Carrie (1976)


I am frankly bowled over by how goddamn good this movie is every time I see it. As far as periods without new Godzilla movies go, the late 70s were actually pretty good. “Everyone” (or so desperate theater owners claimed at the time) was staying home and watching TV or going out to “dis-coh-sss…?” Studios were desperate, but just as money-grubbing, which, for some odd reason, made them take more risks instaed of less. They bet on weird films by weird film school geeks nobody’d ever heard of, with names like Spielberg, Lucas…and De Palma.

You don’t hear about Brian De Palma nearly enough these days, and that’s sad. But we’re going back in time now, to observe Young De Palma at the height of his power. Certain generations of cable-TV watching horror nerds (mine) could not escape his movies. They were all over late-night cable and the previous generation assures me this was also the case back in their Beloved 80s, when there were only five channels and real Midnight Movies still existed, along with real drive-ins. Coming back to them now, with a degree of awareness, is even more rewarding than you could possibly imagine. Because Young Brian De Palma knew what the hell he was doing.

It’s so rare and precious a thing. We don’t even notice how rarely we see it…until we see it again for, like, the bazillionth time. Or the first, since no TV edit of Carrie opens with a two minute pan across a girls locker room as twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers frolic in slow-motion (including the future Officer Ann Lewis of the Detroit Police Department). I’ll be floored if the Carrie remake has the ovaries to do the same. Notice this got an R rating from the MPAA of its time, one it’s

worn proudly and deservedly ever since. Nowadays, the mere sight of bush will get you an NC-17.

I find it incredible how much American Puritanism’s mutated in forty years, to the point where a Carrie movie’s opening is in question. How else could you open this story? You need the slow motion, post-shower frolicking – not just to make the paying punters sit up and go [We have got bush! We have got bush!] but also to set up the contrast at the heart of this story. This is Horror, after all, and Horror’s not supposed to come out of the girl’s locker room. Nor do streams of blood generally interrupt shower scenes. Makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it? Hits you where you masturbate. And this is the 70s, so teachers could still hit you, too. And smoke in the principal’s office. God, my mother must be so envious. [7:41 – “The thing is, Morty…I just wanted to take her and shake her, too.” ]

Wait…watch that again. As Miss Collins is going on about something we’ll talk about later, De Palma cuts to Principal Morty’s face. Lesser directors never do this. The thought doesn’t even occur to them. You “never” cut away from a major player when they’re speaking – plays hell with continuity, as you can see clearly see here. Look at Miss Collin’s jacket – there! It’s one of those “Movie Mistakes” or “Cinema Sins” other assholes on other websites get rich, famous and rich for endlessly pointing out, with no intelligent commentary whatsoever.

[Everything wrong with Cinema Sins in 3 Seconds or Less: everything! But especially the audience that takes them seriously, because they wouldn’t know funny if it bit them in the gigantic assholes they admit they are. Sentence: the Level of Hell where Michael Bay’s oeuvre (including all those Milk, car and Victoria Secret commercials) play on an endless loop.]

According to the Standard, Hollywood Moviemaking Playbook, you only cut away from a major player to show something “important.” And character development’s not that important anymore, in a post-Slasher Movie world, where characters in horror movies are reduced wooden ducks in a sideshow shooting gallery. But De Palma thought we needed to see the look on Morty’s face as he notices Miss Collins blood-stained Japanese-Cram-school-approved short shorts. (Which someone really needs to bring those back into style.) He thought we needed to see the instinctive revulsion on Morty’s puffy, tenured-shithead face, and know Morty deep down in the cockles of our hearts. De Palma’s remembered the way he is because he was the kind of director who’d go out of his way put us in a character’s head. Even if that character’s a bit-player with all of five lines who’s gonna get electrocuted in just over forty minutes. [9:05 – “Go on home, Cassie.””It’s Carrie!”]

And it’s not limited to the adults. He gives (almost) all these characters a chance to display some side of themselves that might pass for human. Seeing those from Carrie is the major draw, but even Chris and her boy-toy, Billy – played by John Ravolta two years before he feel into the Grease trap – get some moments. {30:53 “You wanna go to such and such and get some hard stuff?” Shot of Nancy Allen’s tits and the fact she’s not wearing a bra.] Freddy’s mouth says, [“Some other time.”] But his eyes say, “I think I’ll be enjoying Nancy Allen’s hard stuff tonight, thanks. Some other time, you scruffy-looking Nerf Herder. Gimmie a Pabst.” [34:51 – “Ya know, you are totally fucked up! I know that! I’m convinced!”]

Smart boy, this Billy. Smarter than I was at his age, and I was goddmaned genius! Too bad he lets everybody else convince you you’re stupid and that the only way to communicate with people is by slapping them. Including Chris. She’s the exact opposite of that Chris from South Park’s movie, Satan’s perfect boyfriend. The Ultimate Bad Girlfriend, she walks around like one convinced she’s in the kind of teens-vs-adults comedy that would blow up like nuclear fusion in the decade after this flick scared everyone away from serious depictions of American adolescence. Nancy Allen’s awesome, and that’s probably because she and Ravolta were told this was a comedy – a parody of the growing nostalgia for some fake, theme-park image of White America in the 1950s that was steadily assimilating the minds of White America in the 70s. It conquered everything by 1980, including the White House.

Legend has it half of the cast were quite shocked when De Palma unveiled the final product for them, including Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie‘s mom. De Palma kept telling her to “go bigger” so she went, accidentally managing to create a so-true-to-life-portrait of Evil American Protestantism that’s its honestly ahrd to watch. Beat the kids until the kids thank them for it, then sends them to bed. One quick look outside’ll tell you what kind of person that breeds. For obvious reasons, no one wants to look very often. That Abyss Gazes Also, with its flaming, lidless eye.

But all the real principals knew exactly what they were doing, and not a one of them blinked. Especially the person my parents insisted on calling “Sissy Spacechick” with sneering contempt, years after she’d squandered the goodwill this role gave her. But fuck my parents – Sissy rocks this role. Other people would’ve turned this into a parody, since Carrie’s the apotheosis of High School Victimhood: the meek and mild girl who would’ve turned invisible were her school built over a hellmouth…and considering what landed in Stephen King’s Mane a few million years ago that might, in fact, be the case.

But this is over a decade before King became The Name in American pop-horror. Nevertheless, when compared to later adaptations, this is an absurdly faithful adaptation of his book. For some reason, Sue Snell teleports herself to the prom instead of staying home and worrying that Tommy may have gotten her pregnant, as in the book. I guess this is to make her a less-ambiguous person. Otherwise, Carrie would be our sole protagonist. And a surprisingly active one, given her horrible life. Though, if you’ve ever read a supervillain origin story, that’s not so surprising. [45:43 – “Prom?” (Lightning Strike!) LOL!]

King’s a very moral novelist, so its easy for thick idiots to write this story off as your typical Here There be Dragons cautionary tale. Girl steps above her station and ends up wiping out her entire class in fiery oblivion, like the angry god-monster she is. Let that be a lesson to you, rubes: never do nice things for people. That’s the wrong lesson, of course, but you might have to read some books to extra the right ones. This is high Tragedy – and I don’t mean the soaps or the Phantom – I’m talkin’ ’bout that real good shit, that Capital-T, Tragedy, presented from all sides, like a watch assembling itself.

After all, what really kills this prom? Carrie’s power? Chris’ vindictive bitchiness? Sue Snell’s guilt over joining in on the opening Feminine Hygiene Fu? Gan? Ka? Or It? (Pennywise does live, you know.) The novel’s delicious ambiguity – easier to pull off since Carrie the book was so epistolary – composed of fake primary and secondary documents, inherently distancing the reader from all this Horror in a way no movie can (especially not when it stars real people with real boobs) – is imported wholesale. This ambiguity is the story’s greatest strength. With the exception of Chris and Margaret White, there are no villains here. No cosmic monsters in thrall to the Crimson King. Just dumb people, doing their best, but even the best of them are raging narcissists who can only think about themselves:

Because the only decent answer to “what really killed this prom?” is “all of the above. That’s why it’s a horror story dumbass.” [59:59 – “I remember my prom -“] Yes, Miss Collins, because this is all about you. “It was like magic…is it like that for you?” She just got there! Jesus, let the girl have a dance before demanding a review. This’d be like if somebody in a movie theater started poking you at the end of Act 1. “Not bad, right? Good right?” God, I hate that…

The one big change comes right near the end. Spoiler alert for a forty year old film you should’ve watched on a regular basis since age twelve. In the book, Carrie burns down the prom, goes home, kills her mom, and then continues her rampage through town, only confronting Chris and Billy at the very end while the two are having sex in an abandoned bar. Because Stephen King characters pause for sex in the darnedest of places! And those two are the primary antagonists – Beautiful People, top of the high school caste system, ruthless in the right ways, boisterously dumb. They’re the rising generation, out to claw their way to the top, and on any other day Carrie would be one of the bodies they’d step on. This is a story of her ripping them off the pile of corpses and sending them tumbling down…

But in the film, Carrie immediately confronts Chris and Billy. The editing almost makes it look like they’re on their way out of the school parking lot. We then give pride of place to Margaret White and this becomes a good, ol’ fashioned, Generational Warfare story. The old and cruel and ossified stiffing the young and virginal, until the latter’s only outlet is violence, since your psycho Bronze Age desert god won’t even let them masturbate in peace.

It’s not a bad choice, just a different one, and I question its intent. Seems it only leads to a crucifixion metaphor so over-wrought Zach Snyder would say, “Whoa.” The Filmmakers even felt the need to hammer home the point thirty seconds later with a call-back to the St. Sebastian statue. Also, you can steal all the Psycho music cues that you want, Brian, I don’t care. Some people do, but those people are fools. But when you lay them over a scene of someones’ crazy mom wielding a butcher knife and stabbing young ladies in the back, you better be making a comedy. Because regardless, I’m gonna laugh. And has the name of Carrie’s school been changed? To “Bates” High? Yesss! B-A-T-E-S spells Winking, Self-Conscious Reference.

Haters have been calling De Palma a Hitchcock rip-off since the days when he was a complete nobody – the Aquaman of his filmmaking Justice League. (Lucas and Spielberg fans are free to argue which was Superman and which was Batman). And those calls are valid. He’s a bigger fan of Hitch than any director I know, including M. Night Shyamalan – and that’s saying something. On the day they invent those back-of-your-head jacks from the Matrix and hook one up to home video, Brian De Palma will be there, spending ten hours mainlining Hitchcock’s entire filmography. [And his operator will say, “Guy’s…a machine.”]

And because of his love, he learned the best thing Hitchcock can teach you – how to use your camera to make people feel things. Not just dizzy – I mean real connections with the fake people on the flat screen in front of you. Twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers in 1976! And it works! He even uses slow motion in exactly the right way and only gets real cute for a moment, when the split-screen invades. I obviously love this much more than some, because it’s like a comic book to me, so my eyes know exactly what to do. But, then again, I like Ang Lee’s Hulk movie and think everyone who doesn’t can fuck right off.

Meanwhile, for all its performances, exceptional direction, and deft attention to the beating heart of the story its adapting, Carrie’s an awesome movie. Written by Lawrence Cohen – but (and I’m glad I checked) NOT that Lawrence Cohen, writer-director of Q, God Told Me To, the It’s Alive Trilogy and The Stuff. No, this is Lawrence D. Cohen, who did nothing but documentaries before this and nothing but Stephen King adaptations afterward. Except for that one Peter Straub adaptation and that one remake of South Pacific with Glen Close and Harry Connick Jr. Sweet Jesus, I bet THAT was the most fullfilling job in the history of Earth….Oh yeah – and the Carrie remake from 2002.

Dude’s obviously got himself a wheelhouse and stuck to it, so who am I to question that…? Well…mine is the wheelhouse Siskel and Ebert built. The basement is a concrete pit, full of asbestos and zombie redneck torture families. Shit moves whenever you’re not looking directly at it, the walls bleed in the middle of the night, Armond White keeps pissing on the furniture, and you don’t even want to know what we’ve got locked in the attic…but it’s my job to ask questions. Like – why the fuck would you want to remake Carrie in the first place?

A VOICE IN THE DARK: Your sharp-dressed self anticipated this question as well. He instructed us to say…ahem… “Amused snort of obvious contempt. Oh…sorry. I think I’m supposed to…yes…’*snort* That’s a very good question. But before you can know the answer, you must catch a bullet you dodged back in high school, when you still had hope. Watch it and know that, in another world, this movie got you laid. At age sixteen. Evil Laugh.” Oh, sorry. I mean, “Mwah-ha-ha-ha-ha!” Experience The Rage: Carrie 2

ME:….who the fuck would want to make a sequel to Carrie? Why? Why would you do that?


2 thoughts on “Carrie (1976)”

  1. What, no Greatest American Hero references? Worst. Review. Ever

    Just kidding man. Great review as always. I still need to go out and watch this film (my parents never had many horror movies in the house and I’ve been playing catch-up on horror cinema most of my adult life). Thanks for selling this movie to me better than any ad or shots of prom devastation ever has.

    Also regarding The Rage: I think we need to figure out name a trope over this kind of phenomenon of making sequels to films that left absolutely no room for a sequel. My working title “The Highlander 2 Principle” but I’m open to suggestions.

    1. The sensation you’re feeling…is the Quickening…

      Except, no. You know what we should name it after? Jaws 2.

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