Carrie (1976)

Werewolves, vampires, zombies and a plethora of other supernatural beings are often the antagonistic creature to be feared in a horror film. While thoughts of the supernatural can be frightening, Carrie knows there is something far scarier than any supernatural being: the high school girl. Among the cruelest and craftiest creatures known to man these packs of roaming adolescence have a knack for severe mental trauma to their hapless victims.

Among these victims is Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a homely girl who becomes the brunt of all the other high school girl’s hatred and rage. So great is their venom that the girls gang up on her in the shower, absolutely breaking her already devastated spirit. And even worse is when her own mother rebukes her. A Bible thumping fundamentalist, Margaret White (Piper Laurie) roams around the town condemning the sin and debauchery of the younger generation. Even the tiniest little hints of sexuality or secularization and she releases a sharp blow and a quick reprimand on Carrie.

The horror that plagues Carrie’s life is not supernatural but all too familiar. Bullying is a truly harrowing horror among humans, one that is still prevalent throughout the word. Carrie is bullied physically, spiritually, psychologically and ideologically. It’s easy to write off the horrors of the supernatural but when confronted with real world horrors the scenes are often terrifying. Based on the novel by Stephen King and adapted to the screen by Lawrence D. Cohen, Carrie is filled with a deep understanding of the horror genre and an interesting self-examination.

Margaret White is not just another crazy religious woman, but a representation a real fear among the Christian world, the fear of the world. Outside the walls of her home she speaks of a world of sin in the clutches of Satan. Therefore, when Carrie, against all odds, gets a date for the prom her mother refuses. It’s homogenous to sexual immorality as she is sure the boy is a lustful creature. This couldn’t be farther from the truth as the young man in question, Tommy Ross (William Katt), is a true gentlemen and one of the small handful of decent people in the film.

What Margaret fails to realize is that the horror is not “out there” but insider herself and every other human being. It’s humanity’s potential to be cruel and harsh to each other, as Margaret is to her daughter, that is the true horror. Even the woman who comes to Carrie’s aid after all the girls gang up on her is a bit of a monster herself. Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) decides that the punishment for the girls should be a rough hour of physical exercise.

She hast them out on the field, running in place, doing jumping jacks and straining to complete a single pushup. She’s harsh and cruel to them, yelling insult and showing not the least shred of mercy. Maybe they deserve it, but she returns their cruelty with an equal force of cruelty. It’s a curious scene because director Brian De Palma creates a lengthy montage out of it with a series of panning shots. At first it seems gratuitously long until one picks up on the fact that bit by bit, shot by shot, note by note, the scene is winding down as the strength of these girls dissipates.

There are a number of similar scenes that at first seem self-indulgent until De Palma finally shows his hand. Another similar scene is of Carrie showering in the locker room. The room is steamy and Carrie relishes in the hot water as she slowly and erotically feels over every inch of her body, the camera sparing few details. It plays out like an R-rated soap commercial until the twist comes. Carrie stops and then the scene makes perfect sense as both the audience and Carrie come to the same horrific realization.

And the film has another of similar scenes where De Palma meticulously constructs a scene to a specific payoff. Each detail, each shot has a finely crafted touch the give an intentional effect while seamlessly flowing from scene to scene.  There are few directors who can work scenes like De Palma can and get such spectacular results. Each frame is milked to its maximum potential and there’s not a wasted moment or unnecessary shot throughout.

While it’s meticulously crafted as a horror film, there’s also something beautiful about it. That feeling of carefree youth and young whimsy is captured here. A lot of credit must be given to Sissy Spacek who plays the role with such a timidity and innocence while also being forced to go through an entire spectrum of emotions. Her ability to hook us in early and win our sensibilities goes a long way in making the last act of the film as emotional for her as it is for the audience.

Carrie is one of the most terrifying, masterful and emotional horror films ever made. Stephen King’s knowledge of the horror genre shines through in creative and masterful ways. Brian De Palma takes that knowledge and combines it with his own knowledge of film and meticulously crafts one of the masterworks of the horror genre. Carrie is at the pinnacle of the genre, showing all that horror can be just as serious, relevant, artistic and emotional as any other genre. Those who take horror lightly, or avoid it altogether, would do well to watch Carrie and realize the true power of the genre.

© 2010 James Blake Ewing