Tonight: The De Palma Thrillers — Carrie (1976)

Movie Geeks United continues its week-long celebration of the “De Palma Thrillers” with an in-depth look at Carrie (1976) tonight, airing at 10:00 pm.   I’m featured on the program, along with critic Armond White.

 Here’s the link, so don’t miss it!

And here’s a chunk of my review of this classic De Palma horror:

Although he had directed many fine feature films before this 1976 thriller (including the exquisite Sisters [1973] and the wacky Phantom of the Paradise [1974]), it was Carrie that truly landed Brian De Palma on the cinematic A list.

The director’s critically and financially successful adaptation of the Stephen King novel not only assured De Palma a long and storied career in Hollywood, it also set off a virtual blizzard of celluloid King adaptations vetted by high-profile film directors (Tobe Hooper and Salem’s Lot [1978], Stanley Kubrick and The Shining [1980], David Cronenberg and The Dead Zone [1981], George Romero and Creepshow [1982], John Carpenter and Christine [1983], Rob Reiner and Misery, etc.). This is a horror trend that endured well into the 1990s, and even to into this decade, though to perhaps a less-significant degree.
Carrie proved so resonant as a horror genre initiative, in fact, that it spawned a fad, a significant number of B movie imitations. These were films about wronged, lonely teens seeking bloody vengeance against their cruel school mates. These films had titles such as Ruby (1977), Jennifer (1978), Laserblast (1978) and Evilspeak (1981)

With his keen and accomplished visual sense, De Palma creates an intimate portrait in Carrie of this aforementioned adolescent, high-school cruelty. It’s Lord of the Flies in a locker room…only with mean girls instead of wild boys. In her review of the film for New Yorker, critic Pauline Kael noted that prior to De Palma’s film, “no one else has ever caught the thrill that teenagers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture,” terming Carrie a “terrifyingly lyrical thriller.”

Most critics strongly agreed with the assessment that King’s novel found perfect expression in De Palma’s capable hands. Film Quarterly, Volume XXI (page 32) in 1977 noted that “De Palma develops his familiar motifs of exploitation, guilt and sexual repression with a sure hand, so that his visual fireworks for the first time do not seem themselves obsessional and out of control.”
Roger Ebert wrote in his review of January 1, 1976 that: Brian De Palma’s Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It’s also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn’t another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she’s a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who’s a lot like kids we once knew.”

Today, no less than three major sequences in Carrie have entered the pop-culture lexicon (and endured there for over thirty years.) These three sequences are so well-directed, so brilliantly-staged that they jump immediately to mind when considering the film. More importantly, they visually support the film’s narrative: forging an understanding of Carrie’s world and what it means, in some cases, to “grow up.” Those scenes are set in a girl’s locker room, at the senior prom, and finally, (ominously…) grave side.
In part, Carrie works so splendidly, because of the universality of the high school experience. Sometimes it feels like high school is a realm where cruelty — along with apathy — has become institutionalized.
Teenagers often seem to boast a sixth sense (or is it a killer instinct?) about those students who are less well-adjusted, who come from bad homes, or who are just more sensitive…and therefore vulnerable. And then those kids are ridiculed, teased, shunned and mocked sometimes, to the point of sadism.

Probably nothing could expose this milieu more clearly (or more artfully) than the locker room scene that opens Carrie. After a game of volleyball (shot from a high angle, as if to clue in the audience to the fact that something terrible is soon to occur…), De Palma cuts to the gym locker room. The steam from the showers softens the image on screen, providing the impression of a lulling dream, or even a sexual fantasy. Immediately, we start to understand how high school represents a time of sexual awakening.

As the camera pans right, accompanied by the romantic strains of Pino Donaggio’s score, the audience sees gorgeous young women frolicking, nude or half-nude after their exertions on the court. As I wrote in Horror Films of the 1970s, this is an “erotic image of wood nymphs at play,” one intended to arouse, titillate and stimulate. But as the camera moves past this fanciful action in a forward motion, we soon spy Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) alone in a shower. It’s a strangely solitary, personal and erotic moment too. The young woman caresses herself in slow-motion. Glistening water drops decorate her euphoric face. A phallic-shaped shower-head sprays water down upon her.

Carrie’s hands wander innocently down to her stomach, then her legs — and, as curious viewers — we wonder how far this scene is going to go. As Carrie’s hands continue to spiral downwards to her legs, scarlet blood suddenly stains her skin, mixing with the pounding water. It’s menstrual blood. On her fingers, on her legs. On the floor.

This is a typical De Palma bait-and-switch, a deliberate reversal or undoing of expectations. Those males in the audience aroused by the sight of female nudity are no doubt — much like the disturbed school principal featured in the next scene — not at all aroused by the visual of a high school girl getting her period. A sexy fantasy has given way to common reality


The dream-like nature of this sequence dissipates quickly now, giving way to abject horror. Carrie does not know or understanding what is happening to her. She believes she is dying. From a subjective point-of-view shot, we now see harsh reality: the other high school girls categorically reject Carries’ entreaties for help and the “misty” look of the scene has evaporated. With startling cruelty, the girls even toss tampons at the desperate Carrie. We get close-ups of taunting, ugly faces, and hear the girls’ mean chants. Those beautiful bodies in the slow-motion dream have given way to the cruel reality of high school. Mocking, teasing, the mob mentality. Like pack animals, the teen girls can smell the weak number in their pack…and go in for the kill.

This scene serves a few important narrative functions. First, the visual obsession on young, sexy bodies (and Carrie’s body, in particular…) serve to note the full extent of this character’s burgeoning womanhood. Though shy and awkward, Carrie is also beautiful in an innocent way…stepping into the realm of sexual maturity with awkwardness.
Secondly, the hurling of the tampons and the close-ups of twisted, evil faces mocking Carrie help to dramatize what a delicate, uncomfortable, embarrassing time this can be for those undergoing puberty. Through the cruelty of the girls in the locker room, we comes to sympathize for Carrie’s feelings of isolation and separation. In addition to her sexual maturation, this scene charts Carrie’s first steps into “psychic” maturity as well. Her outrage at the cruel treatment causes a telekinetic burst: the shattering of a lamp bulb over the shower enclosure. This is clear foreshadowing…
In English Class, Tommy is highlighted in the foreground of one shot, in an extreme close-up. Meanwhile, Carrie is depicted as diminutive and tiny, in the background of the self-same shot. Interpreting what our eyes see, he is thus paramount — a towering paragon — and she is literally almost a midget, an after-thought in distant orbit of his “star.” Yet importantly, the characters share the same frame. De Palma’s choice of shots here expresses Carrie’s own (insecure) view of self. To her, Tommy is “big” and “shiny,” at center stage, while she is “small” and far from attention. Almost unseen.
In Horror and Science Fiction Films II (Scarecrow Press, 1982, page 52), critic Donald C Willis noted that “it’s debatable who’s meaner to Carrie – her fellow students or her director, who draws out their elaborate prank for 90 minutes, then lovingly shoots its penultimate moments…in slow motion.”

I understand his point, but, as always, we should ask the question “why?” I submit that that De Palma makes much of the film a torturous build-up to Carrie’s moment of explosive rage not so we can mock her; but so we sympathize with her. The film spends much time on Carrie’s home life with her stark-raving-crazy mother (Piper Laurie), a zealous, Christian, fundamentalist freak. Between these harrowing home sequences and those set in high school, the audience rightly wonders how much this poor girl can endure Then, De Palma grants us that gleaming moment of hope as Tommy and Carrie appear to develop a meaningful relationship. De Palma again pulls a bait-and-switch (with his lying camera, dammit!), letting the hope linger in our minds that perhaps, just perhaps, Carrie has found the very kindred spirit who will allow her to join the rest of the world and vanquish her intense loneliness and awkwardness.
Of course, this is not to be…

One response to “Tonight: The De Palma Thrillers — Carrie (1976)

  1. It's a great film–so many classic moments. Still the best Stephen King adaptation ever, certainly one of the top two or three horror films of its era, in my personal top 5 horror films of all time. King had a great concept–high school as hell–but didn't really have the chops at that early stage of his writing career to develop it. De Palma took the idea and ran with it. He has said that when he first read the book, he knew exactly how to make the movie. And he did.

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