I am a big fan of Stephen King’s 1974 novel Carrie. It is a really sharp, taut horror narrative that turned me into a believer of King’s after a couple of failed attempts to get through one of his books. So with that in mind and a remake on the horizon, I felt it was a good time to check out Brian De Palma’s iconic Carrie (1976).
I was really looking forward to this film, Sissy Spacek who is in the title role, is a personal favourite of mine. But unfortunately this was a real let down for me. The opening shower sequence exhibits all of the awkwardness in tone and quality that I think plague much of the film. Initially the scene, of a group of female teenage girls showering, is quite sexually shot with a softness and plenty of frontal nudity including from Spacek. However when the tone shifts (when Carrie has her first period in the shower and has no idea what is happening to her body), the attempt to convey the terror and fear of the moment falls flat. De Palma awkwardly flits from one close-up of a leering, heckling teenager to the next. You can see what he is going for – alpha girls using their numbers to gang up on the ostracised ‘plain’ girl. But he does not get it right, there is none of the menace nor feeling for Carrie that should dominate. This sequence in the book totally established the character of Carrie and her place in her high school society, but it does not achieve the same here.
I know it is folly to refer to the book when discussing a film adaptation, nevertheless I will keep doing so. One of the strengths of the book is how it deals with Carrie’s telekinesis. The true nature of Carrie’s gifts are hinted at and gradually brought in from the shadows by King. De Palma though just slaps you in the face with them from the start. Carrie has TK and it is incredibly powerful. Along with your face getting slapped with that, watching this film will also lead to some self administered forehead slapping, at the sheer stupidity of some of the narrative construction. Possibly the worst of these moments is when Carrie goes to the school library and reads the entry on TK. There is a close-up on the words, a voiceover and everything. Truly terrible. It is not that the film is totally without merit, it is just that I don’t think it is very good. The character of Miss Collins, Carrie’s teacher is a good one, providing the moral compass of the film. As such it might have been nice to have seen a bit more of her character onscreen. The ending for me though was not great, feeling a little rushed. Or maybe the problem was earlier, because when the deathfest got going, it was hard to muster much of a care factor for those meeting their end. Possibly most fatal for a horror film is the fact that anything supernatural or remotely scary is just fumbled entirely. With the honourable exception of a scene right at the end which scared the pants off me. De Palma does also get some kudos for his handling of a couple of elements of the final prom scene. The slow-mo anticipation as the bucket of pig’s blood teeters, and Sue sees what is about to happen for one. Then the really nice use of split-screen during the early parts of the carnage Carrie brings about is also a cool touch.
A really scattershot element of the film, for me at least, was the performances. Sissy Spacek as Carrie is brilliant and she totally acts the pants off everyone else here. When I consider all time great female actors, Spacek is pretty near the top of my list. Piper Laurie plays Carrie’s mother as a totally over the top ‘bible basher’ in what is I think a pretty poor performance. You can see what Laurie in conjunction with De Palma were trying to achieve with it, but the performance just comes across as not at all genuine. But aside from Laurie’s effort, a number of the supporting roles are well performed. Betty Buckley as Carrie’s supportive teacher Miss Collins is really excellent whilst amongst Carrie’s classmates it is Amy Irving as Sue Snell and Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen who stand out. The soundtrack, indeed more broadly the whole sound design, is actually quite unbearable. The music is overly intrusive and emotive whilst the constant terrible ear piercing screeches every time Carrie uses her TK had me reaching for the mute button. The effect intended to hype the power that Carrie yields, is just really ham fisted.
Carrie should be the ultimate high school film, with everything magnified due to the supernatural elements. Unfortunately due to the haphazard production and (mostly) neglected human side of things, it definitely is not.
Verdict: Schooner of Carlton Draught
Great write up! I watched this for the first time recently and I generally enjoyed it. I wrote a pretty lengthy post on it too.
“is quite sexually shot with a softness and plenty of frontal nudity including from Spacek” – I saw this as a link between violence and sexuality, which is often portrayed as being very close. There are a few other instances in which the two seem to be linked through shot juxtaposition, etc.
“when the deathfest got going, it was hard to muster much of a care factor for those meeting their end” – I thought this too. I thought this was interesting because even though Carrie is doing something horrendous, you can’t help but feel for her rather than those she’s killing.
I agree that much of the horror stuff isn’t handled very well up until the last 20 minutes or so. Much of the film plays out like a high school drama. That sped up scene in the suit shop is just horrible!
I’ve not read the book but I’ve been recommended it a few times so I think I’ll have to give it try.
Could you give me the link to your post. I could just go to your site and find it… but you know…
There were a number of linkages between sex and violence, but for me personally I didn’t think there was enough there. And if anything, I thought there was more a focus on Carrie’s sex, rather than the act of sex itself. Misogynist readings of the bible, reactions to menstruation etc etc.
Definitely give the book a read. You should be able to grab a second hand copy. Highly recommended as a holiday/beach book. You can knock it over in 2 or 3 quick sittings (not like a lot of King’s book’s which are utter behemoths).
Oh, I had blocked out that scene in the suit shop. Wow, utterly terrible.
I certainly can – http://terrymalloyspigeoncoop.com/2012/10/31/what-dya-mean-you-havent-seen-carrie/
Yeah I definitely think that it’s largely about her sexuality and her TK is a thinly veiled metaphor for her sexual awakening.
I’ve been told by a few people that the book is pretty good and quite an easy read. Apparently it’s done through witness accounts or something? King’s books normally put me off as they look more like breezeblocks.
Yeah the structure of the book is really interesting. Witness accounts, I think news reports from memory and also like extracts from a textbook or journal on TK. Really cool. I generally avoid King’s huger efforts. Especially because the first couple of his I tried to read were pretty woeful Have you read any of his that you enjoyed.
Thanks for sharing your review. Twas a really fantastic read.
Sounds pretty interesting, will definitely have to check that out.
Cheers man, really appreciate it. Really enjoyed reading your write up too 🙂
Not a bad film, just not put together quite right.
Yeah you’re right. Just seem poorly constructed all round, with some really cringeworthy missteps.
Without Sissy Spacek it would have been Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, but it was still fairly close. Horror films are rarely good in my opinion, unless you are talking about the real spooky stuff like the Shining 😀
I do love me some Sissy Spacek. Such a brilliant actress.
I actually really like horror films. Though I generally stick to the old school, really iconic stuff. But it is a genre I am increasingly getting into.
Hammer House of Horror, now that was good 😀
I haven’t seen this film in years, I remember liking it, but I definitely need to re-watch it. I’m not excited at all for the remake, although I did quite like the teaser trailer.
I’m not too enthused for the remake either. Though I will probably check it out. Both because I am such a massive fan of the book and because I think Chloe Moretz is one of the more interesting young actors around these days.
Thankyou sir. Have you seen it?
Not yet. Maybe just before the remake comes out.
“With the honourable exception of a scene right at the end which scared the pants off me. ”
Was it the hand? It was the hand wasn’t it?
Great write-up, even if 13-year-old me completely disagrees with you. I loved almost everything about this movie, except its pacing. I had forgotten about the voice-over reading in the library though.
Oh it was so very much the hand.
That hand is crazy isn’t it? I mean, I knew it was coming, and still… BAM. Practically jumped out of my seat.