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Carrie

August 21, 2009
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.
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