Combustible Celluloid
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With: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, P.J. Soles
Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on a novel by Stephen King
Directed by: Brian De Palma
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 98
Date: 11/03/1976

Carrie (1976)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Prom Night

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For no particular reason at all, MGM has presented the Roxie with a brand-spanking-new beautiful print of Brian De Palma's 1976 masterpiece Carrie, based on Stephen King's novel. It plays April 2 to 8 at the Roxie. It may be a matter of pride for MGM, since the recent selection of horror films has been way below average. It's high time for the young generation of filmgoers to stop throwing their money at Urban Legends, the I Know What You Did Last Summer movies, Gus Van Sant's Psycho, The Faculty, and of course The Rage: Carrie 2 -- and see what a real horror movie is.

What Carrie does that's different is that it's based in a spiritual and physical world that we can identify with. Carrie's mother (Piper Laurie) is a religious nut who tries to wipe all traces of sin from her life, except that Carrie (Sissy Space) is living proof of her sin of having sex. "Sin never dies," she says. All of the blood in this movie represents virginal sex and the menstrual cycle. Then we have the physical side. The high school that Carrie attends is full of clumsiness, passion, and fear. There are none of these movie-star high school kids who are experts on grooming and sex, and have no worries other than trying to figure out which is their best side to show the camera.

Carrie is the epitome of high school awkwardness. The first scene has Carrie flinching from a volleyball during gym class. Her teammates gang up against her. Then, during the titles, director De Palma shows us the girls in the locker room, showering and dressing, laughing and teasing each other. The camera tracks for a long time, then stops to linger on Carrie, the last one in the shower. As she washes herself, aware of her sexually changing body, she has her first period (something her mother never bothered to explain to her). She understandably freaks out while her classmates (played by P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, and others) make fun of her.

Unexpectedly, after this introduction, De Palma keeps the blood and gore out of the movie until the climax. The bulk of the movie is spent developing themes and characters. (Try finding anything like that in your current horror films.) It turns out that Carrie has developed telekinesis at the same time she receives her sexual awakening. She must try to learn about her power at the same time as she is learning about her body and relating to other people in an adult way. Carrie's gym teacher (Betty Buckley) is the only one who seems to take the time to guide Carrie. Amy Irving, too, begins to feel sorry for her, and insists that her beefcake boyfriend ask Carrie to the prom. Meanwhile, Nancy Allen and her boyfriend John Travolta begin to cook up a nasty revenge. It's a revenge based on blind passion and baseless hatred -- Carrie didn't do anything. But we relate to this hatred because we all experienced it in high school.

The climax itself has become legendary, and deservedly so. Allen plots for Carrie to be voted prom queen so that the pig's blood can be dumped on her. If this sequence had taken place in I Know What You Did Last Summer, it would have lasted a few seconds, and been a quick shock. De Palma makes it into an opera. He shows us Amy Irving watching from behind the stage, noticing for a second the rope that is attached to the pail perched in the rafters above. The camera climbs with the rope, shows us the bucket, then Carrie in the audience as her name is called. De Palma lets her revel in her greatest moment for several long beats. She has fully awakened -- become a woman.

When the bucket is turned and the blood falls, De Palma goes to his trademark split-screen. As Carrie's full potency is released her powers, also, have reached their peak. Tellingly, the blood she is covered in make her look as if she's just emerged from a womb -- born anew. She begins to wreak destruction on the prom. On one side, we can see Carrie's eerie face, on the other, some kind of destruction. At other times, we see a scene of horror, and someone else's reaction to it at the same time, doubling the power of the scene.

De Palma is a director of pure cinema. Since the beginning of movies, some directors have made careers out of making "important" movies with "serious messages." Stanley Kramer comes to mind, Elia Kazan, Oliver Stone, etc. These movies don't hold up as well as De Palma's. There's a difference between listening to a movie preach to you about what's right and feeling a movie reach into you, plucking at feelings you've long buried. De Palma uses all of his senses in moviemaking. He opens a movie up with his imaginative visual and sound designs. Yes, he steals from Hitchcock. But how many other hundreds have also stolen from Hitchcock and make movies as effectively as De Palma? He borrows the technique but the demons he puts onscreen are his own. Carrie is his masterpiece, but he has made many other great movies; Sisters (1973), The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (1980), Blow Out (1981), Scarface (1983), and Casualties of War (1989) -- an exception to the rule, a dynamic message movie. There are even brilliant passages in Raising Cain (1992), Mission: Impossible (1996), and Snake Eyes (1998).

Carrie's Plane-Jane look of straight hair and no makeup that was frowned upon in 1976 has now become fashionable. 16-year-old Sissy Spacek looks radiant. Spacek, who had worked for De Palma before as a set dresser on Phantom of the Paradise, was now a star, and was nominated for her first Best Actress Oscar. Likewise, Piper Laurie was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

The horror movie has a history of using its darkness to uncover real-life basic horrors. Carrie was one of the first to be made in an era where virtually anything could be shown on a movie screen. Perhaps this freedom should have diminished the power of the horror movie, and for the most part, it has, when you consider our latest crop of horror titles. But Carrie is one of a batch of true horror movies that gets to you on a deeper level than a basic shock and gross-out. I'm glad it's out there again for filmmakers and film fans to learn from and to use that knowledge to look inside.

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