When one of us says “Carrie,” I bet we all think of the same thing: Brian DePalma’s iconic 1976 film, an American classic. It’s the first and still-second-best movie based on a Stephen King book, so of course we could also be talking about that 1974 novel (the fourth that King wrote, but first he got published). Or we could be talking about the 2002 made-for-TV version, or the 2013 remake, or I suppose the 1952 William Wyler movie which in my opinion is not based on King’s book. Anyway this week I’d like to take a look at the different incarnations of King’s story. (Not the failed Broadway musical though. I never saw it.)
I’m assuming I don’t have to tell you the story. And then I’m telling you the story just in case. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek, PRIME CUT) is a shy, awkward girl who already doesn’t fit in at her high school before she has her first ever period in the locker room shower after gym class and thinks she’s bleeding to death, much to the amusement of all her classmates. Yeah, thanks for the heads up on that menstruation stuff, abusive and mentally ill Christian fundamentalist mother (Piper Laurie, RETURN TO OZ, THE FACULTY).
The other girls get in trouble from their gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley, THE HAPPENING) for pelting Carrie with tampons and chanting at her. One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving, THE FURY) feels guilty about it and convinces her greatest-American-boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt, SUPER) to take Carrie to the prom and show her a good time. Another girl, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen, ROBOCOP), goes the other route, she’s not allowed to go to the prom, and plans a cruel prank to avenge Carrie. Meanwhile, womanhood has unlocked in Carrie a freak power to control objects with her mind. So if she gets humiliated again, perhaps on stage at the prom to name one possible scenario, she’s not gonna cower in fear this time. There will be Hell to pay.
Until I read the book recently I’m not sure it ever occurred to me to think of CARRIE in terms of school shootings. But of course that’s what it is – a person is being picked on, or thinks they’re being picked on, and decides to lash out by attacking everybody in the school, everyone they come across. Like most school shooters Carrie doesn’t survive. And what would she do if she did? Go on the run? Carrie could never take care of herself, much less live with the guilt of what she did.
(By the way, this is not the time to politicize this tragedy and use it as an excuse to take everybody’s telekinesis away. It is the right of all American citizens such as children, the mentally ill and the profoundly irresponsible to have complete and instant access to any deadly weapons or magic powers that they think are cool. The only way to stop a bad Carrie is with a good Carrie.)
In the ’70s it was a little different, because horrendous school massacres weren’t the routine part of daily American living that we enjoy today, so your mind didn’t really go there. An underdog getting revenge against bullies was a safe fantasy. And maybe why the story continues to get a pass to this day is that it’s a girl doing it. I never heard of a girl or woman doing a mass shooting spree other than that terrorist one recently. I don’t know why, but they just don’t do that shit. Pat yourselves on the back for that, ladies. And that helps CARRIE from seeming like it hits too close to home.
But another reason I think we don’t mind is because Spacek in the movie is just so sympathetic, you become so attached to her that it’s real hard to get around to seeing her as the bad guy. She reminds you of your own youthful insecurities and humiliations, or makes you glad you didn’t have to deal with the same ones.
Listen – keep this between you and me, because it might further damage my enigmatic aura, but I’m gonna tell you a True Tale of Physical Education. Growing up I was neither a popular kid or a total outcast. I thought I was some kind of rebellious weirdo, I got called my fair share of homophobic slurs and received a few false accusations, including a charge of promoting satanism (long story). But I was never as out of place as Carrie.
I am not a sports guy today, but as a little kid I played basketball and soccer. The teams I was on went undefeated every season, but I was always one of the worst players. (I put a little bit of that into my book
Niketown). In middle school I was on the wrestling team for a year. I only won one match but it was at the end, so I got a “Most Improved” award. When I didn’t come back the next year the coach actually came to make and spoke the words “I’ve noticed you’ve been running with a bad crowd.” You can’t quit now. You were most improved!
So by the time of high school P.E. class I definitively a non-athlete. I remember one year the teacher had this trick of dividing the class into “varsity” and “junior varsity” so he could spend most of his time with the better athletes on the “varsity” side. The way he did it was basically to have most of the boys on varsity, plus a couple token girls, and then most of the girls over on the other court. Guess who was one of the token boys over there? (Me.) I mean that’s pretty cool except I had a thing for one of the girls that was one of the quota-fillers in the boys game.
So one day one of the boys is absent, and they need another player for the varsity game, so the teacher moves me up. I think since I had played when I was younger I didn’t embarrass myself in the game. But what I remember is this girl I had the crush on, trying to be nice, congratulating me. Congratulations for getting to be temporarily on the boys team because some dude has the flu.
My point is, I may talk alot of shit, but I know the pain of nerd-dom. We all have our moments. That’s why we all side with Carrie White.
Carrie’s moments are way worse. When the movie opens on her playing volleyball in P.E., not knowing how to hit the ball, and standing there looking stupid as Chris tells her to eat shit, that’s not me exactly, but I know that feeling in my gut. Most of us do. Turning the blu-ray on this time I don’t know why, but I was afraid it was gonna be too painful to watch. That opening is so harsh.
Thank God I can’t relate that way to the famous inciting incident in the locker room. DePalma teases us by shooting her shower in loving softcore slo-mo before her body (she thinks) revolts against her and the whole locker room reverts to mean girl heather lord of the flies mob mentality.
I guess it’s not all audience-torment, though. To me it’s dryly humorous that while Miss Collins chews out the girls in detention DePalma has a janitor trying to clean off graffiti that says “Carrie White eats shit.” An extra act of childish bullying that happened off screen and is relegated to the background.
Spacek is incredible in the role, a contorted, saucer-eyed alien of a girl, hunched over with her hair in her eyes but like she just doesn’t know how to look, not like she’s trying to be a loner. When she blurts out that Tommy’s (plagiarized) poem is “beautiful” in English class and is callously taunted for it by her smartass teacher it’s the kind of clueless sincerity that makes her endearing. Then when we see her at home trying to stand up to her legitimately crazy mother who locks her in a closet and makes her pray away tiny, imagined infractions, we can’t help but be on her side.
I mean, can you imagine Margaret White ever having a conversation that doesn’t involve any fire and/or brimstone? Like, “Nice weather we’re having today” or “Hey, that sweater looks great on you” or “boy I could really go for a Snickers bar right now”? No, of course not. Would never happen. One track mind. Total Jesus nerd.
(By the way, Spacek and Laurie both received well-deserved Oscar nominations for their performances. They lost to Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight in NETWORK.)
As we watch CARRIE we all know it’s headed for tragedy. Not just because we’ve watched it a million times, or know its reputation from pop culture, but because DePalma wrings out the suspense. He puts the bucket of blood in the rafters early and marches us toward it, sometimes literally in slow motion. Still, there’s something nice about the way Carrie’s date with Tommy really is a reprieve from her miserable life, a last chance at a normal teen experience she never expected to have. We know that Tommy really is a sweet boy. He’s doing it for Sue, but he’s doing it in good faith. He’s being genuinely nice, and they’re both enjoying their time together, and we’re enjoying watching them be happy. One last time.
Another thing that makes you connect to Carrie: the music. The songs played at the prom, which speak to what she’s going through, have just the right aching sentimentality to tap into those heightened teenage emotions. There are a couple scenes with goofy Moog jams as the boys pick out tuxes and stuff, but otherwise the score by Pino Donaggio (DON’T LOOK NOW, SEED OF CHUCKY) is beautiful and operatic. Sure, you got your creepy cues, your Bernard Herrmann PSYCHO violin stings to represent telekinesis, but then you got a beautiful piece of music like the main theme:
or especially the end credits:
that really amplify the emotions.
That’s not all about horror. Some of it is melancholy. It’s not telling you how to feel, it’s telling you how Carrie feels.
And hey, let’s raise a glass to Sue Snell. Now there’s a tragic figure who never commits mass murder. She’s great because she’s not a total innocent. She’s involved in the initial taunting of Carrie. She even breaks the dispenser open to supply the hygiene products for everyone to throw at her. She’s like the Mookie-throwing-the-garbage-can-through-the-window of this particular riot. But she’s immediately ashamed of herself. You can see it as soon as Miss Collins lectures them. And right away she comes up with her plan to get Carrie to the prom. Chris plans revenge, Sue plans redemption.
I like the way DePalma contrasts the two popular couples. Sue asks Tommy to do something nice for Carrie, and her way of withholding from him until he agrees is to concentrate on her homework and not really talk to him. Chris, on the other hand, asks her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) to do something cruel to Carrie, so they argue and slap each other and she teases him and blows him to get him to agree. The nice girl’s boyfriend picks out a tux and tries to charm Carrie, the mean girl’s has to break into a farm, bash a pig’s head open and drain its blood into a bucket for later.
Miss Collins thinks the prom date is a trick at first. So does Carrie. But it’s a sincere attempt at kindness. While Chris hides under the stage licking her lips lustily at the prospect of Carrie’s further humiliation, Sue hides around the back of the stage, equally excited to see her good deed in action. She shows up just too late to stop the blood from dumping. When Miss Collins notices her there she assumes she’s up to no good. I think we can guess that Carrie believed Tommy and Sue had set her up for this, or if not that Sue will go to her grave afraid that she did.
In the book it’s a little different. Sue is not at the prom, but comes and finds Carrie outside later, partly through telepathy and partly by following a trail of blood. Carrie is near death and does blame Sue, but then she’s able to see into her thoughts, good and bad. Since Sue’s motives really are pure this must give them both some comfort. On the other hand, way more people die in the book, and the whole town is destroyed, so clearly Sue is gonna be traumatized for life. She ends up writing a book to tell her side of the story and combat conspiracy theorists who say Tommy was in on it. But at least she knows she tried, and she knows Carrie knows.
In the movie the famous Ending That Inspired a Thousand Jump Scares indicates that poor, well-meaning Sue may spend the rest of her life haunted by guilt and horrible nightmares. She lost her boyfriend and her friends and now she worries that the girl she tried to help will come back to avenge her. No good deed goes unpunished. It’s famous for that scare there, but the real impact cuts deeper. It’s devastating.
In my opinion this is one of the movies that is a good movie. Just my two ¢ (cents).
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.