Originally published on October 26, 2016. Carrie is now available on Hulu treaming.
Forty years later, Carrie is still one of the most popular horror movies of its time. As is the case with any successful adaptation, it would be a disservice to neglect to consider the source material. 1976: In the middle of one of the hottest decades for horror, Stephen King’s first film adaptation was born. This would spark the beginning of a successful book to film career that took King from a job making $1.60 an hour in a laundry to where he is today as one of the most successful writers of all time. Carrie’s Hollywood success largely has to do with the stylish direction of Brian De Palma, but also its ability to speak to a large audience despite its inherent and obvious femininity.
In Men, Women & Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film, Carol Clover suggests that King succeeded in creating a female protagonist who even males could identify and empathize with, an idea previously unexplored, and even argued against, in film criticism. King himself talks about the universal appeal of the character that was portrayed so well in De Palma’s imagination: “Carrie’s revenge is something that any student who has ever had his gym shorts pulled down in Phys Ed or his glasses thumb-rubbed in study hall could approve of.” (Danse Macabre) Yes, boys do this sort of physical bullying but like we see in Carrie, girls can be remarkably cruel. Because of King’s understanding and De Palmas deft handling of the subject matter, boys and girls alike who have been victims of bullying can and do identify with Carrie.
For young women watching the film, the terror in viewing Carrie comes much earlier than the infamous prom scene. Many girls who saw it before their own step into puberty experienced a horror unknown in the first 10 minutes of the film when Carrie begins her first period in the locker room shower. Carrie clearly has no idea what’s happening to her body, and neither did young girls who viewed the bloody moment without the luxury of comprehensive sex education and open dialogue in the home. The dreamy, suffocating scene of beautiful girls yelling, “Plug it up!” while chucking tampons and sanitary pads is a scene burned into the mind of a generation and one that is unfortunately still shoddily recreated in locker rooms around North America. The cruelty of this scene is only matched later with the culmination of an enormous amount of pig’s blood poured upon her head by those same students. Even today, menstruation is a taboo subject for some. The fact that De Palma brazenly shows it onscreen and references it throughout the film is progressive for its time regardless of how needless its progressiveness should have been.
What’s most meaningful here is that Carrie’s powers appear only once she begins to menstruate – in this way we see that female power comes from within and, for some, is a mystery. Carrie is punished by her classmates for her lack of knowledge, and subsequently punished by her mother for crossing this powerful threshold. (“First comes the blood and then comes the sin.”) For the rest of the film she stands as a symbol for people’s subconscious fear of womanhood and female sexuality just as much as a symbol for victimhood. De Palma thoroughly and effortlessly carries King’s initial message through in his signature style. There is no lack of blood in Carrie and the carnage is grisly.
King hates piety without purpose and Carrie’s mother (Margaret White) comes across as a sadly misinformed religious extremist. De Palma interpreted this idea by making her a sort of perverted and disfigured version of a Roman Catholic. Her fear of sex and sexuality is combated by religious fanaticism, but also delusion as any scripture she quotes is a bastardization of the actual text. Most of her most shocking quips, “The first sin was intercourse,” “Eve was weak,” and mentions of the curse god put upon women is quoted from a book called The Sins of Women. It’s clear that Margaret believes that blood follows the sin of intercourse and lustful thoughts and that women are inherently evil. We later find out that Carrie herself was conceived by marital rape adding complex layers of guilt and shame (which tends to go hand in hand with extremist religions) to be explored.
There’s a lot of religious symbolism throughout Carrie. From an ominous portrait of Jesus in her room to a tapestry of the last supper in the dining room, iconography is present in most of the home. The most memorable piece is the macabre light-up eyes of St. Sebastian (commonly mistaken for Christ) in the prayer closet where Carrie is often punished and forced to seek forgiveness. St. Sebastian was a martyr who refused to renounce his faith and was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, hence the depiction of his emaciated body hovering over Carrie’s prayers. In Catholicism, he is the patron saint of a holy death and his eerie position is mirrored in the death of Carrie’s mother by quasi-crucifixion – wherein she is also pierced by flying knives. Her death at the end of the film is particularly haunting and even somewhat sexual as she’s pierced and lets out near-orgasmic moans. She is left in the same position of Saint Sebastian from the closet, and it’s almost guaranteed she believes she died a holy death.
Piper Laurie became famous for this melodramatic and shrill role, and one must consider the famous fact that even though she mistook the film for a black comedy by pushing her character to near-ridiculous limits, it still worked earning her a nomination for best supporting actress. In Laurie’s defense there’s a lot to laugh at in Carrie, and De Palma is known for having a steady grip on humour in his films. Whether it is shots of exaggerated athletics in detention as the girls atone for their bad behaviour, or the boys joking and ribbing each other about ruffles on their suits, De Palma accurately communicates the obtuse humor of being a teenager. There’s a lot of manhandling by teachers and boyfriends in this film, and a lot of name calling all around. The boys are portrayed as stupid pawns in the girls’ evil games, going along with anything to get a glimpse of a breast and a chance to impress. Laughs are justified even when Margaret White mid-breakdown tells Carrie, “I can see your dirty pillows!” and Carrie impatiently corrects her with, “They’re breasts, mama.” Humour of this kind can be difficult to manage in horror, but Carrie is a shining example of the balance that can be attained.
Sissy Spacek also received such an accolade for the titular role, fresh out of her excellent performance in The Badlands. This was when horror was more respected by the Academy, though it should be pointed out that Carrie is traditionally referred to as a drama/thriller perhaps making it more palatable for horror-averse cinephiles. Spacek wanted the part so badly she famously arrived with dirty hair in an unkempt homemade dress after being encouraged by her husband to audition. She carries this dedication throughout the entirety of filming creating a character that has not been matched since, especially considering the recent remake which fell short, or the miserably failed sequel The Rage: Carrie 2.
Of course, the most famous scene in Carrie is that of her epic prom meltdown. It’s here we see Brian De Palma shine. King in Danse Macabre has said, “De Palma’s approach to the material was lighter and more deft than my own, and a good deal more artistic.” It begins with the false sense of hope we’re given that Carrie might be able to be “normal” and accepted with Tommy, who seems to genuinely care. Even watching today it’s easy to picture a happy (though tired and bland) ending. De Palma employs a torturous build-up to the bloody finale; we’re repeatedly teased with long views of the rope leading to the bucket of blood as we watch Sue (Amy Irving) realize just a moment too late what’s about to happen. When it does, the atmosphere changes immediately. Spacek’s wild eyes and humiliation are palpable through the screen, and the repeated phrase, “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” fills our ears. The audience is familiar with some level of humiliation: that feeling that all eyes are on you, that you’re being laughed at can causes you to feel like you’ll explode. Only Carrie really does. Time slows, the room spins in a kaleidoscope of assaultive color and sound. De Palma’s preference for split screen works well here, showing cause and effect as Spacek’s performance is just as scary as the carnage she causes. The gym is saturated in red, Carrie’s eyes wide and bloody cause the ultimate destruction of everyone and everything inside. The image of her drenched in blood walking through the flames is one of the most iconic scenes in horror. It doesn’t end as she leaves the gym, returning home to what looks like a makeshift church with dozens of candles, organ music, and her mother’s piously insane eyes waiting for her where she exacts her ultimate revenge.
Carrie ends up paying the ultimate price with her life in some regards, but Sue who has survived the massacre is left with some form of PTSD shown in a favourite film ending scene, as she approaches the demolished rubble of Carrie’s house to lay flowers upon her place of death. We see the For Sale sign graffitied “Carrie White burns in hell” and suddenly her hand bursts through the ground, grabbing Sue who wakes with a violent scream. Spacek insisted her own hand be used in this scene and spent her time buried in a box for continuity and detail. Her dedication to the role and craft of filmmaking is what lead her to become one of the most respected actresses of her time.
Depending on age and life experiences, some may feel Carrie’s outburst to be completely justified – this is a work of art on behalf of both the director and performers. For bullying victims, Carrie becomes a martyr for the cause, a patron saint. There’s an interesting crossing of lines that follows in that Carrie destroys the entire school and everyone in it regardless of how kind they may have been to her or whether they ever interacted with her at all. In this way, we see how a victim pushed far enough can become her own monster. Of course, victims of bullying in the real world don’t get to develop powerful telekinetic abilities, but it’s what these abilities stand for that makes them universal. After all, it is what we do with our pain that makes the difference, and our socio-economic status and upbringing determines what those actions might be. In Horror Films of the 1970s Volume 2, John Kenneth Muir rightly points out how “Carrie very responsibly looks at the way vulnerable kids can sometimes fall through the cracks of parental and public guidance to find themselves lost. How they respond to their predicament is only a matter of degrees.” Is it too much to draw parallels between troubled youths who experience violent breakdowns today and Carrie’s prom night massacre so long ago? Certainly the subject is much deeper than such a retrospective can hope to reach. Regardless, Carrie still holds up remarkably well and is just as fun to watch the tenth time as the first. There is a reason it is such an iconic film that will surely be enjoyed for decades to come.
Featured Image: United Artists