“The curse of blood”
Watching Brian De Palma‘s touching horror masterpiece Carrie, I find myself trying to understand the specific elements that make certain films iconic. You can deconstruct a film—script, score, cinematography, performance—and recognize good or bad directorial choices, happy accidents, and the signs of skill and artistry, but these alone do not guarantee an iconic work. There is a strange alchemy in art, where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This is the case with the classic and iconic Carrie. If any element were to be altered—be it casting, some subtlety of performance, or an edit a few frames more or less—the film would be reduced from iconic to merely well-crafted. It is impossible to discern where the magic happens, so we must be content to reflect upon and celebrate its various elements.
This was Sissy Spacek‘s break-out role. Her physicality is so mousy and fragile, her voice so earnest and tender, it is impossible not to feel affectionate and protective of Carrie from the very first scene. Spacek never allows Carrie to be self-pitying, but rather imbues her with a humble self-containment. When Carrie begins to acknowledge the bigger world outside of the oppressive confines of her home-life with her religiously fanatical mother, she is assertive and pro-active. Carrie does not allow herself to be a victim. Her story is tragic because her attempts to be part of the society around her are met with resentment, hostility and cruelty.
The central metaphor of Carrie’s story—in both the novel and the film—is one of female self-discovery. After menstruating for the first time in the school locker room, Carrie’s powers of telekinesis sharpen. This is the story of a woman discovering the power of her mind and body. When this discovery prompts her to grow-up and become an active member of her high-school society, her attempts are met with enmity. When she is humiliated at the prom, drenched in pigs blood—a mockery of her first public menstrual experience—Carrie unleashes her pent-up pain and rage. She uses her telekinetic abilities to bring down the high school society that refuses to accept her. The scene is not only terrifying, it is also honest and heartbreaking. Carrie’s vengeance is not malicious in spirit, but fraught with long-festering desperation and hopelessness.
For a horror film, most of the score is uncharacteristically melancholic. Pino Donaggio avoids the trappings of traditional “stings” for shock value, or endless drones to enhance dread. For most of the score, he opts instead for a sentimental approach, scoring Carrie’s loneliness and alienation so that we focus on her experience rather than on the scares.
Mario Tosi‘s cinematography is soft, lush, and colourful. To reinforce the nostalgic feel of the film, the imagery has a hazy, romantic quality. The technique, common in the 70s, is called “flashing,” and involves exposing the film to a low intensity light pre or post photography. This technique is often used to brighten shadows within the frame in order to pick up more detail, but can also be employed to create a glowing and grainy look. In Carrie, it lends a half-remembered quality to the action, as if the film’s events are caught in a clouded memory. In perhaps the most tender scene, Carrie finds herself at the prom, dancing with the most popular boy in school. She is bewildered and overwhelmed by the attention. De Palma spins the low-angled camera around the dancing couple, with the coloured lights and dangling stars hanging in the air just above their heads. The sequence is dizzying, and effectively expresses Carrie’s excitement and disorientation. A simple shot, but masterfully designed and executed.
Despite its conventional horror movie format, Carrie offers more than cheap thrills. The film is a sincere and lyrical meditation on the conditioned feelings of shame and revulsion associated with women’s sexuality. Carrie’s fate is sealed by society’s fear of the female body and her internalization of that fear. It is inspiring, the way Stephen King (novel) and Brian De Palma (film) managed to convey such sensitive thematic considerations within the potentially cheap genre framework upon which the story is hung.
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Stephen King, Lawrence D. Cohen
Stars: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, John Travolta