It's October, which means it's appropriate to write about a horror movie. And there's also no better time for me to stop putting off writing about Brian DePalma, who I've frankly had some trouble with as I've worked through his films. Though his early slashers and thrillers are a lot of fun, there's a campy gratuitousness to them that I always find a little off-putting. And the constant Alfred Hitchcock homages, while impressive, also frequently left me wondering if he was more of a pastiche artist than a true great in his own right. However, De Palma has made some undeniable masterpieces, including "Blow Out," probably his best film, and my favorite, his adaptation of Stephen King's "Carrie." And it's worth pointing out that it was the very first cinematic Stephen King adaptation.
One of the big reasons that I'm so fond of "Carrie" is because of Sissy Spacek in the title role. She perfectly captures the misery of adolescence, and the despair of being trapped at the bottom of the social order. As Stephen King observed, "High school is hell," and there was never a more perfect victim for mean girls and bad parenting than awkward, soft-spoken Carrie White. I rooted for Carrie, and I'd still have enjoyed the film even if it were simply about her struggles with her school and relationships, and weren't a genre picture at all. Many of my favorite scenes involve her slowly blooming romance with William Katt's Tommy, culminating in the fantastic rotating prom dance sequence that De Palma accomplished by sticking his actors on a spinning platform and his camera on a dolly.
De Palma's penchant for showy visuals are all over the picture, from the languid, slow-motion opening scenes of the girls' showers at the school, to the famous split-screen horror that Carrie unleashes at the prom, to the dream-like finale with Amy Irving that was shot backwards to make it feel more unreal. And yet all the style is somehow never too much, and the film's thrills and chills are as effective as ever. Even the much-copied jump scare ending, which was itself yet an echo of "Deliverance," is still a wonderfully jolting surprise. I think that this is because everything in the film has a consistently heightened, visceral quality to it, allowing even the most outrageous elements to feel perfectly appropriate in context.
Take Piper Laurie's performance, for example. As Carrie's mother, she's so over-the-top and melodramatic that her performance easily could have been come across as camp or satire. Laurie saw the film as a black comedy at first, and viewed her character as "preposterous." In the film, however, Margaret White's operatic, self-loathing meltdowns are absolutely riveting to watch, and just plausible enough in context that we can take them at face value. After all, this is a universe where Carrie's rage manifests in equally intense and unfettered telekinetic destruction. "Carrie" is still one of the few horror pictures that was ever nominated for multiple Academy Awards, including nods for Spacek and Laurie's performances.
Both Carrie and her mother are prime examples of feminine cinematic monsters, which are all too rare even today. Notably, the inciting incidents for Carrie's transformation all tie into her emerging sexuality - her menarche, her prom, and her resistance to her mother's repressive religious indoctrination. Margaret White's fanaticism also ties into her sexuality, namely her attempts to eradicate it, and her guilt for sexual transgressions that Carrie comes to represent in her mind. These themes are more commonplace today, but In the 1970s they would have been very much in line with Brian De Palma's penchant for pushing the boundaries of onscreen sexuality and exploring taboos.
I consider it a stroke of extraordinary good luck that the exact right director made "Carrie," at the exact right point in his career. I suspect that the Brian De Palma of the '80s probably would have pushed the material in pulpier and more exploitative directions. And by the '90s and 2000s, the content would have been a challenge to get through the studio system. All the subsequent "Carrie" spinoffs and remakes have been comparatively toothless, compromised things. They may have upped the violence and the gore, but nobody else nailed that potent mix of body horror, religious hysteria, and the merciless subversion of so many idealized cinematic images of teenage girlhood.
What I've Seen - Brian De Palma
Phantom of the Paradise (1974)
The Fury (1978)
Dressed to Kill (1980)
Blow Out (1981)
Body Double (1984)
The Untouchables (1987)
Mission: Impossible (1996)
Snake Eyes (1998)
Mission to Mars (2000)