“If THE EXORCIST made you shudder, CARRIE will make you scream.”
Director: Brian De Palma
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving
Synopsis: A young, abused and timid 17-year-old girl discovers she has telekinesis, and gets pushed to the limit on the night of her school’s prom by a humiliating prank.
The opening credits for Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Carrie, horror maestro Stephen King’s first published novel, plays like something from a cheesy porn movie in the way that the camera tracks slowly across a steamy changing room in which nude and semi-naked teens frolic in slow motion to a sensuous soundtrack. It seems gratuitous at first, but this scene pretty much encapsulates one of the themes of the movie: the sexual power of women. The onset of Carrie’s first period also marks the first incidence of her telekinetic power when a light bulb inexplicably shatters as her classmates throw tampons at the distraught and terrified girl and chant ‘plug it UP! Plug it UP! Plug it UP!’ The cruel and vindictive Chris Hargenson (De Palma’s future wife, Nancy Allen) uses her sexual power over the dim-witted Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to persuade him into her plot to humiliate Carrie yet again, while even good girl Sue (Amy Irving) exploits the good nature of her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to persuade him into taking Carrie to the prom.
The girls’ impromptu showering of the wretched, bleeding Carrie with panty pads earns them a week in detention with Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), one of those no-nonsense old-school teachers whose tough exterior masks a marshmallow heart. She sort of understands what provoked the girls into doing it, but that doesn’t stop her from coming down hard on them for what they did. Her hard line proves too much for Chris, however, who finds herself barred from the senior prom after storming off following a protracted detention fitness session. While she plots revenge on Carrie whom, with the skewed logic of the habitual bully, she sees as the architect of her downfall, Sue Snell takes the opposite tack, and tries to make it up to her by convincing her own boyfriend to ask her to the prom. Now, to be honest, this turn of events demands a far greater degree of suspension of disbelief than, say, dead hands shooting out of the earth. I honestly don’t believe any teenage girl would be prepared to make such a sacrifice, no matter how pure of heart they might be.
Chris’s behaviour is all too believable, and she and Billy are far more realistic characters than Sue and Tommy. The scene in Billy’s car, in which the mood switches back and forth from good to bad humour with a couple of sidesteps into sexual jousting is probably the most true-to-life of the entire movie. It’s kids — not too smart kids — playing at adult games, and it smacks of authenticity. Anyway, Chris is far more adept at using her mouth for sexual purposes than talking, and it isn’t difficult for her to bend Billy to her will. He even recruits some equally brainless mates into helping him slaughter a pig in order to collect a bucket of blood which he and Chris then suspend over the beam that runs directly above the point on the stage on which the Prom Queen will stand on Prom night. To ensure that Carrie wins that honour, Chris also has more friends rig the vote.
Having allowed herself to be persuaded into attending the Prom with Tommy, Carrie (played with a convincing hesitancy by Sissy Spacek) has to defy the wishes and orders of her wacko mother. Margaret White (Piper Laurie) is a religious fanatic, who is by far the weakest character in the movie. She was no less zealous in King’s novel, but she was a whole lot more believable. Laurie, in her first feature movie role in fifteen years, either badly interprets the part or suffers from poor direction, so that her character is so far off-the-wall that she seems incapable of functioning in normal society. Carrie has to use her burgeoning telekinetic powers to get her way, an act which essentially seals her own fate.
Invariably referred to as a horror classic, I can’t help feeling that Carrie benefits from an over-inflated reputation. It certainly hasn’t aged well, which is perhaps a natural consequence of setting a movie in the cut-throat world of fashion conscious high school teens. But it’s not just the look of the movie that dates it; some of the decisions made by De Palma seem ill-conceived to say the least. A couple of montage sequences are played out against a horribly upbeat waa-waa-waa-waaaah soundtrack that must have grated on the nerves even back then. And in one scene which is supposed to provide comic relief, De Palma briefly speeds up the characters’ dialogue so that it becomes a double-helium-speed incomprehensible babble.
The dance-night carnage is well staged — although De Palma uses split screen when a director today would employ rapid cutting — but what happened to Carrie’s subsequent rampage that laid low her entire home town in King’s novel? Presumably budgetary constraints and the lack of technological know-how precluded its inclusion, but it means that the movie peters out once Carrie begins her walk home. Even that final scene has lost its potency thanks to being ripped off so many times. It will be interesting to see how the imminent remake sets about updating this toothless relic.
(Reviewed 6th September 2013)