After enduring the experience that was Jennifer’s Body, I decided to seek out what was so obviously an inspiration for it, Carrie. Same basic theme, same settings…. yet there is much more technical skill involved in Carrie. But ultimately, I am not sure if I can recommend it fully. But there is so much to like about it…I am even more conflicted than I was about Jennifer’s Body.
The plot takes place in the late 1970s and revolves around a young girl named Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). After having her first period (rather late at the age of 17), she starts to develop psychic powers. Of course, no one takes notice of this, and instead Carrie suffers all sorts of abuse from her peers and especially from her fundamentalist Christian mother (Piper Laurie, who gives among the most frightening performances I have ever seen). A particularly vicious kid is Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen…later on Robocop) and her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta). Carrie is invited to go to the prom with a very popular guy, and eventually accepts. However, Chris is barred from going and blames Carrie. So she plans a prank to humiliate Carrie that ends up going wrong and causes a lot of carnage.
First, as always, the things that I like. Brian DePalma was, at the time, one of the masters of the craft in setting moods and using techniques to tell the story. Often, the film will become split screen in order to get across as many points of view as possible. I believe there is one where we see the POV of Carrie and the POV of the high schoolers at the same time. Both times, what is being seen is a very frightening image. There are several Hitchcockian cuts and camera tricks that people have tried to copy (even outside the realm of horror) but failed. Simply put, it manages to convey the story and the frightened disjointed editing helps audience gain access to Carrie’s fragile psyche. As a technical exercise, the film is masterful, and has rarely been equaled in horror films.
Second, there is so much to like about the performances. Carrie (the character) is not some sort of simplistic stereotype. She seeks what every adolescent seeks; independence from her mother. Of course, her mother is bizarre, but she still feels like a realistic portrait. I would have normally dismissed her constant moralizing and extreme views on religion (in which everything, including the existence of women, is a sin), but I know that such people do exist. Actually, every single person in the film could have, theoretically, existed. In fact, many of the characters here became archetypes in every single teen film of the 1980s. The film is certainly an important step in the portrayal of adolescents on film.
But now, onto what I, not so much didn’t like, but did not understand. From what I know, the film is pretty close to the novel, so maybe the blame should lie more at Stephen King’s doorstep than at Brian DePalma’s, but De Palma couldn’t change it. The simple way to express it is this: the film has no idea whether or not Carrie is the hero or the villain.
There are times when the film is about empowerment that comes with age. At this point, the film is quite good. But in the final ten minutes or so, the film goes dangerously off message. I do not want to give specifics, but they turn one character into a Christ figure when they have no right to be a Christ figure, and then suggest that Carrie should be punished for at least trying to find her own voice and stand up for herself.
Carrie goes out in public and, despite her mother’s objections, tries to fit in with the rest of the youth. Now, this sort of thing could be symbolic of the era in American history which produced the film (then again, it seems like ALL films produced in that era are about the breaking away from traditional conservative thought) but it also is about what every child must eventually do.
So why, oh why, is Carrie punished for it? Why punish the character for daring to reach out? I have no clue whatsoever. The film was going along fine until that very thing happened (you know what I am talking about….you can see it below if you don’t) and then the film suddenly decides that Carrie was wrong.
This is not a bad film by any stretch of the imagination. But I was unsatisfied with it; simply put, there was no reason to turn Carrie into a pariah at the film’s end. Better to have made her accepted. Heck, I can even tolerate a revenge story (which would have reached even deeper into the adolescent feelings of alienation). But to do what they did just feels hollow and, frankly, disconcerting.