Thursday, April 5, 2012

Director Spotlight #6.7: Brian De Palma's Carrie

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. April’s director is the self-proclaimed master of the macabre, Brian De Palma.

Grade: 96 (A)

By 1976, most of the Movie Brats had released substantial hits- George Lucas had American Graffiti. Martin Scorsese had Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws was the highest-grossing film of all time. Francis Ford Coppola conquered the world with The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, and The Conversation. Brian De Palma hadn’t had their luck- his biggest hit at this point, Obsession, had only made $4 million, and he’d had a number of setbacks. But De Palma made his first bona-fide major success with Carrie, an adaptation of Stephen King’s breakthrough novel. The film was De Palma’s most commercial film yet, but he still managed to make an undeniable De Palma film. Watching Carrie, there’s no doubt as to who made it: it’s a horror film with real technical gusto.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a social misfit, relentlessly bullied at school and terrorized at home by her fundamentalist mother (Piper Laurie). Carrie has a secret- she’s telekinetic, and when she gets upset, she can move things with her mind. When Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels guilty after participating in a particularly cruel act of bullying, she convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom. But popular girl Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) wants revenge after being punished for bullying Carrie, and she convinces her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta in his first movie role) to help her play a twisted prank on Carrie- getting her elected prom queen, only to dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her. But Carrie can only take so much bullying before she snaps.

The opening scenes of Carrie show a master director at work- De Palma uses a crane shot to show a group of girls during a P.E. class, only to zero in on Carrie as she inevitably fouls up her team’s shot at winning a game. She’s berated, slapped at, and told to “eat shit” by her teammates, who feel no pity for her.

De Palma then cuts to a girl’s locker room, where steam engulfs the high school girls in various states of undress. The camera moves in a tracking shot across the room like a pair of eyes looking into a private place.  It’s hardly pornographic, however- there’s a point to De Palma’s voyeurism. The girls range from underwear clad to completely naked, but they’re completely comfortable with their sexualities. They’re able to interact with each other, throw things at each other, even slap each other with towels as a joke. They’re all up front, and when De Palma finally reaches Carrie, she’s far in the back, showering alone, facing away from everyone else. She’s just cleaning herself, but when Carrie, a late-bloomer when it comes to womanhood, has her first period, we realize how uncomfortable with her sexuality she really is. It’s been a peaceful, sensual tour into the locker room, but now we’re getting into uncomfortable territory, and as a girl growing up in a fundamentalist home with no discussion of sex, it’s a terrifying thing. She screams, she begs for help, she gets blood on the other girls. To them, she’s just a weird girl freaking out for no reason. De Palma uses extreme close-ups onto the jeering visages of the girls juxtaposed with Spacek’s expressive face- this is a moment of absolute terror for her, and they’re laughing at her. They throw tampons at her and scream “plug it up!”. It isn’t until the maternal gym teacher Ms. Collins (Betty Buckley) arrives that Carrie finally calms down. We know exactly where we are and what the dynamic is, and it’s only a few minutes into the film.

Then again, De Palma’s always been a master visual storyteller, and he doesn’t hold back on Carrie just because it’s a studio project. He plays with levels by putting important information in both the background and the foreground, forcing us to pay attention- Carrie’s in her own little world, and then Tommy comes behind her to ask her to the prom. One of Chris and Billy’s friends get involved with the balloting for prom king and queen, and there’s Chris in the background, overlooking all of it.  He uses split-screen and split-diopter to contrast a meek Carrie with a powerful Mrs. White, or a mean-spirited teacher with Tommy’s face, upset that Carrie’s being picked on. De Palma contrasts the bright light of sunny suburban California with the dark interiors of Carrie and Mrs. White’s home, where no joy can get in. Mrs. White towers over a kneeling Carrie, showing a “preacher” dominating her flock. We get small, fleeting hints of what Carrie can do with her powers as her telekinesis explodes in quick moments of distress (being bullied by the girls or her mother).

De Palma’s previous music collaborator, Bernard Herrmann, had passed away by the time he made Carrie, but the Italian composer Pino Donaggio serves as a more than worthwhile replacement. In fact, Donaggio might be better suited to De Palma’s aesthetic- his score for Carrie ranges from deeply sensual (the locker room scene, most scenes of sexual discovery) to brooding and ghastly (Carrie being tormented by her mother) to all-out horrific (the havoc Carrie wreaks in the film’s climax) to deeply tragic (Carrie’s inevitable fate). It’s not to downplay Herrmann’s gifts- he’s one of the greatest composers who ever wrote for film- but Donaggio’s floridness is perfectly suited to De Palma’s purposes. And in case you really wanted Herrmann in there anyway, Donaggio “quotes” the famous Psycho-strings whenever Carrie demonstrates her power.

Carrie also has one of the best casts De Palma ever assembled, from the charismatic, sometimes goofy, about-to-be-huge Travolta to new talent like Nancy Allen (wonderfully nasty as Chris) and Amy Irving (deeply empathetic and guilt-ridden). Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek were both nominated for Oscars for their performances, and it’s easy to see why- Laurie, in her first film role since The Hustler, exudes a bizarre, frightening sexuality that she can never quite hide beneath all of her bluster. Spacek, my pick for the best actress of her generation (all you Meryl Streep supporters can eat it), has one of the most expressive faces in movie history, and if anyone can watch her shy, pain-filled, deeply sad performance without being moved, I’d be rather shocked.

In terms of themes, film doesn’t play as huge a role in Carrie as it does in films also written by De Palma (Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out), but De Palma shows plenty of visual and aural quotes throughout Carrie to let us know that he’s still got film on the brain. Aside from the Psycho-strings, De Palma also quotes the Hitchcock film with a shower scene gone awry; Hitchcock also shows up in De Palma’s willingness to show crimes about to be committed before the other characters know what’s going on. There’s sped-up comedy a la Richard Lester to give some relief before the big horror-movie climax, and the actual horror shows a creeping dread not unlike Spielberg’s Jaws. Spielberg isn’t the only New Hollywood friend De Palma’s taking pages from- the interactions between the teens feel very much in tune with Lucas’ American Graffiti, and the heavy religious imagery and presences of Catholic guilt bears strong resemblance to the works of Scorsese and Coppola (not to mention the heavy tragic elements in Carrie, which far outstrip those of previous De Palma films).

This being a De Palma film, voyeurism comes heavy into play as well. Aside from the deeply sensual, “we shouldn’t be seeing this” feeling of the shower scene, there’s peeks into the office as we overhear talk of the ostracized Carrie. There’s De Palma’s frightening portrayal of the horrifying realities of Carrie’s home life. There’s a shared sense of discovery (heavy POV-shots) as Carrie looks up what telekinesis is in order to understand her identity. When Billy and Chris plan their prank on Carrie, we get a feeling of complicity in seeing their crime- we’re unable to help Carrie (which plays into De Palma’s interest in helplessness), and we’re guilty for looking at it.

More than anything else, though, Carrie is De Palma’s finest exploration yet of sexuality and sexual identity. When we see the girls’ comfort with their sexualities in the locker room, it’s, to put it bluntly, alluring. When we realize how uncomfortable Carrie is, it’s sad and disturbing to see her mocked for it. Carrie lives in a period of sexual liberation, but she’s strangely out of time and place. She owes her repression to her mother, who, unlike many Stephen King Christian soldiers, is not an asexual tormentor. Rather, she’s someone who’s even more uncomfortable with, even ashamed of, with her sexuality than Carrie is, and her intense emotional cruelty towards her daughter is punishment for Carrie’s “sins” as well as her own.

The men of the world don’t really get it- it’s always been natural for them, and male sexuality isn’t as taboo. Hell, it’s constantly made light of. Tommy is attractive, but he can be a goof about it and he doesn’t have to worry about it. Billy is a delinquent for whom the promise of sex with Chris is a constant- his concern for a misfit is nil (reaction to Chris saying she hates Carrie White – “Who?”). The older men slight Carrie without a thought. What does it matter that they get her name wrong, or that they tease her for finding Tommy’s poem “beautiful”. It doesn’t help that they’re disinterested in the students in the first place. When they’re actually confronted with her sexuality, they’re deeply uncomfortable- one shies away from actually talking about Carrie’s period, and when he sees some of the blood on Ms. Collins’ clothing, he flinches.

Sexuality becomes even more overt as the prom nears- De Palma begins to play with a vibrant, Michael Powell-esque color scheme as students going to their first prom hope to either fall in love or get lucky. Carrie’s pink dress shows a hesitant, shy edge towards her sexuality- it’s girlish, but it’s enough for Mrs. White to flip out over her being a temptress (“RED!”). The prom is red, however, and there’s a feeling of comfortable sexuality in the air for everyone but Carrie. Tommy’s a gentleman, though, and his interactions with her show a tenderness and care that comes with early dating and feelings of falling in love. When she’s finally crowned as prom queen, she’s bathed in heavenly light. It’s going to contrast what’s on the way.


Here, De Palma gives one of the most unbearably tense set-pieces in his filmography, combining super-slow motion to drag out the tension with a feeling of voyeurism and a building musical score. Sue sees Chris and Billy’s bucket and realizes something terrible is going to happen, but Ms. Collins sees Sue rushing to the stage and figures she’s pulling a prank on Carrie. We’re the only ones seeing the whole picture, and one misinterpretation of the events keeps Carrie from being saved. Chris drops the bucket on Carrie and…virtual silence as all sounds but the gasps, the bucket, and the dripping blood drop out, only to give way to terrible laughter as we see the world through Carrie’s cracked perspective- everyone is laughing at her, even Ms. Collins. This can’t be true- she’s too maternal and sympathetic, but she’s in a state of shock- we see the world through her eyes right now, and the kaleidoscope vision shows the state of her mind. She can’t take it anymore.

The heavenly light gives way to hellish red as Carrie’s face goes completely blank. De Palma goes to his patented split-screen to show Carrie’s face as she causes terrible things to happen at the same time the happen- firehouses spray kids, faculty members are electrocuted, Ms. Collins is killed by a falling object, fires start. It’s absolute horror, and no one on the outside (Sue, Billy, Chris) can only watch what’s happening, helpless to stop it. It’s an explosion of rage from the picked on, sexually repressed girl with vibrant sexual colors of the most horrifying degree.

When Carrie returns home, she bathes rather than showers (important moment of cleansing, more innocent, baptismal). She washes away her sin, and all the color disappears from her. Her mother’s not exactly the most comforting figure, however- she will “not suffer a witch”, and she’s willing to kill to “please the lord”. There’s a funereal element in the air as Carrie enters, and we know it’s almost over. She does defend herself, and in a sick moment, she stabs her mother through the hands and torso in a crucifixion-like pose (Piper Laurie’s orgasmic cries as it happens? Extra creepy). But it’s not just a question of the sexually repressed vs. the repressor- this is Carrie’s whole world, and her death means everything. The house collapses in on the two as Carrie’s world crumbles, and Donaggio’s score hits its most tragic notes.

That’s the end of the main story, but I can’t go without talking about De Palma’s terrific fakeout/final-scare that’s been relentlessly mimicked to lesser effect over time (Friday the 13th being a particularly shameless example). De Palma goes for a surreal effect in a dream sequence that shows Sue planting flowers at Carrie’s grave (which reads “Carrie White Burns in Hell!”). She tried to do something good for Carrie, but it was far too late, and she’s guilty about it. This is hardly a moment to brush off her lingering guilt, though- there’s something a bit off about the dream. The light is heavenly, but there’s an unnatural feeling to Sue’s walk (Irving was really walking backwards, which De Palma reversed). When Carrie’s hand shoots out of the grave, it’s not just a terrifying moment- Sue’s guilt is going to haunt her for the rest of her life.


Carrie is one of the most viscerally terrifying films of the 70s, but it’s also one of the most honest high-school movies ever made. It’s a film that shows deep empathy for the confusion that comes with discovering one’s sexual identity and for being different in a world full of “normal” people. It’s one of De Palma’s most tragic films, and one of his most affecting.

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