THE 28, #11: CARRIE (1976)
Sissy Spacek: Carrie White
Piper Laurie: Margaret White
Amy Irving: Sue Snell
John Travolta: Billy Nolan
William Katt: Tommy Ross
Nancy Allen: Chris Hargensen
Betty Buckley: Miss Collins
P.J. Soles: Norma
Screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Directed by Brian DePalma
CARRIE is the first horror movie that broke my heart. I saw it first on television a couple of years after its theatrical release. Most of my exposure to horror by the mid to late 70s was monster movies and horror comedies. I hadn't yet experienced a horror film that reached me beyond the basic response of hiding my eyes. CARRIE elevated horror for me and helped my young movie fan mind understand that genre is merely a label. CARRIE is a character study in living life as an outcast in almost every facet of one's life. The character of Carrie White is a complex, sweet, and pretty girl who is the butt of cruel bullying. She has a power they don't know about that she learns to harness. The film's third act is spellbinding in its execution of tension, mood, horror, and, yes, heartache. The last moment of the movie is one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had.
Brian DePalma, working from a great script from Larry Cohen (look him up if you don't know him) and Stephen King's source novel, presents Carrie as shy, quiet, unassuming, and awkward. She looks like kids we all knew in school. Why she is so singled out for her classmates' relentless mistreatment is a mystery, but that's what happens, isn't it? Carrie's home life isn't much better. Her mother is a religious fanatic who only sees Carrie's emerging womanhood as a harbinger of sinful doom. Carrie longs for her mother's love, which appears to be something the woman can only offer in the form of irrational sermons and fevered cries for repentance. Carrie's great sin, it seems, is she exists. After a particularly mean stunt, the core group of antagonists (Sue Snell, Chris Hagensen, and Norma) are banned from the upcoming prom.
Enter Tommy Ross, the school hunk. His girlfriend, a contrite Sue , has convinced him to ask Carrie to the prom in an effort to reach out. What they don't realize is they are pawns in an elaborate and monstrous prank intended to be carried out on prom night as revenge. The interactions between Carrie and Tommy are sweet and we start to realize Tommy is a genuinely nice guy. Is falling for Carrie? After several viewings, I don't think he actually develops romantic feelings for her. He just happens to enter that place of maturity where we can view someone as beautiful for who they are. A kind gym teacher also takes Carrie under her wing and gives her a much needed boost of confidence. Carrie's mother is against all the prom nonsense because it only leads to horny boys trying to defile innocent girls. Carrie asserts herself in a full display of her telekinesis. The foreshadowing of what's to come at prom is shocking and dreadful.
Then, prom. DePalma directs the prom night set pieces with perfection. What is supposed to be a magical night disintegrates into a nightmare. The look is not quite right. It's purposely off-kilter. The lighting. Some of the camera angles. The way that camera spins around Tommy and Carrie faster and faster. The dropping of the pig blood is a moment of such agony and sadness. If we haven't by then, we are now fully aware that the horror of this story evolves organically from the characters and their motivations. When Carrie White unleashes her fury, it is terrifying, remorseless, and, even worse, prolonged. My teenage brain told myself that Carrie's tormentors had it coming. My post-Columbine, middle-aged dad brain tells me this could've all been prevented. The tragedy of Carrie White's tale is not viewed as the cautionary tale it is.
Last week, a very troubled young man gunned down 17 people in Florida high school. In the days after, the usual discourse about to prevent this has taken place. People have offered their thoughts and prayers. Calls for stricter gun laws have once again been voiced, as have the calls for more people to have more guns. Discussion has also centered around how we need to be better people. I don't disagree. Movies and video games have once again been pointed at as culpable. We glorify violence and devalue human life. Again, I don't disagree. The prom night scene in CARRIE is violent and unrelenting, even if it's not particularly graphic by today's standards. That violence is necessary to show so we can learn from it. 41 years after its release, CARRIE has something to say to us about being better people to the outcasts and disenfranchised. Yes, it's a very effective horror film, but it's also a relevant and all too prescient reminder of the need to be better.