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October 6, 2011

Midnight Movie of the Week #92 - Carrie

As far as I can tell, I think I managed to keep all the bush out of this shot. If not, sorry to the children!
The best thing that can happen to someone who wants to write about a movie is that something in that movie sticks out to them and becomes a topic worth rambling about.  99% of the things I've ever written that I thought were good happened because I was struck by some random piece of a movie that thrilled me and realized I could easily spew some thoughts about it onto a keyboard.  It's kind of like when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, except that no one really wants pizza sauce and melted cheese in their ocular cavity.  (Seriously, Dean Martin....what the heck were you thinking?)
 When I first decided that I wanted to cover Carrie here at FMWL, I was a little concerned. After all, everyone and their mother has seen Carrie.  It's been around for a while, it's kinda a horror classic by one of the best directors ever, and it's the first film to ever be based on a Stephen King book or story or idea or used kleenex. But when I started watching Carrie again, for like the umpteenth time, I immediately began noticing all the reasons that it's so worth talking about again.
Tried to hide the dirty pillows here, too. You're welcome.
There's the horrifying opening segment, which features one of the most terrifying images of all-time: a frail and naked Sissy Spacek howling frantically because she never heard that her maturity is pretty much the opposite of this sentence. (Y'know, it starts with a PERIOD.)  No offense to Ms. Spacek - but she pretty much found a way to turn herself into the ugliest image that's humanly possible while writhing in fear while her evil classmates throw feminine products that I don't understand at her.  I swear that - if you look close enough - there's a moment in the middle of the scene where Spacek, for just a split second, looks JUST LIKE Zelda from Pet Sematary. Has a horror movie ever done more to make us feel sorry for a potential victim in an opening scene?  If so, I don't believe I've ever seen it.
Let's skip back to those evil classmates, who are probably one of the most well-discussed parts of the film - and there are good reasons why.  Led by the diabolical Chris Hargensen (played by Nancy Allen, who would become De Palma's number one leading lady over the years),  they pretty much represent what can be worst about teenagers.  And while we've probably all seen bullies in our days, I'm pretty sure Chris and her cronies - including P.J. Soles and Vinny "John Travlota" Barbino - are among the worst.  This leads to one of the film's most fulfilling scenes, the playful "detention" montage in which Chris and the girls who have tortured Carrie get tortured by their no-nonsense gym teacher played by Betty Buckley.  Set to a whimsical piece by composer Pino Dinaggio, this little sequence shows us how easy it is to push back against a bully...but it also leads to a bit of backlash from the devilish Chris and her friends.
Speaking of, there can't be more than 10-20 things in the world cooler than the shot where Allen, Travolta, and friends head up to the meat packing plant, with its strange gigantic happy pigs-in-fields-with-woman mural that leads to its pig pens, which look like - well, pig pens.   It's just such an amazing little scene (to a biased former child pig farmer), particularly when the Psycho-esque stingers in the musical score accentuate a sledgehammer swingin' Barbarino and Allen cheers him on.  You could take that moment and put it into some backwoods Texas Chainsaw Massacre-y film, and it would not feel out of place at all.  It's the primal side of Chris Hargensen, and it is awesome.
And then there's the prom sequence, which goes a long way toward proving once again how great Brian De Palma can be without using a single word.  The sequence that starts with Carrie White feeling like her dreams have come true and devolves after Chris Hargensen pulls the strings features sweeping music by Dinaggio and great camerawork by cinematographer Mario Tosi; playing out the drama in real-time as we watch the paths of the innocent girl and the devious bully pass for the last time.  The sequence is punctuated by another character, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), who has always been the film's most ambiguous cog to me. 
The motivation of the characters - aside from Chris, who is just simply demonic - throughout Carrie might be one of the film's biggest weaknesses.  One character goes from loving supporter to mocking onlooker in one of the film's key moments, and several other characters - including plenty of adults who are supposed to be looking out for these young people's best interests - seem distant and unreliable.  But then there's Sue, who makes the move to have her football star boyfriend Tommy Ross take Carrie to the prom I was already talking about.  It took me a long time to figure out just what is going on with Sue's character and whether or not she's part of Carrie's problem or Carrie's solution, but the more I watch the film the more I realize that she's a fantastic twist thrown into the otherwise straight-laced film.
But let's get back to that prom, because I feel its also worth talking about how shocking the final act is.  Throughout most of the film, we only see bits an pieces of Carrie's telekinetic power, and there's little to really suggest that she's capable of the kind of things we see play out.  The developments that De Palma shows us - doing the best to utilize both sides of the screen are frantic and fast paced and surprising.  It's easy to get lost in the coming of age drama and the revenge from the evil Chris parts of the film - not to mention the religious stuff with Carrie's mother, played cruelly by Piper Laurie - that we occasionally lose track of what it really is about Carrie that will turn this movie into a literal blood bath.
There's too much to talk about when it comes to Carrie.  The conjunction between King's dramatic approach to horror and De Palma's romantic approach to sleaze is a near perfect one.  This might not be the perfect King film or the perfect De Palma film, but it works because it brings most of the two titans' top traits together.  When mixed with the great performances - Spacek and Laurie got the pub and the Oscar noms, but literally everyone in the film is spot on - Carrie lives on as one of the great conversation pieces in horror.  There's so much to talk about in this film, and I'm glad I've finally taken the time to talk about some of it.

(Oh, and there's also that final scene. Still gets me every time.  Even when I know it's coming.  At least I don't scream like my sister did when we first saw it.)

2 comments:

Emily said...

Great writeup! I just read Carrie over the summer and while I really enjoyed it, I definitely think De Palma made a more than perfect adaptation (even if Carrie was far too thin for my taste and all). Sue's motivations are far clearer in the book, where she's genuinely acting out of kindness but also because she feels incredibly guilty for the tampon incident. She's actually a pretty great character on the page because while she is 'good,' she's constantly doubting herself and actively trying to understand who she is.

As far as the film's prom scene and the 'sympathetic character' who joins the clowns, I've always thought that to be in Carrie's perception and not reality. Not sure though, I'll have to rewatch it.

John Bem said...

Excellent write-up The Mike. The adults at the prom ring true to me because I've had a number of experiences wherein adults were "distant and unreliable." Surely I'm not the only one who has been bullied and tormented on the playground as a teacher or other adult fails to take seriously your cries for help. Emily's comment reminds me that I've never read the novel. I'll have to remedy that some day.