Brian DePalma’s utterly creepy and disturbing adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel is one of the most effective horror shockers ever made. Sissy Spacek plays the title role of Carrie White, and walks away with it. Carrie is a wallflower who is tormented by her classmates in high school because she is odd and off-putting and (to a lesser degree) she has a religious zealot of a mother (Piper Laurie, in a truly terrifying Oscar-nominated performance). The plot hinges on two of Carrie’s classmates asking boys to do something for them that revolves around Carrie: After one terribly mean incident too many, one of her tormenters (a young Amy Irving) decides to do something nice for her – she will have her boyfriend take Carrie to the prom, to make her part of the group. No malice on her part. However, gym teacher Ms. Collins doesn’t think it’s a good idea. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Chris (Nancy Allen), the vindictive bitch who has her “dumb shit” boyfriend (a young John Travolta) help rig the prom to make it the worst night of Carrie’s existence. Meanwhile, Carrie begins to discover that she has something called telekinesis – the ability to move objects with ones’ mind. The stage is set for one of the greatest setpieces in cinema history, a memorable horror-show the likes of which perhaps nobody but DePalma could’ve orchestrated. What is surprising is how sweet and beautiful the prom scene is before the horrific denoument. DePalma and his cinematographer film it in gorgeous mixtures of red, blue and green, with a lovely perouetting camera. But it’s too late, and the terrifying climax is inevitable at that point. This remains one of DePalma’s, as well as horror cinema’s, best works.
Alfred Hitchcock used to say he liked to play his audiences like a piano. So too does Brian De Palma, whose Carrie (1976) is, in some respects, one of the last films you’d expect the man behind such films as Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), Mission Impossible (1996) and Redacted (2007) to make.
The story (based on a novel by Stephen King) of a quiet, introverted redhead with freckles (Sissy Spacek) in a small suburban hamlet, the film is a bizarre pastiche of stylistic elements, yet not a one of them is obviously Hitchcockian in nature (although maybe he finds ways of mutely echoing the Master of Suspense). Indeed, in its overwrought depiction of a young teenage daughter interlocked in a psychological grudge match with a mother, the film bears more than a passing resemblance to a Douglas Sirk melodrama (Imitation of Life, perhaps). Still, we also get the typical high school movie tropes, as was mentioned in class: the prom, the vile high school prank, the bullying, the montage of prepping prom outfits.
Further, for a film that is revered as a masterful horror classic (which it is), the film doesn’t begin like a horror film. De Palma’s sense of starting slow and building (ala Hitchcock) is starting to take hold here. The thing that I took particular note of was the way the music literally drove things – when it was present and when it was not. For example, the opening shot/scene is a high angle looking down on a high school field as Ms. Collins’ gym class is put through its paces. However, the music doesn’t play. Consider the “big” opening sequences of De Palma – from the afterthought sci-fi credit sequence of Sisters (1973) to the ominous low angle church shots and overbearing Herrmann music in Obsession (1976), his films always set a tone. What is served then by a lack of music at the beginning of a horror film? By a lack of noticeable sound effects? The calm before the “storm,” perhaps?
The next scene, the music does finally kick in. Lush and romantic, this piece by Pino Donnaggio is a constant refrain at certain moments throughout the film, and lends itself to the soft-focus slow-motion of the girls’ shower area where we first notice Carrie sitting after gym class. As somebody pointed out in discussion, this may feel a bit like a soft-core porn of the time – or perhaps its simply just this side of a shampoo commercial. As this scene goes on, Carrie begins to slowly stream blood from between her legs (her period). At this point, the music we would associate with a horror film strikes, although the imagery is certainly not associated with a typical horror film – which in many ways, this film is not. Because nobody, least of all her mother, ever explained to her what this is, what it means with regards to womanhood, etc., Carrie is the one horrified. Her classmates, however, laugh and her gym teacher begins as less than understanding because she cannot fathom how a teenage girl in “this day and age” could go through life without knowing about something as fundamental as her period (or puberty, or whathaveyou).
Tone is everything in a horror film, and it’s interesting that De Palma uses some creepy, unsettling music in two places. One is when Carrie goes to the library to read about “telekinesis” to try to understand how she can be moving things with her mind – whether she intends to or not. The other is in her home life with her religious zealot mother (Piper Laurie), who seemingly wants to punish her at every turn in an attempt to do “God’s work” – because she believes that woman is sin incarnate.
Finally, we arrive at the infamous prom sequence. Carrie is having the night of her life. Yet the music reflects the themes of the film. Listen closely and you can hear the lyrics of a song about “devil possession” when she and Tommy arrive. Listen further and you can hear the lyrics “I never dreamed someone like you / Would want someone like me” – which reflects her inner feelings about the opportunity to go to prom with someone like Tommy. All of this is a bit ironic, of course, because Carrie’s mother thinks she’s evil by this point (with her telekinetic abilities being a gift of darkness) and Carrie’s prom experience is very dream-like…until the nightmarish, agonizing slow-motion of the prank being set into motion occurs.
Worth noting is the fact that the word melodrama is a modification, according to Merriam-Webster, of the French melodrama from the Greek melos (song) and French drame (drama). This means that melodrama is literally “song drama.” Certainly De Palma takes this to heart in much of his work, especially Carrie, where the music makes you feel everything he wants you to feel – like he’s playing a piano.