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Days of De Palma (Part 1): Carrie (1976)

I’ve often enjoyed here, on the site, taking some time to watch or, in some cases, re-watch, a series of films by the same director.  One of my very first blogs on the site was a look back at several of the films of David Mamet, and more recently I re-watched the last decade and-a-half of the films of Steven Spielberg (click here for my reviews of AI: Artificial Intelligence, Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can, The Terminal, The War of the Worlds, and Munich) and took a look back at the first three films by director Terrence Malick (click here for my reviews of The Thin Red Line, Badlands, and Days of Heaven).

I’ve decided now to turn to a prolific director whose films are very well-known, and yet somehow I’ve only seen a few of them: Brian De Palma.  Of his lengthy filmography, I’d only ever seen Scarface, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, and Mission to Mars. There are a ton of other famous films, directed by Mr. De Palma, that I’ve been meaning to see for years: Carrie, Blow Out, Casualties of War, Carlito’s Way, Femme Fatale, and more.  So I was excited by the opportunity to finally check out those films.  I was also intrigued by Mr. De Palma’s reputation, in that he seems to be a filmmaker who some love, while others loathe.  Personally I didn’t yet have a strong opinion on Mr. De Palma, having seen so few of his films.  That’s about to change.

I decided to start with one of Mr. De Palma’s most famous films, and the one I had been most wanting to finally check out: Carrie.

The film is based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.  Sissy Spacek (just three years older than she was in Badlands) stars in what might be her most famous role as young Carrie White.  Raised by her single mom, a religious fanatic (Piper Laurie, dialing the crazy all the way to eleven), Carrie has lived a sheltered life.  Now, as a teenager, she is almost completely clueless as to the simple social realities of how to connect with the other kids at school, and in the movie’s still-shocking opening, Carrie is horrified when she has her first period in the school gym’s shower.  Carrie has no idea what is happening to her, and in the film’s first step into weirdness, that traumatic incident provides the spark that ignites Carrie’s burgeoning telepathic powers.

The opening scene in the girls’ locker room encapsulates everything that works, and doesn’t work, about this film.  Stephen King’s original idea, of taking the terror inherent in a young girl’s first steps into puberty, and using that as a jumping off point for a horror story, is incredibly clever, and Mr. De Palma shapes that scene into a truly tense and powerful sequence.  The moment when Carrie first notices blood dripping down her leg is jaw-droppingly graphic, and launches the viewer head-first into a cacophonous sequence of terror in which the spinning camerawork and the shrieking soundtrack and Ms. Spacek’s manic performance all combine into an escalating build-up of horror.  It’s a hell of a way to start a film!

The problem is that, despite how great that moment is, it’s preceded by a gauzy, slow-motion pan across the locker room in which we watch semi-nude and, in some cases, completely nude young girls frolicking around.  We then arrive at Ms. Spacek in the shower, and we see a fairly long series of shots in which the naked Ms. Spacek caresses her breasts and rubs soap suds all over her glistening body.  I could hardly believe what I was watching!  Are we supposed to take this film seriously, when the opening minutes seem like something out of a late-night soft-core porn film?  While Ms. Spacek was 26 or 27 when she made Carrie, she’s supposed to be playing a high-school aged girl — as are all the other actresses in the scene — and watching the way Mr. De Palma’s camera lingers gleefully on their nakedness is off-putting bordering on creepy, and I think it undercuts the seriousness of what follows.

The whole film is like that, veering from the terrifying to the silly.  Piper Laurie received an Oscar nomination for her role as Carrie’s crazed mother, which absolutely boggles my mind.  Ms. Laurie is so over the top, and Margaret White is such an exaggerated caricature, that I found her scenes to be near-impossible to take at all seriously.  I dunno, maybe this was all more shocking back in 1976.  But to me, now, Margaret White seems like a cartoon, right up through her ludicrously loony, orgasmic death scene.  I laughed out loud at that moment.  I wonder if that was Mr. De Palma’s intention?  (I honestly don’t know!  The scene is so over-the top that it seems designed to cause laughter, though I can’t imagine why the filmmakers would want the audience to laugh at the climactic end of their horror picture.  Maybe they intended that moment to be a sort of release for the audience?)

Sissy Spacek is pretty great in the title role.  I can see why she is so strongly associated with this character.  She carries the film, and Ms. Spacek is able to believably embody Carrie’s shy innocence at the start of the film, and her demon-from-hell rage at the end of it.

I was surprised to see John Travolta in the film, playing the boyfriend of Carrie’s main nemesis, the queen-bee mean-girl Chris (Nancy Allen, who would go on to appear in several more of Mr. De Palma’s films, and for a time she even married him!).  Mr. Travolta doesn’t have much to do in the film, but Ms. Allen is great, as is Amy Irving (who would also go on to appear in several of Mr. De Palma’s early films) as her popular but much-nicer friend Sue Snell.

My favorite part of Carrie, actually, was the rather sweet middle section in which Sue and her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt, sporting a pretty incredibly curly blond hair-do) try to help Carrie out of her shell.  Even though I’d never seen the film, I knew what fate awaited Carrie at the prom, which gave that middle section of the film a strong sense of dread, as that fateful moment crept ever-closer.  I still wasn’t quite prepared, though, for the carnage of the post-pig-blood chaos at the prom.  I was not expecting the enormous body-count, that’s for sure!!

Had the movie ended there, I think I’d think more highly of the film overall.  But instead, the blood-soaked Carrie heads back to her house to take a nice warm bath.  Ms. Spacek is terrific, really selling Carrie’s shock which gradually melts into acceptance.  But the nudity in this bathing scene felt every bit as gratuitous as that in the shower scene that opened the film.  I’m all for nudity, but it felt totally out of place and almost laugh-inducing here.  Speaking of laugh-inducing, I’ve already commented on the crazy death-scene of Carrie’s mother.  Then we end on a cheap-scare dream-sequence, and the film is over with more of a whimper than a bang.

Much has been written about Mr. De Palma’s fascination with Alfred Hitchcock.  Those more charitable would compliment Mr. De Palma by saying that his films have been strongly influenced by the works of Mr. Hitchcock, while those less charitable would say that De Palma is nothing more than a lame unskilled imitator.  We’ll see what side of the debate I come down on after watching more of Mr. De Palma’s films.  For now, I found the Hitchcock homages to be clever, rather than intrusive.  (I loved hearing the Psycho violin theme, whenever Carrie would use her powers.)  Mostly, here in Carrie, Mr. De Palma’s Hitchcock influences can be seen and felt not through overt references, but through the skill with which Mr. De Palma is able to build tension and suspense into his sequences.  When the horror at the prom comes, it is pretty terrifying, and though the sequences are TOTALLY different I can see a direct line from the shower scene in Psycho to the prom scene in Carrie, in the way both sequences gradually build up suspense until we arrive at an explosion of violence.

OK, so I’ve finally seen Carrie!! I can’t say that it blew me away, but I quite enjoyed it.  While I didn’t find the film to be totally successful, there’s a lot that I could respect and admire in terms of Brian De Palma’s work, even as there was a lot that I found to be rather silly.  I’m having fun so far, and we have a long list of films to go.  I’m really curious to see what I think of these movies in the end.  Next up: The Fury from 1978, another tale of telekinetic teenagers!

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