The eternal question for me: is Brian De Palma a total hack or kind of a genius? He fits squarely into both categories, but Carrie, based off of Stephen King’s novel and featuring the famous image of Sissy Spacek soaked in a bloody prom dress is most definitely the latter.
Aside from Sisters, Hi, Mom! and Blow Out, this might be his best work. What’s great about Carrie is that it’s often mentioned in the same breath as other classics of 1970s American Horror. Halloween was made two years later, Friday the 13th four. Last House on the Left was in 1972, The Hills Have Eyes in 1977. A small sampling, sure, but these films are emblematic of the evolution of American horror, which turned from the psychological to the gory, from scares to terror, from lurking horror to maniacal stalkers, from fun to nasty.
Carrie – ostensibly a (prescient) story about bullying where the titular protagonist wreaks telepathic havoc on her classmates after being publicly humiliated at the prom – fits many of the above modes, but it’s really an anomaly for its decade/era.
Similar to a Friday the 13th, Carrie does play on the sexuality of teenagers (see the opening slow-motion, girls’ locker room scene), but its coming-of-age analogy is far more complex than simple “having sex gets you killed” theorizing that would become prevalent in the late 70s and into the 80s.
In the examples mentioned above (small SPOILER…though I doubt these will shock anyone) the killers are a vengeful parent, a homicidally disturbed boy, and random passers-by. In short, these are killers whose strongest motive (in Friday the 13th) is indirect and misplaced over years of mania. Carrie, on the other hand, is sympathetic (more so than the oft-talked about sympathetic killers of Last House) and the entire film is her motivation to the point that, when we reach the climax and that bucket of blood comes tumbling down, we not only root for her rampage, but also take more pleasure in it than she does.
Carrie’s narrative is basically split into three parts: the first segment is not only introduction to the characters, the problem and Carrie’s powers, but also the analogy that will be fulfilled in act three. Carrie has her first period in the shower in the locker room. De Palma shoots this sexually, in extreme-slow-motion. He places the camera just at her thighs – in a moment of boyish, adolescent peering, complete with a shot of ‘dropping the soap’, not uncommon to shots that litter his filmography – and, as the water turns to blood, suddenly snaps us out of the slow-motion and into a horrifying reality.
Compare that with the end of the analogy. After Carrie has been covered in pig’s blood she comes home and again we have a sequence where she bathes. This time it’s in the bathtub. There’s no slow-motion. The only slightly charged shot is a close-up of her reaching for the soap (which recalls the earlier scene). The camera is much wider and, when it does go in for a close-up, it stays behind her head. The comparison is clear: through the real (having her period) and the fictional symbolism (killing everyone), Carrie has become a woman. She’s all grown up. She’s no longer a virginal (in the “” sense of the word) young thing acting in some Porkys-esque voyeur comedy, but is instead a woman who, if an object of desire, is such in a much more mature way.
There’s really no violence in Carrie for 80 of its 98 minutes. The second part, is teen-comedy. De Palma uses techniques including fast-motion, faces comically popping into frame, and a hilarious amount of high-school-girl reaction shots. Aside from the creepy sequences in Carrie’s house, the entire middle of the film reallocates it from horror/sci-fi to teen/coming-of-age story. There’s the requisite amount of plotting (including said pig’s blood), but even that, with it’s beer-drinking John Travolta at the helm and over-done, nearly unbelievable rigging (tying a bucket to a rafter, stuffing the prom queen ballots) is more clean hijinks than true foreshadow for a (literal and figurative) blood bath.
Of course, the foreshadow is unnecessary if we have a) paid attention for the opening 15 minutes and b) know the source material or author. The third part then, where all hell breaks loose, is both a stunning genre transition and audience wish-fulfillment/catharsis. The problem – a good problem – with Carrie is that this wish-fulfillment goes overboard when Carrie kills the one person at the prom who was sympathetic to her. In that instant, when Carrie telepathically brings a table down onto Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) we are finally, and perhaps for the first time in the entire film, truly inside Carrie’s head, where pleasure in the revenge is mixed with an all-out horror at the act.
What this all adds up to is a tweaking of sympathies throughout. This is the most I’ve rooted for a character in a film in a long time. I want that catharsis, too. De Palma’s direction of the moments just before the bucket tips over – a series of point-of-view shots and slow-motion – really raise the tension to an unbearable level. When De Palma fails it’s often because of his tendency towards heavy-handedness: an operatic style featuring a roving, one-take camera, strung-together shots that expand time. Carrie is the perfect vehicle for these aesthetics, as De Palma’s camera cannot possibly ham it up more than the entire second act already does.