her and went to prom, tries to kill her.  Then Carrie kills her mom in brutal fashion, but also in self-defense.  Then, full of anguish at what she’s done, she implodes the house, and they’re all gone.

The film settles down, as it must, considering the insanity we’ve just seen.  It then ends with Sue bringing flowers to the rubble of Carrie’s burned down home.  It’s a quiet scene that feels a little like the Lifetime quality of some of the early stuff, and I was ready for the movie to end, but the last jump scare genuinely terrified me.  Carrie’s blood-red arm reaches out of the rubble to grab Sue, and she screams, revealing that this was just a nightmare.  She’s at home, screaming in bed, while her mother tries desperately to cradle her when the movie ends.

It’s a disturbingly appropriate ending for a film like this, a final example of De Palma refusing to hold back and offer us any kind of forced resolution considering what we’ve just watched.

The gap between the Lifetime-esque happy, tranquil scenes and the brutal carnage of the darkest scenes feels like a similar juxtaposition between serenity and deranged that we get in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.  That film showed the dark underside to peaceful middle America, and perhaps Carrie shows the complicated, troubling underside to… I don’t know, teenage-hood?  It’s a little simple to say that this is all symbolic of the way we change, both physically and mentally, in those years, but Carrie presents high school as the same Vietnam we saw in something like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket.  He takes an ecosystem we recognize or remember and distorts it, making it nightmarish when perhaps we forgot it wasn’t some kind of nostalgia-worthy dream.  The reality is it’s probably somewhere in the middle, but De Palma has a tendency to glorify the extremes and ignore the less momentous moments, knowing that there are enough of those in life already.

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