Carrie, dir. Brian de Palma, USA 1976, 98 mins
The Smoke Screen has been a huge fan of the feminist film programming duo The Final Girls, who’s mission is to explore the presentation of women in the horror film genre. Given how iconic - and notorious - Brian de Palma’s Carrie has been and continues to be since its release in 1976, it seems entirely appropriate that The Final Girls would have wanted to tackle it as part of their contribution to Scalarama film month. In concert with a panel made up of Michael Blyth (BFI Festivals Programmer), Catherine Bray (Film4 Editorial Director and Producer) and Dr. Alison Pierse (Lecturer at York University) at the ICA, the Final Girls offered up some fascinating routes to take when approaching what undoubtedly remains one of the cult horror flicks.
The story of Carrie - which of course is adapted from the smash hit novel from Stephen King that helped launch his career - is so well-known it barely bares repeating. Yet the core of the story clearly resonates, with elements of its central conceit being reworked into popular genre fare today: you only have to take a brief look at the hit Netflix show Stranger Things, for example, to see elements of both King’s ideas and de Palma’s stylistic flair in its DNA. Tormented by her hyper-religious mother Margaret (a barnstorming turn from Piper Laurie) and the meanness of teenage girls, young American teen high schooler Carrie (a ghostly Sissy Spacek) develops - and uses to devastating effect - telekinetic powers that appear to have been activated by her reaching the age of puberty. Unable to fit in at school due to her isolated and extreme home life, the regular bullying that Carrie suffers has left her a hushed and timid figure. A crack of light appears when sympathetic classmate Sue asks her boyfriend, the sensitive school jock Tommy Ross, to take Carrie to the upcoming prom dance- and event which seems to have monumental significance for these high schoolers. But scheming classmates, led by the vicious Chris Hargensen (de Palma's frequent collaborator Nancy Allen), have other plans. It all ends with that bucket of blood showering the newly-crowned prom queen Carrie at the dance’s finale, and the humiliated young woman responds by unleashing all the telekinetic power, fuelled by all that long-suppresed rage and bitterness, and aiming it right at the crowd of school kids in front of her. Few survive the inferno.
Carrie has obviously been read as an allegorical tale about the fears society nurtures about female sex and sexuality, with Carrie’s mother’s cruel treatment of her daughter being revealed as driven by something far more complex and troubling than just religion: a mix of disgust and fear of the joy of sex itself. It is almost as if she resents her daughter for reaching the age where she can now enjoy sexual pleasure, something she as a devout mother has denied herself - though, when in one of her raving fits - she confesses to a stunned Carrie that she too once gave in to lust, which resulted in Carrie’s creation. Now her daughter stands for the sin she gave in to. The character of could easily be read as a stand-in for a hypocritical, conservative patriarchal society itself with all of its unresolved complexes.
This certainly seems like a progressive slant for a horror film to take, yet one of the things that makes Carrie so fascinating is how problematic - almost gleefully so - the film is even as it foregrounds its intriguing conceits. Brian de Palma's films and his own statements have been controversial to say the least, something the Carrie panel tackled right from the start of their conversation. This is a film that begins with a tracking shot that has become somewhat notorious; the camera journeys through a steamy changing room as Carrie’s high school gym class are seen in various stages of nudity. This is far from the last time in the movie de Palma’s camera will linger on female flesh either: with female cheerleaders on the pitch and high school bad girl Chris’s bra-less torso getting plenty of screen time. This is also one of many de Palma films that put their female characters through the wringer, to put it politely.
Thus the panel agreed that at some point they had all been driven to ask themselves: “Is it cool to like Carrie [and de Palma]?” But the consensus was that, after repeat viewings and after taking a few steps back to reconsider de Palma’s career as a whole, rejecting Carrie entirely as mysoginistic felt too much like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Alison Pierce for example praised the way the film - largely through Sissy Spacek’s intense performance - effectively transmitted the desperate sadness of the plight of this hapless but incredibly powerful young woman. You empathise with Carrie as almost a Frankenstein-like figure, a victim created by monstrosity. The panel also noted how both De Palma and King explored her victimhood in interesting ways - with the narrative and characterisation of Carrie seeming at times to provoke the viewer to almost want this pathetic figure to get tormented. De Palma arguably manipulates viewers to effectively swing between delighting in seeing Carrie suffer, and yearning to see her inflict terrible vengeance on her tormentors turn. The bucket of blood sequence, with its long, almost gleeful build up in slow motion, was much discussed as an example of this. Viewers might want to ask themselves; do you maybe sneakily want that rope to be pulled, and the bucket to fall, knowing both what the immediate humiliating result will be, and what will happen next?
Author Stephen King and de Palma also have an interesting kingship, as Catherine Bray noted: they are good at “serious fun” - taking a ludicrous concept and imbuing it with genuine terror and emotional weight. Of course, Carrie can simply be enjoyed as campy, shlockly fun, with Michael Blyth half-joking if you could convert this film easily into a musical given its tone and setting. Regardless, the panel noted that the film remains very striking from a cinematographic perspective, with a visual approach that teeters on the deliciously overblown at times. De Palma throws in a tonne of tricks that he would become well known for, including diopter lens shots, and the use of montage which really works well in the prom terror sequence, as Carrie starts to come apart, her attention and powers jumping to various points as she singles out her enemies for destruction. The Smoke Screen in particular was struck by the deliriously bold lighting throughout the film too. Much of the film’s early sequences seem drenched in a warm, apple pie glow, but in the prom night sequence sees de Palma start us off with a dreamy kaleidoscopic mix of purples and yellows that highlight how carried away Carrie is by her one moment of bliss, only to drench the entire affair in an insanely deep red shade once the psychic assault starts.
It seems a fitting moment to screen and discuss this film given it has now reached its 40th anniversary, and this Final Girls show nicely coincided with the release this month of the documentary De Palma from directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow. There is a definitely a vibe in the air that this is the right time to take a step back and asses/re-asses the work of a director who's middle name is “polarising”.