24 October 2014

(1976)

I should have given you to God when you were born.
- Margaret White
It's no secret the films of Brian De Palma are often compared to the work of Alfred Hitchcock. But are they simply 'inspired' by the art of the Master of Suspense? Or are they more obvious, direct riffs? Certainly there's no doubt De Palma's oeuvre can be seen as one director paying loving homage to another.

Carrie may be his greatest work. This terrifying tale of an awkward and withdrawn girl with special powers combines horror with humor - and a poignancy rarely found in horror films. Satisfying on many levels, Carrie is an unrivalled horror gem. Based on the 1974 novel by Stephen King, it is also the best screen adaptation of one of his works.

Acting was not Sissy Spacek's first choice for a profession. She had been an aspiring singer-songwriter before her cousin Rip Torn and his wife Geraldine Page guided her in another direction. She trained with Lee Strasberg and worked in television, before making a splash in Terrence Malick's Badlands.

Not one to be pigeonholed, she even worked as a set designer on a couple of films, including De Palma's Phantom of the Paradise (and later, David Lynch's Eraserhead.)

Her role in Carrie would lead to an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress and a career that made her one of the hottest actresses in the late 70s and early 80s. (Incidentally, her talent at singing would help her win the Oscar four years later for the excellent Coal Miner's Daughter.)

Carrie White (Spacek) is a painfully shy outcast who attends Bates High School. She's the kind of awkward student who contiuously makes her team lose during gym class. While playing volleyball one day, she misses the ball and is told to "eat shit" by Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen), the class bully.

After the game and while taking a shower in the locker room, she menstruates for the first time. The blood terrifies her and she screams out for help. The other girls have no sympathy and tease Carrie by throwing tampons and sanitary napkins...as they yell at her to "plug it up."

Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), the gym teacher, sees the commotion and grabs Sue Snell (Amy Irving). She demands to know what they're doing and is told that Carrie just got her period. Miss Collins tries to calm Carrie down but the girl is too hysterical. She smacks her and seconds later, an overhead light suddenly bursts.

Miss Collins explains to Principal Morton (Stefan Gierasch) what happened and the two try to make sense of it. Carrie is at an age that she should have known better...and Miss Collins says she empathized with the other girls somewhat. Still, she also places the blame on Carrie's mother.

Carrie is called into Mr. Morton's office to be dismissed for the day. Miss Collins tells her she can skip gym for a week and take study hall instead. When the principal repeatedly refers to her as "Cassie," Carrie makes an ashtray on his desk flip over onto the floor. Upset by the events of the day...she runs out of the room.

On the way home, a young boy on a bicycle teases her by saying "crazy Carrie, crazy Carrie!" She retaliates by telepathically making him fall off the bike.

Margaret White (Piper Laurie) is a religious zealot, who goes door to door in their neighborhood trying to spread the gospel. That afternoon, she pays a visit to the Snell residance.

Mrs. Snell (Priscilla Pointer, Amy Irving's real-life mother) is enjoying a cocktail and is not exactly receptive to an offer of a pamphlet called "The Teenager's Path to Salvation Through the Cross of Jesus." She gives Carrie's mother ten dollars to get rid of her. Although Mrs. White appears offended, she takes the money and goes on her way.

She returns home and gets a call from the school telling her what happened...as Carrie listens from her bedroom in the attic. When Mrs. White gets off the phone, she tells her daughter to come downstairs.

"You're a woman now," she declares. Carrie asks why she wasn't educated about menstruation and Mrs. White knocks her in the head with a book. She reads from a chapter called "The Sins of Women" and makes Carrie recite lines about the evils of intercourse.

Carrie insists she didn't sin and says she was scared because she thought she was dying. Mrs. White doesn't listen and begins praying and asking God to show the girl that "if she had remained sinless, the curse of blood would never have come on her."

She then drags Carrie, kicking and screaming, into a closet and locks her in. Eventually, Carrie calms down and lights a candle under a crucifix statue of Jesus Christ...which has a decidedly un-Godly glow in its eyes.

In the evening, Carrie walks out of the closet and thanks her mother, who is in the parlor. She's told she can go to bed and she retreats upstairs to her room. While crying and looking into the mirror, the glass suddenly shatters. Mrs. White hears the noise and goes up to the attic to see what caused it. Carrie pretends that nothing unusual happened.

Back at school, she sits in a classroom and listens as Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick) berates Tommy Ross (William Katt) for a poem he's written. When the teacher asks the students for criticisms, Carrie says it's "beautiful." She too becomes the target of Mr. Fromm's ridicule.

During gym class, Miss Collins takes a roll call and tells the girls to line up. "I want you all to know you did a really shitty thing yesterday," she tells them. She says they're all too busy thinking about the prom to care about whether they hurt someone.

She asks Chris for the name of the lucky guy who's taking her and Chris tells her that Billy Nolan will be her date. "Isn't he the lucky one!" Miss Collins says sarcastically. As the gym teacher berates the class, Chris and her best friend Norma (P. J. Soles) show no remorse. But Sue feels bad about the episode.

The punishment could have been revoking the girls' right to go to the prom - but they're given one week's detention instead. Miss Collins has decided to make them go through grueling exercise routines for fifty minutes every day.

Chris says she isn't going to do it and Miss Collins tells the girls that if they don't, they'll get three days' suspension and refusal of their prom tickets.

Chris is furious and lashes out at the teacher during one of the workouts. Miss Collins tells her she has ten minutes left for the day and Chris starts to tell her to stick them up her ass.

She doesn't quite get the word out but Miss Collins smacks her anyway. "You can't get away with this, you bitch!" Chris yells at her. Miss Collins is undettered and threatens to knock her down. (You go, girl!)

Chris tries to get the other girls involved but they'll have none of it. Sue even tells her to shut up. When Chris tells the gym teacher that "it's not over by a long shot" and storms off, Miss Collins tells her she's out of the prom. Meanwhile, Carrie goes to the library to pick up information about telekinisis.

Sue has an idea to make up for her part in tormenting her classmate. Tommy is set to take her to the prom but she asks him to take Carrie instead. While studying together, Tommy agrees to her suggestion.

Chris and Billy (John Travolta) enjoy a night out on the town. With Martha and the Vandellas blaring from the car radio, Billy nearly gets busted by the police for drinking as he's driving. While trying to hide his beer, he spills some on Chris's lap and she calls him a "stupid shit."

He tells her never to call him that and hits her. The two stop at a party and before getting out, Chris teases Billy. They fight again and she asks him to do her a favor, telling him she hates Carrie White...while she has her head in his crotch. (The girl should be a ventriloquist.)

Tommy finds Carrie in the library and asks her to the prom. She reacts by running out. Miss Collins finds her sulking on a bench and tries to find out what's wrong. Carrie tells her what just happened and says she's suspicious, adding that the other students are trying to trick her.

Miss Collins is thrilled for her and lifts her spirit by telling her she's a pretty girl and that she'll feel better about herself once she gets all dolled up.

But the teacher is not so convinced about the motive. Miss Collins has a talk with Sue and Tommy to find out if they're sincere. She also tells Sue she can't go to the prom without a date.

Tommy stops by Carrie's house to ask her again. His persistence pays off. She gives in and agrees to go with him.

Billy, Chris and some of their buddies go to a pig farm to kill one of the animals. Once there, Billy is the only one who has the nerve to do it and he enthusiastically slaughters one of them with a sledgehammer.

During dinner, Carrie tells her mother she has to start getting along with people. She tells her about the invite to the prom and says "all the kids think I'm funny. I don't want to be."

Carrie tries reaching out to her mother: "I want to be normal...I want to start to try and be a whole person before it's too late." Mrs. White responds by throwing a drink in her face. She forbids her daughter from going - even though Carrie says Tommy will stop by and meet her first.

She begs her mother to change her mind and is told to go to the closet and pray. Carrie refuses and is lectured about "the boys." "After the blood come the boys like sniffing dogs...grinnning and slobbering and trying to find out where that smell comes from," her mother tells her.

Mrs. White threatens to pick up and move them away if Carrie goes. She simply does not want to listen to Carrie...so the girl makes all the windows in the house shut. In a defiant tone, she tells her mother "I'm going, Mama...and things are gonna CHANGE around here."

Carrie's power stuns Mrs. White, who calls it "Satan's power." The girl knows better and says there are other people with the same ability. When her mother tells her that Satan entered her father and took him away from them, Carrie says he simply ran off with another woman. After supper, Carrie begins making her own prom dress as her mother prays nearby.

Billy and Chris prepare their prank at the high school that night. While Chris holds a flashlight, Billy sets up a bucket with a rope attached to it above the stage where the prom ceremony is to take place. It's filled with pig's blood. Chris is impatient and Billy tells her to keep her "tits on" and he'll let her pull the rope when the time comes.

There are a handful of students in on the plot. Chris has her friend Freddy (Michael Talbott) volunteer to collect the ballots for the king and queen contest. She also tells Norma about the plan.

Meanwhile, on the day of the prom, word spreads that Tommy is taking Carrie to it. Sue has no regrets about not going and tells a friend she feels she owes it to Carrie.

That night, Carrie makes herself up for the big event while she waits for her date. Mrs. White is beside herself and tells her she can see her "dirty pillows" through the revealing dress. She pleads with her to take it off so they can burn it together.

When that doesn't work, Mrs. White says that Tommy isn't coming. "He gonna laugh at you...they're all gonna laugh at you," she says. She begs and even pulls her own hair - anything to keep Carrie from going to the prom. Finally, Carrie uses her power to make her mother fall back onto the bed and lay still.

Tommy arrives and they head out to the school. The theme is "love among the stars" and Carrie is so nervous, she and Tommy sit in the car for a few minutes before going in.

Inside, the place is hopping. The cheap decorations are abundant as the students dance to the music of a local band. Almost everyone is nice to Carrie...although Norma and her date Freddy snicker when they see her with Tommy.

Miss Collins stops by their table and tells Carrie she looks beautiful. She recalls her own prom, which she says was magical and tells her she'll never forget this night. "I don't think I will," Carrie says.

Although he initially agreed to do this as a favor, Tommy seems genuinely smitten with Carrie. She truly does look stunning. He asks her to dance and they enjoy a kiss while out on the dance floor. They're the surprise hit couple of the evening.

Carrie is shocked to see they're on the ballot for king and queen. But she goes along with Tommy, who convinces her they should vote for themselves. Back home, Mrs. White paces back and forth around the house, certain that her daughter should not have gone.

Chris and Billy hide under the stage, as Norma and Freddy round up the ballots. Most of them are replaced by forgeries to ensure the outcome.

Sue sneaks into the school and positions herself behind the stage in order to watch Carrie's big night.

The winners are announced and of course, Tommy and Carrie win in a landslide. They ascend to the stage while Chris holds the rope attached to the bucket of blood. Carrie and Tommy are thrilled and the applause is deafening. Miss Collins looks on proudly as the couple are crowned and photographed.

Sue notices something is wrong. She sees the cord attached to the bucket and then spots the shadows of two people under the stage. She catches a glimpse of Chris and Billy and tries to stop them...but Miss Collins thinks that she's just there to make trouble. The teacher grabs her and locks her out of the school.

At that moment, the blood is dropped on Carrie. There is a hushed silence in the crowd. The bucket falls on Tommy's head and knocks him out.

Norma howls with laughter at Carrie's humiliation. Carrie hears her mother's words about being laughed at and imagines that all the students and faculty are doing just that.

Now pushed over the edge, she becomes vengeful and uses her powers to lock the exit doors and turn the water hoses on everyone. An electrical fire is started and no one in the school is spared, including Miss Collins.

Chris and Billy, who ran out of the building as soon as they played their prank, watch the horrific scene from outside.

Everyone else is killed (with the exception of Sue) in one of the most dazzling mass murders ever filmed. Carrie walks out of the school, leaving the building ablaze. As she is going home, Chris and Billy are driving off and they see her. They try to run her over but Carrie turns around and makes the car roll over and blow up.

When she gets home, she sees that her mother has lit hundreds of candles and arranged them all over the house. She takes a bath and washes the blood off...while Mrs. White hides behind a door.

After her bath, Carrie tells her mother she was right and asks her to hold her. Mrs. White recalls the times she had intercourse with Carrie's father. "Now the devil has come home," she tells her.

She starts to say the Lord's Prayer while holding her daughter and produces a large carving knife. "We'll pray for the last time," she says before she stabs Carrie in the back.

Carrie falls down the staircase and tries to get away. As Mrs. White is about to stab her again, the girl summons her powers and makes the knives and forks on a wall rack fly across the room and into Mrs. White's body.

Mrs. White dies, looking as if she's been crucified. Carrie realizes what she's done and screams. Soon, the house starts to come apart - as the ceiling caves in on them. The home bursts into flames and both Carrie and her mother are consumed by it.

Sue is the only survivor of that fateful night. Her mother takes care of her and receives countless calls from friends and reporters. She tells one person that the family is still "a little edgy."

Her daughter spends a lot of time in bed and has a nightmare one afternoon - she dreams that she's placing a bouquet of flowers on Carrie's grave. Suddenly, Carrie's bloody hand reaches out and grabs her. Sue wakes up screaming...as Mrs. Snell tries to reassure her that everything is okay now.

Carrie was a comeback for Piper Laurie, who hadn't made a film since 1961's The Hustler. For this role, she too was nominated for the Academy Award, in the Best Supporting Actress category.

Says Laurie about working on the film, "it was so much fun. We all roared with laughter at the end of the day, especially the day I got it with all those knives." What a nice sentiment to hear!

It seems the only problems were mechanical or caused by the elaborate props. The fake pigs blood dropped on Spacek kept drying and adhering to her skin because of the hot lights. The solution was to hose her down with water when the substance turned gluey.

In addition, the script called for the White's home to be crushed by a hail of rocks. The special effect wasn't successful, so the filmmakers burned the home down instead.

For the last scene, Spacek herself was buried under the rubble. She recalls it was claustrophobic, yet also exciting, saying: "the funny thing to me in that scene is here's Amy Irving just looking so beautiful and serene, and here I am buried with my hand sticking up...I love that scene."

The dream sequence was to become a staple of horror films, most notably the Friday the13th series. A final jolt for an audience already reeling from the horror before it.

The mostly young actors and actresses were discovered in an interesting way. Brian De Palma held joint auditions with George Lucas, who was casting Star Wars at the same time.

Sissy Spacek was originally set to play the character of Chris Hargenson, the role ultimately assumed by Nancy Allen. But Spacek's husband persuaded De Palma to let his wife audition for the lead. She showed up wearing a dress her mother made for her in the seventh grade and won the part.

One can only imagine what different movies these might have been if Amy Irving had played Princess Leia or if say, Mark Hamill ended up playing Tommy Ross.

Sissy Spacek is extremely sympathetic as the title character. There's an aching poignancy in every nuance of her performance, making the film actually painful to watch at times. No matter how many times one views this, you always want the ending to be different.

It's a lesson in pure acting, as Spacek expresses the growth of the character from her beginning awkwardness, to her fragile awakening, to her blossoming self-confidence when she's asked to the prom and stands up to her mother.

Indeed the entire cast is excellent. Piper Laurie is stunning as Margaret White, in one of the most frightening portrayals of repression and religious fanaticism ever captured on film. Betty Buckley is also wonderful, and together the three actresses provide one of the best examples of how great horror masterpieces (those true rarities) can simultaneously give us chills *and* stimulating character development.

It's hard not to dwell on Spacek's heartwrenchingly real, gently carved depiction of the tortured teen, Buckley's bittersweet empathy with student Carrie, and Laurie's twisted martyr portrayal as mother White. Thoughtful.

To complement De Palma's inspired tribute to Hitchcock, Pino Donaggio was chosen to compose the music. The end result was a beautiful, dream-like score, punctuated by string sections which clearly recall PSYCHO. The score is superb.

Credit for the gorgeous look of Carrie goes to Mario Tosi for his wonderful cinematography, and Jack Fisk and William Kenney for their art direction.

If Hitchcock had a chance to see this movie, you can only imagine he would have loved it. The prom scene alone is a classic example of slow, methodical suspense, which he surely would have appreciated.

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