Forty years ago, Sissy Spacek terrorized audiences in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976): the movie that unequivocally proves “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”; particularly if the gal in question possesses untapped wellsprings of telekinetic rage roiling from within. With each passing year, Carrie just seems to acquire a more richly disturbing patina, going well beyond the movie land clichés of a good horror flick, lending its genuinely spooky ‘charm’ to the perennially renewable social anxieties afflicting most adolescent girls, while disturbingly tinged in troupes and allegories more aligned with the Shakespearean (or even classical Greek) tragedy than the shock-and-schlock trappings generally associated with vintage celluloid scares. The real sadness here is derived from the fact our protagonist (or antagonist, depending on one’s point of view) desires nothing more, or even better, than simply to be accepted by her peers, found attractive by the boys, and, to be loved by her own mother.
Unhappy circumstance then – and regrettably, not just for Carrie White, that in this topsy-turvy world, she is doomed to remain the mousy and abused frump of this set piece; a social outcast, brutalized by the more sexually aware graduating class, ignored by callous school administrators like Principal Morton (Stefan Gierasch) who chronically, and rather irritatingly, refers to her as ‘Cassie’, and micromanaged in her burgeoning sexuality by an evangelical nut job and real gargoyle of a mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie in a wickedly bizarre and effectively theatrical performance), whose warped sense of Christianity includes condemning Carrie’s perfectly natural interests in boys as sinful, infrequently beating her down with the ‘good book’ into tears of submission, and dragging her by the hair to a locked closet where a makeshift altar to the Almighty has been erected. Pray for forgiveness – Carrie. Or is it prey? Oh, what Carrie White might have been if only someone in her social sphere had taken a more proactive, even a casual interest in her welfare. But no – and henceforth, the girl no one thinks much of (if, indeed, they consider her at all) begins to unearth more demonic forces from within; the ability to command with the power of her thoughts alone.
Carrie was author, Stephen King’s fourth attempt at a novel – his first to be published, and written – arguably, from hunger – in a trailer on a portable typewriter belonging to his wife Tabatha. Initially, King had hoped to sell the concept as a short story to Cavalier Magazine for some quick cash; the premise, about a girl accidentally discovering her period in the high school locker room showers, thereafter pelted with sanitary napkins by a small contingent of her leering/laughing peers, triggering a telekinetic episode to kill everyone. Although at least a part of this scenario would survive the final draft, King hated what he had written thus far, and scrapped the idea entirely for the time being. Compositing the central character from two girls he had known in high school, King eventually expanded upon his thumbnail premise into an epistolary account of a terrible ‘incident’ having taken place in a small town; the investigating commission into an unexplained night of terror reviewed through a series of interrogative interviews conducted with survivors leading to a series of flashbacks fleshing out the rest of the narrative. In re-conceptualizing the story for the screen, screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen jettisoned nearly all of this back-and-forth structure in the book, concentrating entirely on retelling the events in the present, presumably as they occurred. He also set aside an earlier draft of the screenplay in favor of starting from scratch.
Originally, Carrie was to have been made for 2oth Century-Fox; Cohen, enamored with King’s story, working feverishly to iron out its various kinks and create a more cinematic approach to the material, only to be told in the eleventh hour of his creative outpouring, the studio had decided to put the movie into ‘turnaround’ – code, for basically killing the piece without actually relinquishing the rights…just in case. Heart sore, Cohen, who had come to New York with dreams of becoming a film and theater critic, instead moved out west: first, to Arizona, then California, working on other projects including Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore; though never entirely to forget about Carrie. Indeed, after the deal with Fox fell through, Cohen was to heavily campaign to find Carrie a new home; pounding on mostly closed doors at Warner Bros. and Universal. As fate would have it, Cohen would read sketchy details about someone having optioned the rights to King’s book. Believing himself to be out of the loop, Cohen went on, rather unenthusiastic, searching for his next writing gig. No producer satisfied until a chance meeting with Paul Monash revealed to Cohen he was the guy who had optioned Carrie in addition to a slew of other properties. Monash had all but revolutionized the TV prime time soap opera with TV’s adaptation of Peyton Place. He had also produced Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) – one of Cohen’s favorite movies and was to prove a positive influence on Cohen; both men agreeing an earlier draft of the screenplay Monash had commissioned was an unmitigated disaster in desperate need of a rewrite. Hence, when Fox turned down the option to make the picture, Monash and Cohen were contacted by Marcia Nasatir; newly appointed as VP at United Artists. In her previous job as a senior publisher Nasatir had acted as the agent responsible for promoting Stephen King’s novel. Now, she green lit the film project almost sight unseen. With a few stipulations, mostly to keep a tight rein on the budget, Cohen and Monash were basically left to their own accord to pursue the talent they wanted.
Yet, their initial meeting with Brian De Palma did not go at all according to plan; De Palma more aloof than intrigued and bringing absolutely nothing to the discussion; instead, listening rather intently to the project pitch from the other side. With time running out on their option, Monash agreed to hire De Palma and, in hindsight, the director would come to illustrate an indispensable artistic flair as well as becoming the glue to keep cast and crew motivated and happily working together. Of the other early casting choices, P.J. Soles (as the smarmy tart, Norma), Nancy Allen (the deliciously wicked Chris Hargensen), Amy Irving (Sue Snell), John Travolta (Billy Nolan) and William Katt (Tommy Ross) were inspired; particularly Irving, as the only girl other than Carrie to show her sensitive side; hence, to suffer the fateful affliction of forever being plagued by horrific nightmares. For a bit of verisimilitude, De Palma also cast Irving’s real-life mother, Priscilla Pointer, to play Sue’s mom. In hiring Betty Buckley - a personal friend - for the part of gym teacher, Miss Collins, De Palma instructed Cohen to expand upon what had only been a walk-on part in his first draft. Cohen willingly complied, adding a veneer of empathy and compassion to this ‘tough-as-nails’ educator. The success of the picture, however, squarely lay on the actress yet to be cast in the lead. In accepting the role, Sissy Spacek knew two things; first, she would have to do her first ‘nude scene’ and second, she would be required to summon an as yet untapped courage to connect with the abject rage her character unleashes during the film’s pièce de résistance; a fatal firestorm on prom night inside the high school’s gymnasium.
Monash had sincerely hoped to entice composer, Bernard Herrmann into writing the score for Carrie. Herrmann’s legendary career dated all the way back to the forties, his collaborations with Hitchcock (and their equally as infamous fallout on the set of Marnie 1964) only adding to Herrmann’s reputation as one of the premiere masters in the medium. Alas, Herrmann died while still working on the score for Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976); Monash turning to composer, Pino Donaggio in his stead. There are moments in Carrie that belie Donaggio being influenced – or perhaps ‘encouraged’ by De Palma and Monash to find his own ‘Herrmann-esque’ sound; the most transparent of these cues, polite riffs pilfered from the shower scene in Psycho (1960), and the love theme from Vertigo (1959). Nevertheless, Donaggio, who spoke almost as little English as De Palma did Italian, managed to find an intermediary/interpreter in cinematographer, Mario Tosi – who spoke both languages enough for each man to understand his translations. In retrospect, the ever-evolving mood of Carrie primarily derives from Donaggio’s darkly textured underscore. Even the melodic central theme of ‘innocence’ possesses a few dissident chords to effectively suggest something is not quite right, only moments before Carrie White experiences her first menstruation cycle while showering in the girl’s locker room.
Carrie begins unexpectedly, even unconventionally for a horror movie with a scene of complete normalcy; a school yard volleyball tournament in which the losing point is made by viciously lobbing the ball to Carrie White; the poster child for clumsy/awkward adolescence. We regress to the high school locker room and showers; De Palma shooting an almost bacchanalian revelry in slo-mo; the girls in various stages of undress, casually frolicking among themselves, a light steam from the showers lingering in the air to add a softer, diffused glow to these stolen moments. While far too many horror movies, particularly those made throughout the 1970's used nudity gratuitously, merely to titillate the audience with a sort of cheaply erotic ‘art house’ feel to be turned asunder, the nakedness in these introductory moments appears indigenous to the unanticipated early ‘shock’ that immediately follows; Carrie, suffering through her very first menstruation in the most excruciatingly humiliating way. Unaware of her body’s natural cycle, Carrie panics and reaches out with blood-stained hands to the group who discover an almost orgasmic pleasure instead in pelting Carrie with a myriad of tampons, dirty washcloths and clean towels, chanting for her to ‘stuff it up’ until Miss Collins breaks up their insidious hazing by first slapping, then embracing a thoroughly shell-shocked Carrie taken into her arms. The incident causes a light bulb overhead to unexpectedly burst. The girls disband.
Carrie is next taken to Mr. Morton’s office by Miss Collins who gingerly explains the situation. Morton is surprised a girl of Carrie’s years could be so biologically naïve. But Collins assures Morton she is not one bit surprised, given Margaret White’s staunch opinions on human sexuality, unabashedly regarded as sinful and dangerous. While the rest of the community thinks Margaret is a religious fanatic, in Carrie’s case she may be onto something; the girl’s hormonal imbalance unexpectedly unbridling her ability to inflict revenge on those who have wronged her. Henceforth, when a paperboy on his bicycle taunts Carrie on her long walk home with “creepy Carrie” her steely-eyed glances are enough to cause the wheels of his bike to go out from under him, the child toppling in a heap on a neighbor’s front lawn – good for a startle, and a lesson: do not mess with Carrie White! Yet, whatever shame Carrie has suffered cruelly at school decidedly pales to the rigors and mortification endured at the hands of her own mother at home; accusing the girl of sins she has yet to commit, striking her down on her knees with the Bible, locking her inside a closet (converted into a makeshift shrine to Jesus), and confining the girl elsewhere and otherwise in her spare time to several decidedly claustrophobic rooms inside their tiny and darkly lit home; blinds drawn to keep out the sunlight. Margaret believes she is doing God’s work. But Carrie is frightened, alone and friendless.
Miss Collins lays down the law to the rest of the girls responsible for the shower hazing incident. She informs them of her initial plan, to get Mr. Morton to renege on their prom tickets and suspend them from school for three weeks. The girls breathe a heavy sigh of relief as Morton has not agreed to these terms. However, he has agreed to allow Miss Collins to supervise their week long detention period, during which she puts this menacing sorority through the paces on the athletic field. When Chris Hargensen, one of the chief instigators of the locker room assault, defiantly resists to partake in these grueling calisthenics, she incurs Collins’ wrath; Collins walloping Chris but good and for all to see. This sets Chris upon a path of revenge, not against Collins, but Carrie White. In the meantime, fellow participant in the hazing, Sue Snell, has begun to have second thoughts. In fact, her guilt is both genuine and heartfelt. Thus, she asks her boyfriend, Tommy Ross – the most popular jock at school – to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. Tommy is initially reluctant. But he respects Sue enough to go along with her plan to make recompense to Carrie for her actions in the shower. Carrie is less convinced of their altruism. Indeed, she believes Tommy has been sent to humiliate her once again. And, in some ways, this is true as Chris and her boyfriend, Billy Nolan have already begun to hatch a diabolical plot to wreck Carrie’s supreme moment of triumph at the prom.
Taking fresh pig’s blood from a local slaughterhouse, Billy and Chris rig a bucket over the stage where the king and queen of the prom will be crowned; convincing their friends to cast their ballots for Carrie White and Tommy Ross; the trap, camouflaged by a barrage of prom decorations suspended from the ceiling overhead. Getting word her daughter is attending the prom with a boy, Margaret commands Carrie not to go. But the girl has learned to momentarily harness her supernatural powers. When Margaret pleads, confessing to Carrie about her own terrible ‘experience’ with Carrie’s father, she throws herself into another evangelic diatribe. But this time, Carrie unleashes her more ominous will on the shuttered windows and doors, barring her mother’s exit from the room and adding, “I’m going, mama.” The stage is set for a memorable night; Tommy’s arrival in a rented powder blue tux compounded by his pleasant surprise at discovering the usually mousy Carrie miraculously transformed into a rather startling vision of innocence and beauty; a real classy prom date. Tommy is the perfect gentleman. Perhaps he has underestimated Carrie’s virginal appeal. No one is more pleased by this turn of events than Miss Collins, who earlier suspected Tommy and Sue of conspiring to wound Carrie yet again, either by playing a cruel joke by not showing up after being asking to the prom, or by pulling some cheap stunt in front of the other classmates once they have arrived to the gymnasium and made their entrance.
But even Miss Collins is surprised by how well Carrie and Tommy go together. He coaxes Carrie out from her shell, getting her to partake in a spin around the dance floor. Back at the table, Miss Collins tells Carrie about her own prom; the last bit of lighthearted camaraderie this evening will bear. It is time to crown a prom king and queen. As Chris and Billy have already assured the magic couple of the hour will be Carrie and Tommy, they make their way to the podium to receive their just rewards. Each is given a crown to wear and Carrie is handed a bouquet of roses and a sash to mark the event. But this perfect moment is shattered, De Palma cross-cutting between a slow-mo pan of the applauding attendees, and, Sue, suddenly coming to realize there is a mysterious bucket precariously teetering over the stage with a rope tied to it. Before she can alert Miss Collins to her discovery, Chris, hiding under the stage with Billy, gives the rope its fateful tug. The bucket is overturned, raining down pig’s blood (actually corn syrup and red dye) onto the newly christened prom queen as Tommy and the others look on. The bucket becomes dislodged and strikes Tommy in the head, rendering him unconscious. Carrie White’s worst fears have been realizes, the audience suddenly bursting forth with laughter as she shrieks in despair. However, no one is amused when Carrie commands the auditorium doors and windows bolted shut with her mind power; willing a fire hose to begin pulverizing the party guests with a penetrating blast of water.
The deluge inside the auditorium is De Palma’s tour de force; employing split screen images to simultaneously illustrate Carrie White’s intent and the very concrete net results from her wicked thoughts. As panic and fear grips the prom attendees, Mr. Morton and English teacher, Mr. Fromm (Sydney Lassick) attempt to gain some semblance of order; fighting for the stage microphone, only to be electrocuted in their efforts by Carrie’s spiteful telekinesis. Next, Carrie turns her thought-concentrated venom onto Norma (P.J. Soles suffered a punctured eardrum for real during this stunt); then, Miss Collins, severed in half by a basketball backboard as Chris and Billy look on from a safe distance. Setting off a firestorm inside the auditorium, Carrie manages to incinerate her classmates while calmly exiting the building; De Palma, slowing down the camera to add a thoroughly eerie panache to this carnage. Chris and Billy chase down Carrie White in Billy’s muscle car; Chris, intending to run over Carrie. At the last possible moment, Carrie commands the speeding vehicle to swerve out of control and tip onto its side; flipping over and over again before bursting into flames with Chris and Billy still inside. Back at home, Carrie pleads for her mother’s love and forgiveness. Margaret seemingly is ready to give it, softly caressing her daughter’s hair. But suddenly, she reaches for the kitchen carving knife, plunging its blade into Carrie’s back. In retaliation, Carrie commands the rest of the utensils to impale her mother; a cleaver, various knives, scissors and a potato peeler, all implanting themselves into Margaret’s body until she is quite dead. Having sinned against her own flesh, the wrath turns inward and befalls Carrie White; the house around her suddenly imploding, rocked from its hinges and finally set ablaze by her uncontrollable telekinesis.
We discover only Sue Snell survived the nightmarish ordeal; though now heavily sedated and still suffering from unspeakable hallucinations, having left her almost catatonic. As Mrs. Snell is comforted by a concerned friend on the telephone, De Palma regresses the audience into an almost hypnotic trance from Sue’s bedroom into her overly active imagination; trailing in a long white gown with a memorial bouquet of flowers to the empty lot where the White house once stood. However, as Sue kneels down to place her ceremonial flowers next to the ‘For Sale’ sign (in the shape of a cross that someone has spray-painted with the words ‘Carrie White burns in hell’) Carrie’s blood-soaked hand emerges from the earth, attempting to drag Sue to the netherworld she has been exiled; Sue stirred in fitful shrieks from her slumber as Mrs. Snell finds she is powerless to quell or even comfort her daughter’s precarious mental state. The inference is that while the ordeal may be over its memory will continue to infest the last survivor until she is quite mad and in need of chronic institutionalization. No one has actually escaped Carrie White’s wrath.
Carrie is one of the most unconventional horror movies ever made; chiefly because it neither preys on the audience for its traditional thirty-second scares, nor saturates the screen with increasing amounts of blood and guts. The strength of the piece is wisely centered on the tragic elements, and, pitying this seemingly unwitting participant who conjures up a night of unspeakable terror, almost as an afterthought, rather than as premeditated motivation to avenge herself. Hence, there is no ‘monster’ to fear; only a young girl’s painful sadness to endure. It is the pathos of the piece that gets to the audience every time and in all likelihood remains the reason Carrie is prescient as a cultural artifact these past forty years. The 1970’s truly were the last golden age for ‘horror’ in American cinema. From 1980 onward, almost without fail, the focus shifts from spooky good chills to increasingly violent depictions (disembowelment, decapitations, and every other conceivably perverse mutilation known to mankind, etc. et al); a real Ginsu-gallery chop-shop of body parts flung at the screen with indiscretion and a thorough absence of respect for the audience. Real horror is not conjured by assaulting the mind in abject explicitness and ever-mounting graphic details. And once begun, the onslaught cannot be stemmed, much less reversed. The carnage must therefore exponentially balloon and become increasingly more tasteless, grotesque and even injurious to our collective sensibilities for basic human decency, desensitizing and dehumanizing the audience until even the truly repugnant behavior anesthetizes and/or appears as mere par for the course of what we have paid to see.
Carrie is entirely that proverbial ‘horse of a different color’; a bone-chilling exercise in the implosion of a young girl’s sense of self, already skewed by her mother’s contorted moral decency. The depictions of death and destruction capping off Carrie’s flawed triumph at the prom exhibit an unusual restraint; De Palma’s passion for using the split screen to its utmost effectiveness, illustrating multiple views of the same disaster afoot. The incineration of the graduating class is implied rather than shown; the flames kept a safe distance from the extras; the penultimate shot of Carrie White exiting the gymnasium in slo-mo, as hellish shrieks are heard echoing above the sound of licking flames, accompanied by Pino Donaggio’s ominous underscore, is enough to implant an infinitely more graphic image in the mind’s eye of these revelers being burnt alive than actually seeing even one charred body fall to the ground. Any burgeoning film maker today endeavoring to shoot a horror movie ought to take a master class in deconstructing this moment and its series of cleverly placed visuals De Palma first story-boarded to maximize our heart-pounding fear and anxiety.
Sissy Spacek gives one of her top two best performances in this movie (the other, I would sincerely argue, in Coal Miner’s Daughter 1980); wholly believable as the terrorized waif assaulted in the locker room shower, yet even more astonishingly believable as the incendiary telekinetic powerhouse, channeling her energies to harness the darkness from within. Spacek has produced an extraordinary portrait of martyred adolescent uncertainty; De Palma cribbing from Stephen King’s perverse paralleling of a young girl’s budding into womanhood with the self-destructive fury of a Medusa unable to control these latent impulses. Like all truly great representations of ‘monsters’, we can feel a modicum of empathy for Carrie White. She might have turned out alright with a little TLC to recommend her or become just another innocuous face in the crowd, baking cookies for the PTA, putting daisies in her hair, or marrying a simple guy from the sticks who really loved her. Alas, Carrie’s fate is destined to destroy her. She cannot help herself, and we in turn cannot help but quietly watch as she turns that pinnacle of her social success into a night of unspeakably pleasant, blood-thirsty revenge.
Previously available on Blu-ray from MGM/UA Home Video, and later, Fox/MGM Home Video, all previous incarnations of Carrie were derived from a basic hi-def scan of an existing print master with a few auto-tuned adjustments made before exporting the image to disc. The results, while head and shoulders above DVD, were not entirely pleasing; pinkish flesh tones and an artificial brightening of the image and/or boosting of contrast levels. Well, you can retire these discs for good, because Shout!/Scream Factory’s new ‘collector’s edition’ Blu-ray has been derived from a brand new 4K scan from the original camera negative and the results are nothing short of breathtaking. Not only are we privy to hosts of previously unseen fine details in skin, hair, and background information, but the necessary color timing and correction has been applied to produce a far more natural and appealing spectrum; in particular, flesh tones. Contrast has been brought into line. The image, while considerably darker than before, has not suffered from untoward tinkering, but reveals minute tonal differences in Mario Tosi’s exquisite cinematography. Colors are fully saturated; the gaudy reds, greens and blues of prom night perfectly aligned with the orange flicker of flames rising to engulf the proscenium. Truly, Carrie has never looked better on home video and both Shout! and MGM (for providing this new scan) are to be commended for the efforts put forth herein. Shout! offers us two audio options: a new 5.1 DTS remaster and the original mono mix. I actually prefer the vintage mono, although the 5.1 offers impressive spatial separation between dialogue, SFX and Pino Donaggio’s underscore.
Shout! has favored us with an overwhelming amount of extras on a separate disc. I want to champion this as I would much prefer every future hi-def release from every studio to maximize its bit rate on the feature film. Disc Two of this Collector’s Edition (a moniker truly deserved herein) contains new and extensive interviews with writer, Lawrence Cohen, editor, Paul Hirsch, actors, Piper Laurie, P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, William Katt and Edie McClurg; also, casting director, Harriet B. Helberg, Mario Tosi and Pino Donaggio. Also new to this release is Horror’s Hallowed Grounds, hosted by Sean Clark, who explores the actual locations used in the movie. Shout! has also gained access to several featurettes MGM produced for the old DVD SE. Nothing has been done to clean-up or stabilize the image in these featurettes; a pity, since they feature some impressive interviews with Sissy Spacek, Art Director, Jack Fisk, De Palma and others who did not partake in these new interviews for this re-release. Aside: I hesitate even using the word ‘re-release’ to describe Shout!’s disc, because what we have here is a re-envisioning of Carrie on home video; a sincere upgrade worthy of a double dip. Finally, we get a few new featurettes devoted to Carrie’s afterlife; the several turgid movie remakes that have come along since but failed to catch even the tail fires of the original for sheer staying power and longevity; also, Carrie – the musical; a rather ridiculous premise that has nevertheless more recently developed its own cult following. Oh well, I suppose there is no accounting for personal taste…especially if you have none. Finally, we have a rare ‘behind-the scenes’ photo gallery and text essay on Stephen King and the evolution of Carrie, plus theatrical trailers and TV spots to sift through. Bottom line: Shout! Factory has done their homework on this release. Carrie: Collector’s Edition is a must have for any horror aficionado. Very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)