Saturday, October 11, 2014

Carrie

If only I had been around when Carrie (1976) premiered, I probably would have liked it more or possibly been scared by it. Looking back on it nearly 40 years later, I can't help but see it as a ludicrously overblown melodrama. The characters are cartoonish, the music ridiculously underlies everything in the most obvious of beats, and the symbolism director Brian De Palma packs in could be charitably described as overwhelmingly obvious. It has charms, though, mainly as a time capsule for the period it was made in, and if you're not feeling for Carrie White by the end, you're heartless.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek, who was Oscar nominated for her performance) is a timid, much abused 17-year-old. Her mother (Piper Laurie, who was also nominated, though I would question that), is a radical Christian nut job who regularly locks her daughter in a closet to pray. At school, Carrie is tormented by classmates, teachers, and others. However, Carrie also has telekinesis, and her power is growing. After an incident involving her first menstruation, which occurs in the gym shower, one of her classmates, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), decides to be nice, and has her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt), take her to senior prom. But an especially sadistic bully (Nancy Allen) plots a cruel prank, and when it happens, Carrie's power proves deadly.

It's amazing to remember that Carrie was not only the first adaptation of a Stephen King novel, it was also King's first published book. At the time, he wasn't the brand he would become and was merely a popular new writer with a best seller that someone thought would make a successful movie, which it did. Carrie received critical and commercial praise, and the story of a girl who lashes out against those who have wronged her via supernatural means is embedded in pop culture. The movie has a number of memorable of lines ("They're all gonna laugh at you!") and images (the final scare has now become a genre cliche). And it was a launching pad for a number of players who went to have long careers.

Many elements must have felt fresher in 1976, before they became overly familiar tropes of King. There's the sadistic bullies, the broken home, the psychic powers, the small-town cruelty and shame, and the religious fanatics. De Palma accentuates the style, filming Carrie often from a high-angle shot, so we're always looking down on her, and filming her tormentors, especially her mother, from a low-angle, so they loom over us. He also packs in a lot Christian iconography, but especially crucifixes, candles, and pictures of Jesus.

Bullies can be nasty, evil people who do lasting harm to their targets; there's no question about that. The bullies in Carrie are a little too over-the-top to be believable. Chris, Nancy Allen's character, doesn't just pick on Carrie because she's an easy victim; she hates Carrie (she tells this to her boyfriend, played by John Travolta, while she's blowing him in the car if that tells you how obsessed with Carrie she is.). No explanation for why she hates Carrie is given in the movie (except that the shower incident got her punished), and her prank crosses the line from mean teenager behavior and goes right into the realm of sociopathic: dump a bucket of pig's blood on her at the prom. Not only does this plan work, but it gets the entire gym (at least from Carrie's perspective) laughing at it as if it's the funniest thing they've ever seen. I can understand a pie in the face or some seltzer water getting some laughs, but I don't buy that everyone at this prom would find seeing a poor girl drenched in blood the least bit funny.

As for Carrie's mother, she's just as cartoonishly over-the-top and fanatical about sin and praying, but at least, I know there are plenty of real people who act that way (just look at the Westboro Baptist Chuch's antics). That said, she's hard to take serious as well; she might as well be Pennywise.

The strength of Carrie is Sissy Spacek's performance. The poor girl goes through so much, you just want to hug her. She experiences shame, humiliation, guilt, hope, anger, and joy, and when she starts to come out of her shell, we're hoping that she's definitely going to stand up for herself, defy her mother, and be happy, and the tragedy of the story is we can see how she almost had it. She was so close to escaping that hell of a life.

De Palma also uses some nifty cinematic techniques. At the prom, he uses split-screen to show Carrie's eyes and the effects of her powers (closing doors, hose running by itself), and it's a great visualization of her telekinesis. He also makes good use of slow motion to create a dream-like texture during some key scenes, like in the epilogue with Sue, and the lead up to the prank. During the latter, you every piece and person involved, and you just want to scream, "Look out!"

Carrie has plenty of features to keep it tethered to the Disco Decade. The fashion and hair styles just scream 70s, and there are a few things the teachers do that would definitely get them fired today (the English teacher mocks Carrie for speaking up while the sympathetic gym teacher slaps Chris). And the less said about the detention montage of the girls being forced to do exercises as punishment, the better.

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