I’ve always wanted to travel across America. I’ve been a few times, to the major tourist attractions – Disneyworld in Florida, Vegas in Nevada, Cheers in Boston – but there’s so many places I’ve never seen in person, and most likely never will. Fortunately, there’s a solution, and it’s my own personal remedy to all life’s problems: movies. There’s been a movie set literally everywhere. Everywhere! So, this feature sees me cinematically visit a new state every week, through a film that was set there. You can read my journey so far here. Next up: North Carolina!
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a social outcast due to her crippling shyness, awkward nature and plain, dowdy appearance, all a product of her intensely overbearing religious mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie’s pariah status comes to a head when, after a particularly bad gym class, she experiences her first period in the communal shower at school and, not understanding what is happening, she believes she is bleeding to death and pleads with the others for assistance, who only provide mocking and humiliation. Her mother believes the blood to be a curse from Satan and locks Carrie in a closet, but it seems all this mental and physical torment is causing the traumatised girl to develop telekinetic powers.
As I review a lot of well known films that I’m not very well acquainted with, I often go in with some expectations, be they for the overall quality of a well-reviewed piece, or with some knowledge of a key scene that has become integral to popular culture. Carrie is not a film I’ve heard discussed with much passion for how great it is (in fact it’s my mother’s least favourite film of all time) but it is one that has a scene that has gone down in history, but which I thought knowledge of might have ruined the rest of the film. That scene of course is part of the climax, when a newly crowned Prom Queen Carrie is doused with a bucket of pig’s blood, before going into a telekinetic rage and brutally massacring everyone around her. However, it turns out pretty much everyone would have known about this scene before going in, because it’s in the trailer, a decision many people opted to ignore – or just plain didn’t know about – when there was a lot of furore over including it in the trailer for the remake last year. I think knowing this scene is going to happen does lessen the overall impact of the film, but it also creates a sense of anticipation for when it does eventually take place, and the scene is so good that any amount of hype can’t spoil it.
Spacek is amazing in the title role. She is perfect as the put-upon pupil, convincingly mousey and shy, but she also excels when she has to go full creep-out, eyes wide and twitching, face frozen in some kind of demonic trance. Piper Laurie is also great as her obsessive mother, effectively terrifying, especially during one very memorable scene involving a knife and a devoted, glazed-over expression. There aren’t really any weak performances that spring to mind, although nowadays it’s very distracting seeing a then 20-year old John Travolta appearing for a small yet pivotal role as the boyfriend and accomplice of Chris (Nancy Allen), Carrie’s lead tormentor, especially as he seems to think he’s in American Graffiti, driving around the streets at night cruising for a drag race and hiding from the police.
There are some presumably intentionally jarring directorial choices made here. Take, for example, an early shower scene. It’s shot like softcore pornography, with Spacek’s Carrie barely covering herself as she gropes and washes her chest and thighs, and in other films this scene would most likely end dramatically differently to how it does here, with Carrie’s hand disappearing between her legs and emerging accompanied by trickles of blood. That’s something akin to the bathroom scene in The Shining, with the beautiful naked woman transforming into that horrific, sore-laden monstrosity. This is an easy film to get lost in with regard to it lulling you into a false sense of security. For every scene of a mother traumatising her child into developing paranormal abilities, there’s just as many involving after school army-drill style detentions. So little of this film could be considered horror that when it does make the turn it’s all the more startling.
As with a lot of De Palma’s work, there are clear, unashamed influences from other, better directors, which I’ve always found to be an odd choice as it just makes me think how I could be watching the films being referenced instead. It’s fine in The Untouchables, homaging the Odessa steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin, because I really don’t care for the work of Sergei Eisenstein, but when you’re ripping off the likes of Psycho and Vertigo you’re playing fast and loose with my desires to get to the end of this film instead of popping in one of those. So we get Bernard Herrmann’s famous shrill strings as Carrie looks into a warping mirror, and a farm is called Bates Packing. It’s hardly subtle. However, De Palma has wisely studied Hitchcock’s amping up of tension to build a scene. It was a technique Hitchcock often used, establishing a threat with the audience, revealing what is supposed to take place, but keeping key characters within the scene utterly oblivious. Think of the bomb on the bus in Sabotage, or the rope tied around the books in Rope. Here there’s a particularly great example following the string around the stage at the prom, leading up to the bucket of pig’s blood precariously positioned in the rafters, awaiting that surreptitious pull. We know it’s there, as do Chris and Billy, and now it’s simply an exercise in waiting to see who else will find out, and what they can possibly do to stop it.
At times this felt like it would have been better suited to an hour long TV episode as part of The Twilight Zone or something similar (I’m assuming, I’ve never actually seen The Twilight Zone or anything similar), as I don’t think there’s enough plot to warrant the 98-minute running time, whereas it would suitably fill a 60-minute slot. That being said, there’s more than enough to make this cinematic, and a shorter length would have reduced both the tension building and the ultimate release. It’s far more unsettling than it is outright scary, but in my mind that makes it a more effective horror film.