Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned- The Mourning Bride by William Congreve.
In revenge and in love woman is more barbarous than man-Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.
NB: Some of the images in the post can be disturbing,readers please note.
To just look at the tale of Carrie, as a ”scorned woman” taking revenge on the world, would be to overlook it’s deeper meaning, its rather unsettling look at the ”normal” world, and how we treat the ”different” and ”others”. Carrie is not just another ”horror” flick, its Brian De Palma’s look into the minds of people, a look at the world through the eyes of Carrie. In a superbly filmed opening scene, De Palma, plays the voyeur, allowing the camera to wind it’s way through the girl’s shower room, lovingly gazing at the nubile bodies of the young nymphets, some of whom are half naked, and some of whom are fully nude. The camera tracks in deeper, the voices of the young women, shots of their naked bodies, the steam and mist, giving it a dreamy effect, as the credits flash on the screen. Away from all the other girls, is Carrie White( Sissy Spacek), taking her bath all by herself, soaping herself up, having a rare moment of hapiness in her life. And then she begins to bleed, the blood trickling down her legs. As she screams out in shock, clutching her towel, running for help, one of the girls gives her a tampon to stop the bleeding asking her to “Plug it up”. The girls around seem to revel in Carrie’s plight, as they chant in unison ”Plug it Up!! Plug it Up”, as Carrie by now becomes hysterical.
Far from empathizing with Carrie or helping her, the girls, around behave like a rabid mob, pelting her with tampons, chanting in unison. Its a scene straight out of medieval times, where women suspected of being witches or women who were suspected to have “sinned” were stoned in public. Carrie lives in a “modern, enlightened” age, in a high school, an ”educated” environment, but her plight here is no different from the ”witches” in medieval ages or those woman considered to have “sinned”, being punished for being different. This is when Carrie’s teacher Miss Collins, steps in to restore order, as she brings Carrie back to her senses. One thing to be noticed here is how De Palma sets up Carrie’s character in the initial scenes. Right before that we notice Carrie being the girl every one loves to pick on, when her class mates, berate her for missing a point during a volleyball game. And then that terrifying scene in the shower, we know that she is a timid, shy girl, prone to being bullied.
Also De Palma bringing into focus the issue of ”high school bullying”, the high school, a place that can be as oppresive as it can be. Its a place, where students are not human beings, they are ”goths”, ”emos”, ” jocks”, “nerds” mere labels to be ogled at, jeered at. It is also a place that is merciless with the ”outsider”, the person who does not fit ”in” with the crowd. Girls like Carrie, timid and shy by nature, are ”easy targets” to be “bullied”, they are seen as not belonging to the place, and yet the bullies need them to have a reason for their existence. Bullies like Chris Hargenson( Nancy Allen), a spoilt rich brat, who takes pride in bullying Carrie, to feel good about herself. During the recent spate of high school shootings in US, in many cases it has been shown that the attackers, were students who were misfits, some one who did not gel in with the system. Was Carrie a percusor of things to come?
Carrie however is not just a ”scorned” woman, she is oppressed and brutalized at home, by her mother Margaret White(Piper Laurie), a bible thumping, religious fanatic, some one whose thinking is strictly medieval. We get a hint of the things to come, when during the conversation between the principal and Ms.Collins, he wonders how in this age, she could not have a knowledge of something so basic, and she replies back about Carrie’s mother. However the full horror of it, hits us in the conversation between Carrie and her mother. Menstruation is a delicate and sensitive issue for women, Carrie needs empathy, some one to guide her. Her mother however treats it like a sin, hitting her.
Margaret: And the Lord visited Eve with a curse, and the curse was the Curse of Blood!Carrie: You should have told me, Momma! You should have told me!Margaret: Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways! Show her that if she had remained sinless –Carrie: No, Momma.Margaret: — the Curse of Blood never would have come on her. She may have been tempted by the Antichrist. She may have committed the sin of lustful thoughts.Margaret: Oh, don’t lie to me, Carrietta. Don’t you know by now that I can see inside you? I can see the sin as surely as God can!
Carrie is not your conventional horror flick, of bodies getting shredded apart, shrieks, creepy special effects. In fact the only time the viewers get jolted is in the opening scene, and the last 20 minutes. In between there is no action taking place, most of it is just conversation and drama. But its these conversation pieces, the small moments that actually set up the entire movie. In an earlier scene, Margaret visits Eleanor, who happens to be the mother of Carrie’s class mate Sue Snell( Amy Irving), where we get a glimpse of her fanatic religious beliefs. And when Margaret raises hell at Carrie, for her period, we are shocked, that in today’s age, such people exist, but we are prepared for it. The horror in the encounter between Carrie and her mom, does not come from any physical violence, it is rather the horror of listening to her beliefs, the way she bullies her daughter. And add to it, the dark gloomy atmosphere of her house, the statue of the wounded St. Sebastian, it creates a version of Hell. Carrie in effect is the girl, ”twice condemned”, her mother’s religious fanaticism, relentless opression have made her timid, shy, and in school she is bullied by her class mates, who think she is a ”loser”, thankless life for sure.
But her class mates bullying her seem to know about the hidden power in Carrie, her telekinetic ability. Again here love the way De Palma brings to focus this ability of hers, rather than comming up with a set action piece, he drops the hints to the audiences, in the smaller moments. The bulb bursting in the shower room, the ashtray falling off the principal’s desk when she shouts out her name to him after he says it wrong, the boy falling of the bicycle when she stares at him, all small moments, letting us know something is special in this seemingly ”timid and shy” girl. Carrie however comes to know of it, after the encounter she has with her mother over her period., in her room, as she is sobbing, and the mirror shatters. Miraclously, when she regains her composure, the pieces are back in place. In another great scene, the camera intercuts between the girls on the field, and Carrie looking up the meaning of ”telekinesis”. The close up shot of Carrie, thumbing through the pages, and then the camera focusing on the word in the dictionary. This scene is also significant in the way it gets us to the other 2 characters, Chris and Miss Collins.
Miss Collins is one of the few persons who actually empathizes with Carrie, treats her like a human being. She understand’s Carrie’s problem, tries to help her out at every stage.
Did any of you ever stop to think that Carrie White has feelings? Do any of you ever stop to think? No, I guess you’re too busy thinking about your dates and the prom.
And she hits the girls where it matters to them most, the prom event, something they all look forward to, a vanity show, where they get to display their guys, their looks, their dresses to feel good about themselves. Using the threat of not going to prom, makes them fall in line, including Chris, who struts about caring a damn for rules. Again the encounter between Chris and Ms. Collins, brings into focus their roles. Chris acting like a prig, caring the least for her teacher, not even the thought of missing the prom, makes her change her ways. When Ms.Collins hits her for disobeying, she threatens to raise storm, but none of the other girls are interested in siding with her. Chris holds Carrie responsible, and threatens to take revenge on her, cajoling her boy friend Billy Nolan( a very young John Travolta), into a heinous scheme, to insult Carrie. Sue on the other hand feels guilty about her actions, and tries to help Carrie, by setting her up for prom with her boyfriend Tommy.
Carrie is a standard tale of “the bullied” turning against the “bully”, or the “revenge of the nerd” story in a much more darker sense. The ”bully” and the ”victim” both turn out to be females in this case, and so do all the major characters. Even considering that Carrie is essentially told from the female point of view, the male characters here seem to be completely ineffectual. The school principal has no clue how to deal with Carrie, Billy allows himself to be easily manipulated by Chris, he does not really seem to have a mind of his own. Even the only prominent male character, Tommy, begins to date Carrie, only after the insistence of his girl friend Sue. Nor is anything known about Carrie’s father, for a long time, except, in the ending, when the dark secret behind Carrie’s birth comes out. Its a world where woman oppresses women, woman tries to pull down another woman, with the men just mere spectators or on the sidelines. A kind of inversion of the earlier ages, where men fought and opressed each other, while women looked from the sidelines.
What makes Carrie a classic in the horror genre, is the way Brian De Palma, sets up every character, their motivations, their reasoning, and plays them off against each other. Every encounter between the characters is like a chessboard move, that adds up to the final resolution. There is no real action going on for a major part, but when you see the characters interacting, when you seem them go head on head, you certainly feel the tension under the air. Building up slowly, step by step, like a tiger, inching towards it’s prey, and then the madness of the last 20 minutes, that shocks you, horrifies you. What actually happens, is best left to be seen on the screen.
Carrie for me was also significant, in the way it launched the career of Stephen King, a writer of whom i have mixed feelings. For sure there is the by now famous story, about how Stephen King, threw the draft of Carrie into a trash can, and then his wife Tabitha encouraged him to continue with the work. For me however Stephen King remains a more best selling version of Edgar Allan Poe, his novels are good, page turners, tense, but i could never place him on par with Poe, who for me is the best when it comes to horror fiction. In fact, i actually loved the movie versions of King’s novels more than the actual books. The interesting part is that Carrie launched both King and De Palma into the mainstream, big time. Till Carrie, De Palma was seen as auteur, helming more indie flicks like ”Hi Mom”, or Hitchcock inspired thrillers like ”Sisters”. Carrie itself was not a big budget blockbuster, it can be seen in the movie’s rather grainy tone. Carrie in fact turned out to be a surprise success, paving the way for more “low budget” horror flicks like Haloween, Friday the 13th series, as well as proving to be an influence on a host of other horror flicks, that lifted its storyline. Stephen King i think has been singularly fortunate to have directors of the caliber of Stanley Kubrick( The Shining), Rob Reiner(Misery), John Carpenter( Christine), James Darapont( The Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile), to give the cinematic vision to his novels.
The other thing that stands out in Carrie is Sissy Spacek’s brilliant performance, in the title role. I was quite surprised later to know that Spacek was actually 27 when the movie was shot, throughout the movie she looked like a normal timid 17 year old teen girl. I believe that for one of the scenes, she actually preferred to be burried under the rocks and gravel to make the scene look more realistic, whew have heard about Robert De Niro’s method acting tales, but this was something else. Its not just the make up or the method acting fundas, its the mix of innocence, sensuality, vulnerability, anguish, pain that Spacek brings to the character, that makes it a killer performance. She makes you emphathize with Carrie, f eel for her, understand her plight, be it the opening scene or the encounters with her mother. The other great performance in Carrie is from Piper Laurie as Carrie’s religious freak, dominating mother. In a role that could have easily ended up as a caricature, she brings in believability, making you hate her, feel scared about her. Watch the encounters between mother and daughter, one bullying, oppresive and another one vulnerable, but trying to assert herself, acting at its best.
Carrie to date would rank as one of Brian De Palma’s finest movies, not just for it’s brilliant camera work, or Pino Donnagio’s chilling background score. But also the way De Palma, sets up, manipulates the characters into providing a final burst of terror, and making us question ourselves, that makes this a classic.