by Molly Adams Film Kicking the Canon

Carrie | Brian de Palma

Credit: Everett

Adapted from Stephen King’s slim debut novella, Brian De Palma’s Carrie is perhaps the quintessential modern witch narrative. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a bullied teenager raised by a terrifyingly devout mother, gets her first period in her high school locker room. Her classmates torment her, pelting her with sanitary products and shrieking “Plug it up!,” not knowing that alongside her menstruation has come a burgeoning telekinetic power, and that Carrie’s revenge for years of bullying is imminent. But what could have been a simple revenge narrative becomes something else thanks to the glimmers of hope present between this initial incident and the final cruelty she suffers. Remorseful for her actions, Sue Snell takes pity on Carrie and encourages her boyfriend Tommy to take her to the prom in Sue’s place, giving Carrie a glimpse of genuine affection and simultaneously triggering Carrie’s final indignity. And so, ultimately, Carrie is a tragedy. Her first humiliation, hands covered in menstrual blood, is mere prelude to her final one, as she stands covered top-to-toe in the blood of her enemies, innocent or not. 

As a character study of sorts, Carrie is held together by its leading actress’ magnetic performance, the genius of which comes in just how genuinely exasperating she makes Carrie. Early on, her phys-ed coach comments bitterly on how much she just wants to shake Carrie and force her to stand up for herself (which she does — ah, the halcyon days of casual corporal punishment), and Spacek’s performance is such that it’s sometimes far too easy to agree with this brute. When Carrie runs, shrieking, out of the showers with her hands covered in blood, grasping for any help she can, of course the instant reaction should be pity, but without the benefit of adulthood empathy, the girls here are left with only revulsion, an instinct that Spacek’s performance continues to ingeniously draw out across the film. As this scene continues, rather than simply walking from place to place seeking aid, Spacek lurches through the high school, practically demanding attention even as Carrie tries to stay invisible, and she adopts a gormless expression for the film’s entire first half that infuriates. Even the slow, dragging way she speaks conjures pity and irritation in equal measure, and though we know her treatment is entirely unfair, viewers will also also recognize this type intimately: she’s the type of person whose victimhood seems almost predetermined, inevitable. Spacek’s entire demeanor is so placid and guileless that anyone familiar with the unique nastiness of teenagers will see Carrie exactly as her tormentors do: as prey, wandering defenseless.

De Palma’s supporting cast matches Spacek’s striking performance, with the most obvious example being Piper Laurie’s performance as Mrs White, Carrie’s mother. Even despite her relatively limited screen time, Laurie owns every scene she’s in, varying from quiet menace to delightfully over-the-top, campy rage that perfectly matches De Palma’s aesthetic sensibilities in Carrie. Mrs. White’s is a claustral home, filled with church-like architecture and a statue of St Sebastian looming over them, and De Palma lets none of his symbolism miss the mark, explicitly making clear exactly what he means and what his characters are dealing with through his images. While critics might deride Carrie for being far too obvious in such themes and symbolic gesturing, within the histrionics of the film’s setting and mood, De Palma’s constant shouting to the cheap seats doesn’t feel out of place like it might in a more somber and serious horror flick.

All of these melodramatic performances set the stage perfectly for De Palma’s show-stopping final act — the prom scene. Here, Spacek strips back her performance, keeping Carrie nervous and inhibited, but allowing her to at last seem more human and, indeed, normal than before, only adding to the sense of tragedy. The prom, which constitutes the entire final act of the film, is, understandably, the most widely remembered part of Carrie, even beyond camp-classic performances, and De Palma carefully lays his foundations throughout. He borrows the high-pitch strings of his score straight out of Hitchcock’s Psycho, lays a breadcrumb trail of hints as to the extent of Carrie’s powers, and creates a world where her prom night outburst doesn’t necessarily feel out of nowhere. De Palma uses every flashy trick in the book in this final act, throwing split-screens, dramatic zooms, and rolling cameras at the wall to see what would stick. To a 21st-century audience, maybe not all of it will, and the campiness of Carrie might be dismissed (or underappreciated) by more cynical viewers, but the rapid-fire pacing and sensory overload, though flashy, speaks to and reflects Carrie’s experience, overwhelmed and learning as she goes. Despite the brief detour into gut-wrenching sincerity during Carrie’s final scene with her mother (a scene better witnessed than described), De Palma stays true to his bold vision to the end, all heightened drama and delightfully cheesy flourishes, even bringing Carrie out of her grave for one final, eternally famous jump-scare.


Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.

In Review | Online film and music criticism