“Carrie – De Palma’s Horror Masterpiece”

“Carrie” the ninety-eight minute movie directed by Brian De Palma (Blow Out) was written for the screen by Lawrence D. Cohen (Ghost Story), based on best selling author Stephen King’s first published novel. The movie was also the first of King’s books ever to be adapted into a film. Released on November 3, 1976, the film was both a critical and a financial success. With an estimated budget that was a bit shy of two million dollars, the movie more than made its money back, going on to gross almost thirty-four million.

Carrie White, brilliantly portrayed by Sissy Spacek, is an awkward, painfully shy, high school teenager, who just happens to posses the power of telekinesis (the ability to move physical objects with your mind). She is the favorite target for the popular girls of the school to torment and, right from the opening scene, they do just that. Unschooled in the ways of womanhood, Carrie freaks out on an epic scale when, while taking a shower in the girls’ locker room after gym class, she first experiences menstruation. Due to her lack of understanding, she is under the impression that she is dying. Seeking help from the other girls, she is ridiculed in a vulgar way by her cruel hearted peers, who begin to throw tampons at her until she is saved by the arrival of Miss Collins played by Betty Buckley (Frantic) in her film debut. One small sign that foreshadows things to come in regard to how destructive Carrie’s telekinetic powers can be is shown to the viewer when a light bulb breaks over Carrie’s head in the girl’s locker room toward the end of her horrifying ordeal.

After Carrie is sent home by the school principal, at the urging of Miss Collins, things go from bad to worse. The viewer can quickly ascertain that Carrie’s home life offers her no escape to a friendly environment and is merely an exchange of locations from the daily hell she endures at school. Piper Laurie (The Hustler) portrays Margaret White, Carrie’s psychologically abusive mother, who is an extreme religious zealot. Instead of offering Carrie a warm embrace upon her return, Laurie’s character goes on the attack, blaming Carrie for what happened and demanding that she repent for her sins. With the scene in the girl’s locker room and the introduction of Laurie’s character both coming within the first half hour of the movie, I asked myself, as a viewer, how much more abuse can this poor girl take?

The students in Carrie’s gym class receive punishment from Miss Collins — one week of detention after school to be run like one of her gym classes — anyone who skips, not only gets suspended, but also forfeits her right to go to the senior prom. Immoral, feather-haired, Chris Hargensen, the archetypical queen bitch of the school, played by Nancy Allen (RoboCop), who has appeared in four of De Palma’s films, can’t accept even the minor inconvenience of the detention. She has it out with Miss Collins and storms off in a fit of anger, which blows her chances for attending the prom. But that doesn’t stop Chris from plotting revenge with her boyfriend Billy Nolan, acted by a pre “Saturday Night Fever,” John Travolta.

Amy Irving (The Fury) is solid in her feature film debut in the role of Sue Snell. At the start of the film she comes across as just another high school bully taking part in the vile merriment at Carrie’s expense, but that quickly changes. Feeling guilty, and knowing that Carrie has a crush on her athlete boyfriend Tommy Ross, played by William Katt, (House) she asks him to do her the huge favor of taking Carrie to the prom. With reluctance, Tommy gives in and asks Carrie; it takes some persuading on his part, eventually, however, Carrie agrees to go. Will the prom finally be a moment of unbridled happiness for Carrie? Is it her first step toward normalcy in the eyes of her peers? Will her attendance and acceptance be the final push she needs to stand up to her wretched mother and chart a new course for her life? For those of you, who have watched the film you already know the answers. For those of you who haven’t, you might want to stop reading the review after the next paragraph, so as not to spoil your movie watching experience.

Trivia Buffs take note: The name of the high school in the movie is called Bates High which is a reference to the character of Norman Bates, played by actor Anthony Perkins (Fear Strikes Out) in the 1960 Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window) film, “Psycho.” Before casting Sissy Spacek in the role of Carrie, De Palma was set on using Amy Irving for the lead. Spacek’s husband, art director Jack Fisk, intervened on her behalf, persuading De Palma to give Spacek a chance to audition for the part. If not for her husband, Spacek might have missed out on one of the best roles of her career. For those of you who’ve seen the movie “Scream,” you already know that real pig’s blood was not dumped on Spacek during the filming, but instead Karo syrup was used; but what you might not know is that Spacek was willing to have real blood dumped on her during filming to help with the authenticity of the shots. “Vance of Towers” is the name of the band that performs at the prom. Don’t go looking for their name in the credits because you won’t find it, however, the song “Education Blues,” that they perform, can be found on their self-titled album from 1975.

Warning Spoiler Alert: I mentioned at the start of this blog, that “Carrie” is the movie that first made me a horror film fan, but more accurately it was the ending of the prom sequence that truly turned me on to movies of that genre. I know I am about to use hyperbole, so forgive me, but the ending of the prom scene, that comes at approximately seventy-seven minutes into the film, literally blew my mind. I was amazed at what I was watching. I instantaneously fell in love with De Palama’s use of the split screen; I had never seen it done prior to that. The way Spacek, once the meek prey, now the predator, whips her head around, and, peering out from behind what looks like a crimson mask, focuses her eyes with deadly intent, as she carries out her telekinetic destruction; all while, Pino Donaggio’s (Dressed to Kill) score blends in perfectly with what is transpiring. As I watch, I am mesmerized by the way her blood soaked body moves slowly as she walks, while the fires in the gymnasium roar and the doors swing open to the outside world and only she passes through them. It was pure horror-cinema gold as far as my teenage brain was concerned – and my feeling toward it remains the same today. I had to immediately watch the scene again to see what I missed the first time. I remember I rewound the film a few minutes, in the old dinosaur machine known as the VHS player, watched the ending of the prom scene again, finished the rest of the film, which was impactful in its own right and then proceeded to watch the entire movie once again. I wanted to get in one more viewing before I had to return it to my local video store the next day. Remember those neighborhood ‘mom and pop’ video stores of yesteryear which have all but disappeared?  For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, especially if you are a lover of horror films, in this blogger’s opinion, “Carrie” is one of the best the genre has ever produced, so put the film at the top of your must watch list.

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About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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2 Responses to “Carrie – De Palma’s Horror Masterpiece”

  1. vinnieh says:

    Great post on an effective movie.

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