The original 'Carrie' is the movie that made me want to be a critic

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Image Credit: Everett Collection

The release of Kimberly Peirce’s faithful, solid, efficient, and therefore essentially pointless remake of Carrie gives me the opportunity to look back at the 1976 original, which is still one of my favorite films — and, in fact, one of the most important movies of my life. It’s one of the two films, the other being Robert Altman’s Nashville, that made me want to be a critic. And that’s because Carrie did more than thrill, frighten, and captivate me; it sent a volt charge through my system that rewired my imagination, showing me everything that movies could be. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Carrie, at my local mall the day after Thanksgiving. I was a teenage geek who was fast on his way to becoming a movie freak (in this culture, we all need a role, and that would be mine). But I was still finding my way in cinema world, so even though the film had been out for close to a month, I knew nothing about it. I hadn’t read any reviews; I had never heard of the director, Brian De Palma, or Stephen King, whose 1974 novel the movie was based on, or any of the actors.

The opening moments were like a hallucination — all those teenage girls horsing around in slow motion in a high school locker room, and then pale, freckled Carrie (Sissy Spacek), lost in a private reverie in the shower, caressing her skin and dropping the soap and getting her period for the first time, which makes her think that she’s dying. It’s a completely shocking, horrific sequence, yet it was set up with lushly tender and swelling orchestral music (by Pino Donaggio) that sounded like it came out of the most sentimental Hollywood love story ever made. It was as if Carrie was trying to freak you out and, at the same time, make you swoon over how freaked out you were getting. The whole movie was like that. It was the strangest, most exhilarating thing: a googly-eyed romantic teen-dream-turned-nightmare. Watching Carrie, I felt like I was being lured right into the action on screen, and that feeling never let go. As memorable as the whole experience was, though, if I want to be totally true to that first viewing, I can hardly overstate the importance of the film’s great shocker of a trick ending. I didn’t just jump, I stood up in my seat with terror and felt a tremor go through my soul.

Emerging from the theater, I knew how powerfully Carrie had affected me, but I had no real idea why. Even the ending carried a tingle of mystery: I’d been scared by other big shock moments in horror films — why did the fear factor of this one cut so deeply? From that first viewing, the movie possessed me, and somehow, I had to understand what it was about Carrie that had gotten into my system. And so I thought about the movie. All the time. And went back to see it. Again and again. And even tried to write about it (badly). I was trying to figure out why the movie possessed me, and in doing so, without knowing it, I was becoming a critic.

Today, something that strikes me about Carrie is that the movie has carved out a place in film history without ever really getting full credit for being the pop masterpiece it is. For many people, it’s a beloved film, yet when you read about it, Carrie gets described with words like “cult classic” or “creepy horror movie” that somehow reduce it. And I don’t think I’m just speaking out of my own personal nostalgia for what a seismic movie it was for me. The singularity of Carrie, and the reason that film history has never completely known how to classify or to judge it, is that the film is so many different things at once. It is — yes — a brazen high school horror movie, and also a comedy with roots in the teensploitation junk of the early ’70s. It’s also a rapturously lyrical Cinderella-goes-to-the-prom fairy tale that holds its sincerity up to the light, mercilessly mocks it, and still, somehow, believes in it. It’s also a tale of telekinesis — the ingenious special-effects-driven saga of a loser secretly empowered to move objects by her own repressed rage.

That would be more than enough for most movies. But the key to Carrie‘s power as a drama is the relationship between Carrie, the mousy-girl wallflower, and her raging, repressed Evangelical mother, played by Piper Laurie as a woman who asserts the force of “goodness” with so much tyrannical passion that she turns it into evil. In 1976, Bible Belt Christianity was just beginning its rise into the cultural hot zone of America (the first Evangelical president, Jimmy Carter, was elected the day before Carrie was released). But in movies, made on the mostly secular liberal coasts, Christian true believers were routinely mocked, and you can feel that primal mockery in Carrie: The character of Margaret White is a hysteric who uses the “love” in Christianity as a vicious weapon with which to beat back her own (and her daughter’s) sexuality. And yet, just because there’s a dimension of satire in the portrayal of Carrie’s wretched, candle-burning, prayer-in-the-closet home life doesn’t mean that this relationship is a joke. As written and acted, it’s like the destructive mother-daughter bond in The Glass Menagerie, only heightened, staged in an operatic frenzy, with the rage and fear and erotic tension boiling up and spilling over the sides. The weirdest thing about Carrie is that it has a built-in dimension of camp and kitsch, with Piper Laurie as a kind of fire-and-brimstone Mommie Dearest, yet the way that Laurie’s towering psycho-diva acting plays off Sissy Spacek’s trembly, forlorn, so-vulnerable-it’s-almost-naked performance is the opposite of kitsch. No horror film I can think of has such a molten emotional core.

Here are a few other thoughts I have about Carrie:

It remains Brian De Palma’s greatest film. Many would disagree, for the cult of De Palma is vast and wide. Quentin Tarantino has cited Blow Out as one of his five favorite films, ever. But I’m with Martin Amis, who once wrote a profile of De Palma for Vanity Fair in which he spent most of the article working up the courage to ask De Palma why his films “make no sense.” To me, movies like Blow Out, Dressed to Kill, and Casualties of War are gliding-camera pastiches, yet none of the director’s fabled serpentine tracking shots ever matched the giddy power of the simple slow zoom he uses in the establishing shot at the prom in Carrie. Effortlessly, he fuses the film’s tones — high school cheese, YA empathy, pop-gothic Tennessee Williams, the zap! of telekinesis — and the deliriously extended slow-motion set piece of Carrie walking on stage to be crowned prom queen, that bucket of pig’s blood poised above her, may be the single greatest suspense sequence of the post-studio system era. In Carrie, it’s because De Palma used his fantastic technique, in every shot, to serve the movie’s emotional core that his virtuosity, for once, instead of being all about itself, really did attain a level comparable to that of Alfred Hitchcock.

It was the movie that turned me on to Pauline Kael. About a month after I saw Carrie, I was sitting in a friend’s living room, where I randomly picked up a copy of The New Yorker magazine, saw that there was a review of Carrie in it, and started to read it. Within seconds, I was hooked. The writer, Pauline Kael, literally seemed to be inside my head when she wrote sentences like “He builds our apprehensions languorously, softening us for the kill,” or “Sissy Spacek uses her freckled pallor and whitish eyelashes to suggest a squashed, froggy girl who could go in any direction; at times, she seems unborn — a fetus.” Kael’s writing, fused with the movies I was seeing at the time, showed me what movie criticism could be, and made me want to try my hand at it. The irony is that Kael would become obsessed with De Palma, and just a little over a year later, when I read her review of his follow-up film, the spectacular but scattershot The Fury, in which she declared that “The visual poetry of The Fury is so strong that its verbal and narrative inadequacies do not matter,” I learned, in one fell swoop, not just that De Palma often favored style over substance, but that Kael could be as wrong as she was right. That, by the way, never stopped me from being addicted to her writing; even when she was wrong, she nailed more truth than most writers when they were right.

Here’s why that ending is so, so scary. So, the prom turned into an apocalypse, almost everyone died in Carrie’s vengeful telekinetic slapstick bloodbath (best moment: the “nice” gym teacher being just about bisected at the pelvis in wordless slow motion), Carrie went home to her mother, and the house caved in on them. At that point, Carrie is over. We’re waiting for the closing credits. And then there’s a very gauzy this-must-be-the-end sequence in which Amy Irving’s Sue crouches down at Carrie’s grave site, and we can see that on the headstone someone has painted “Carrie White burns in hell.” And that’s when the scary thing happens. But why is it so scary? Because by that moment, the movie has made us believe — without quite stating it — that Carrie’s mother was right: The devil was working through Carrie. And we really do think that she’s burning in hell. Which is why she might really, actually…reach up from there. The ending of Carrie was the template for every horror movie that ever went out with a final, post-dénouement shock that said to the audience: “Fooled ya! The horror goes on!” But only in Carrie does that kicker have the kick of the uncanny.

It’s got one of the most seductive soundtracks of all time. It would be impossible to imagine Carrie without Pino Donaggio’s sublime score, or without the priceless schlock chestnuts (“I never dreamed someone like you could want someone like me!”) that turn the star-spangled prom into a princess epiphany.

The whole movie is a dream. The reason that when I first tried to write about Carrie, I did it badly, and the reason I still think that, even in this post, I haven’t come close to capturing what’s so great about Carrie is that it’s one of those rare, very special movies that attains the quality of a dream. And maybe there’s no way to completely account for that. It was Stephen King’s galvanizing plot, with its suggestion of the dawn of a new kind of girl power, plus the extraordinary tightrope acting of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, plus De Palma flexing the muscles of his mastery without letting it slip over into “Look ma, no hands!” indulgence, plus that music, plus sexy Nancy Allen as the original mean girl, plus the mad scary genius of that ending…all adding up to a movie so singular that I, for one, have never woken up from it.

So do I have some fellow Carrie true believers out there? What do you love about the movie? And do you agree with me that it’s De Palma’s best?


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