Thursday, February 23, 2012

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Carrie (1976)

Brian De Palma
Lawrence D. Cohen
based on a novel by
Stephen King
Mario Tosi
Set Decoration
Robert Gould

There are many films that you watch during your life that you remember more than others.  The better the film is, the more likely the chances are that you’ll remember the circumstances under which you first viewed it.

But that’s not a steadfast rule. You probably remember the circumstances surrounding your viewing of some of the really bad ones as well.

I have no clue as to how many films I have seen in a theater or drive-in, and there is no way that I could remember the where, when, or how of each and every one. But some of these experiences are as fresh in my mind as if they happened yesterday. Let me give you a couple of examples.

I remember seeing the original The Longest Yard with Burt Reynolds twice. I saw it once in a packed Columbia Theater in Portsmouth, Ohio.  I saw it with a friend of mine from work.  We would often go for coffee together three or four times a week.  During the summer, we went to Riverfront Stadium to watch the Reds a couple of times.  But this was the only time we went to a movie together, and that is probably  one of the reasons why I remember it so well.  

Experience: Good.

But I also remember taking my first wife to view The Longest Yard at the Scioto Breeze Drive-In Movie Theater ten miles north of town. It was in our first car, and we hadn’t had it very long.  I also remember that not only was it snowing, but it was colder than an icicle hanging from a  witch’s tit.   Those were the days when drive-in movies were still in abundance, some even staying open all winter long courtesy of electric in-car heaters that only managed to delay the frostbite temporarily instead of having it set in immediately after turning off the ignition.
Experience: Bad.

My first viewing of Carrie took place at the Skywalk Cinema in downtown Cincinnati.   It was the second time that  I had seen a film inside that particular theater, the first one having been Jaws the previous summer during a weekend getaway.  The audience for Carrie, such as it was, seemed restless throughout the film. It didn’t help that some of the patrons were lighting up cigarettes    in the auditorium and puffing away which tells you how much the management actually cared about what went on once they had their money in hand. All I know is that it was very distracting but I wasn’t one to become a squealer  because those guys looked like they could have kicked my ass all the way up the Ohio River and back down again.
Experience: Bad.

But there was also something else I remembered about that night. It was something that actually happened in the movie, and if you’ve ever seen the film which I’m sure most of you have, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It was so memorable that there is now a term to describe it when used in films trying to play copycat It’s called “The Carrie Moment.”

It scared the holy crap out of me and all those puffing away on their Marlboro’s.

But I’m putting the cart way before the horse. Although I was kind of indifferent to Carrie for the most part  on that particular evening, (except for the Carrie Moment) I have learned to really appreciate the craftsmanship of Brian DePalma’s film more and more with each subsequent viewing in the 30 years that have elapsed since.

Being perfectly honest, by the time I finally saw Carrie for the first time, there were really no surprises left to be had for someone who had just recently witnessed Little Damian Thorne hang a nanny from a window, impale a priest, and slice the head off of a photographer, watched a shark devour Robert Shaw as the main course; or sat in horror as as a possessed eleven year old girl pissed on the floor, masturbated with a crucifix, turned her head a full 360 degrees, then vomited pea soup like a missile projectile. I mean, after The Exorcist, most horror films seemed tame by comparison, at least until Jason began whacking teenagers up at Crystal Lake, Michael Myers made Jamie Lee Curtis run for her life in Haddonfield, or Freddy sliced and diced up Johnny Depp on Elm Street.

And the theater poster of actress Sissy Spacek drenched in blood, along with the tagline “If you’ve got a taste for terror, take Carrie to the prom” pretty much told you that this wasn’t going to be a jolly holiday with Carrie making your world so bright at a Sunday school picnic.

But I do have to say that the second sequence in the film, which is often called the opening sequence but actually comes after a volley ball game that is the real opening sequence but is quickly forgotten because of the following sequence that takes place in a girl’s locker room is always appreciated. You got that?

It was my first journey inside a fully occupied girl’s locker room. Heck, it was probably the first time a lot of guys were inside a fully occupied female locker room filled with half dressed women, completely undressed women, and a few fully dressed women that you’ll barely notice are there. So before I go any further, I want to thank the cast, the cinematographer, and of course Brian DePalma for the experience.

The scene is filmed in a room full of steam as the camera slowly pans across the lockers. Gradually the steam becomes as thick as fog and the camera settles upon a nude Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) slowly bathing herself in the hot shower. But if you feel the whole thing is just a bit too beautiful, lyrical or just plain extra hot and sexy, you’d be right.

We are quickly drawn out of our dreamy stupor as DePalma pans to Carrie’s thigh, where we see the first signs of blood trickling downward. Nope, she isn’t being attacked by Norman Bates even if this particular high school is named after him as a kind of screwed up homage to movie psychopaths.

Carrie has in fact started her first menstrual period. And no, unlike other movies where some teen girls would proclaim that they are now a “truly positive absolutely real grown-up woman” Carrie takes a different approach. She goes totally bonkers, positive that blood spurting out from places it hadn’t ever spurted from before means certain death, and in her panic runs out into the locker room begging the other girls for help. And her classmates, being the helpful teenage shits that they are, lend Carrie a hand by shoving her back into the shower while simultaneously launching an avalanche of Tampons and Kotex at her as if they are throwing rice at a wedding while yelling in unison for her to “plug it up, plug it up, plug it up.”

This bit of calamity is literally brought to a screeching halt by the girls gym coach, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) who shows us her more gentle nature by shoving the taunting girls aside to reach Carrie whom she promptly slaps in the kisser.

And it’s a good thing Miss Collins showed up. You wouldn’t want Carrie to completely snap because as we find out later, a pissed off Carrie is a very bad Carrie, and in this scene, we find out that a ticked off clueless Carrie is only murder on your light bulb bill. You could be making a lot of trips to Costco with this kid around.
It also doesn’t take long for us to figure out the reason for Carrie’s maniacal outburst and ignorance regarding her women’s trouble. Her mother, Margaret White (Piper Laurie), has never taken the time to sit down with her daughter and have a heart to heart talk about birds, bees, and the monthly due bill. But once you meet Mrs. White, you’ll understand why.

She has a few fanatical religious screws loose upstairs, not to mention that she’s just completely Looney Tunes with a dash of cracked brain as well.

She seems to make her living going around the neighborhood trying to convert others to her religious cause. You know the drill: Join me or rot in hell.

The neighbors do their part by shoving a few dollars Margaret’s way to get her out of the house as quickly as possible. I suppose that’s easier than hiding in the bathroom or the closet but it  could get very expensive. I don’t think buying Margaret White off comes cheap. 

We find this out when Mrs. Snell (Priscilla Pointer, Amy Irving’s real life mother) quickly raises her own donation ante from five to ten dollars. This buys her some instant relief and a promise that Margaret will pray that she finds Jesus.

But as distraught as Carrie was, the adults involved don’t handle the situation very well either. Miss Collins admits to the principal that she understood how the girls felt because she kind of felt the same way. When the principal calls Carrie into the office, he repeatedly gets her name wrong calling her Cassie and Callie despite being told the correct name by both Miss Collins and Carrie herself.

As for Carrie, besides the fact that she doesn’t much care for people talking about her in the third person, especially when she’s in the same room, she also shows she has little patience for those trying to blow smoke up her ass as she sends an ashtray flying off of the desk.

Shortly thereafter as Carrie is walking home, a boy on a bicycle who looks a lot like Brian DePalma’s son and sounds even more like Betty Buckley taunts her.

“Creepy Carrie, Creepy Carrie, Creepy Carrie” he squeals. A few screeches of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho notes, and Creepy Carrie sends Creepy DePalma Boy flying off of his Creepy Bike flat on his scrawny creepy little ass. It almost makes one wish for a Carrie in every movie that has an obnoxious kid in the movie……first to go being that brat in the original Poseidon Adventure followed by that kid in Problem Child topped off with…..well I’ll let you fantasize.

What is perfectly clear by this time is that Carrie is not only a loner and a misfit, but she also has been blessed/cursed with the power of telekinesis. It is a power she is just beginning to understand, to experiment with, and is only in the early stages of learning how to control it.

But once Carrie arrives at Happy Acres, also known as her home, her mother receives a phone call from the school. A call which sends Ms. Margaret into a religious frenzy and she immediately takes Carrie to task for being an evil doer.
Carrie: (coming down from upstairs) Mama? Who was that, that called?

Margaret White:
You're a woman now.

Carrie: Why didn't you tell me mama? (Margaret strikes Carrie over the head with the "Woman's Bible”)

Margaret White:
And God made Eve from the rib of Adam. And Eve was weak and loosed the raven on the world. And the raven was called sin. Say it, the raven was called sin.

Carrie: Why didn't you tell me, Mama?

Margaret White
(hitting Carrie in the face): Say it. The raven was called sin.

(Margaret hits her again) No, Mama. And the raven was called sin!

Margaret White: And the first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse.

Carrie: I didn't sin, Mama. Margaret White (hits her again): Say it. Carrie: I didn't sin, Mama!

Margaret White:
The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse. The first sin was intercourse.

And the first sin was intercourse! Mama, I was so scared. I thought I was dying. And the girls, they all laughed at me and threw things at me, Mama.

Margaret White:
And Eve was weak, say it! (Margaret hits her again)


Margaret White:
Eve was weak! Carrie: No!

Margaret White: Eve was weak, say it woman!


Margaret White:
Say it!

Eve was weak, Eve was weak.

Margaret White:
And the Lord visited Eve with the curse, and the curse was the curse of blood!

You should have told me, Mama! You should have told me!

Margaret White: (kneels down and grabs Carrie's hand) Oh, Lord! Help this sinning woman see the sin of her days and ways. Show her that if she had remained sinless, this curse of blood would never have come on her!
At which point Margaret drags Carrie into a closet and locks her in.   Yep, that Margaret is a real charmer.  She’s sort of a female Rick Santorum type.

Meanwhile, back at Bates High School, one certain girl’s gym class is getting their comeuppance, in the form of an enraged Ms. Collins, who has called the girls together in the gym to read them the riot act, and dole out their punishment. And it isn’t pretty:
Miss Collins:  Now, my idea for this little trick you pulled was three days' suspension and refusal of your prom tickets.
Norma: What? God!

Miss Collins: That'd get you where you live, wouldn't it? And you deserve it. I don't think any of you have any idea of just how nasty what you did really was. But the office has decided you're to have one week's detention. Still, there's one little catch. It's to be my detention. That's fifty minutes every day starting today in the athletic field. Get the picture?

Chris Hargenson: I'm not coming.

Miss Collins:
That's up to you, Chris. That's up to all of you. Punishment for skipping detention is three days' suspension and refusal of your prom tickets. Any other thoughts? Good. Now change up.

Chris Hargenson: Where are you going?

Norma: Come on.

Chris Hargenson:
I'm not coming.

You're really not gonna come? You're gonna miss out on the prom?

Chris Hargenson: I'm not coming.

Well, I'm not gonna miss the prom.

Chris Hargenson: Fuck

Eventually, the calisthenics, the hot sun, and perspiration become a bit much for Chris, whose previous introduction to exercise probably took place in the back seat of her boyfriend Billy Nolan’s (John Travolta) car. She decides to end her detention a bit early, not by walking off the field quietly, but by directly confronting Ms. Collins:
Miss Collins: The period's not up, Hargenson.

Chris Hargenson:
It is for me.

Miss Collins: Keep running! Well, there are ten minutes left.

Chris Hargenson: Stick 'em up your... (A comment which draws Ms. Collins ire and for which she promptly slaps Chris)

Chris Hargenson:
You can't hit us! You'll get canned for this, you bitch!

Miss Collins: One more word out of you, and I'm gonna knock you down! Do you understand me?

Chris Hargenson: She can't get away with this if we all stick together! Norma? Helen? Sue!

Sue Snell: Shut up, Chris. Just shut up.

Chris Hargenson: This isn't over. This isn't over by a long shot!

Miss Collins: You're out of the prom, Hargenson. Okay, the show's over.

By this time we have now learned four things:
 1. It might not be a good idea to  piss off Carrie White and send her over the edge because of certain mental capabilities which she harbors inside that screwed up noggin of hers.

2.  Getting on the bad side of spoiled, self centered, egotistical rich bitch useless slut, Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) will not be a pleasant experience for anybody whether it’s children, flowers, Carrie White, or any other living things in between. Hell hath no fury like a pissed off Chris.

  That Ms. Collins sure does like to slap students.

4.  When you combine item number one with item number two, the shit is going to hit the fan and God help anyone caught in the middle.

But all is not lost. There are a few high school students who see the error of their ways. Well, there’s at least one, and that would be the aforementioned Sue Snell (Amy Irving) who actually regrets her part in the tampon tornado incident. So how does she decide to atone for her sins?

No, she doesn’t spend a few Sunday prayer sessions with the Rev. Margaret and Carrie. You couldn’t make a 98 minute movie about that and expect fans to fill the theater or buy the DVD.

Instead, not having been privileged to read the same movie posters that we have in regards to terror and asking Carrie to the prom, she asks her steady boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie. And although he is initially unwillingly to do so, Tommy eventually gives in.

And what exactly is Chris’s plan for revenge. It doesn’t take long for us to figure it out after she enlists the help of simple minded boyfriend Billie, who is willingly bought off with a convincing oral argument presented by Chris:
Chris Hargenson: I want you to do something.

Billy Nolen: What?

Chris Hargenson:
Something important. (unzips Billy's pants and performs oral sex on him) Oh, Billy. Billy. Oh, Billy. Oh, Billy. Billy. Oh, Billy. Oh. Oh, Billy. I hate Carrie White.

By the time Chris and company hit a meatpacking plant in the middle of the night during a rainstorm, you can pretty much guess where everything is headed with or without a tell-all movie poster.

There’s a lot to admire about Carrie. First and foremost are the performances. Nobody has ever done religious fanatic this creepy or better than Piper Laurie who was nominated for an Academy Award.

And casting Sissy Spacek, who was nominated for an Oscar as well, would have been a stroke of genius except for the fact that during auditions, Brian DePalma had another actress in mind for the role until Ms. Spacek made a last minute screen test. DePalma never mentions who that other actress was, but I cannot see how any actress could have done better. Not only does she make us feel a great deal of sympathy for Carrie, Spacek manages to arouse the same guilt feelings that Sue Snell experiences.

We are instantly reminded of our own instances of cruelty we may have inflicted on others, or the instances of ridicule inflicted upon us. Carrie is a victim of the most unfortunate set of circumstances possible, caused solely by the her birthright.

And did you say bitch? Nancy Allen as Chris should be given a special place in Webster’s next to that particular  word. Here is a girl that has obviously been given everything she ever needed in life and has worked for absolutely none of it. She is unaccustomed to two things in her life: being told no or not getting her way, and being punished.

Having faced these two issues all in the space of a few hours, it  short circuits what little brain power she has into one single minded goal: Revenge on Carrie White. The thought of what she sees as Carrie’s deserved comeuppance is almost an orgasmic experience for her, whether it’s performing oral sex on boyfriend Billy to make him an accomplice in her plan or the actual thrill of possibly carrying it out. Just like Spacek, Allen won her role as Chris at the last minute as well. Talk about a huge stroke of luck.
It would have been easy for Betty Buckley to make Ms. Collins one of the perfect super teachers we have seen in so many other films. But she plays her as a very flawed teacher, so we get Ms. Collins with warts and all. It is obvious to us that up until the locker room incident, Collins herself had let previous incidents involving Carrie and the other girls just slide by unnoticed.

Instead of getting involved or taking Carrie under her wing when she can make a real difference, she does so only when forced to deal with her own shortcomings after the incident in the locker room. She does not seem to do well under stress which explains why Chris Hargensen can get under her skin so easily. Her disdain and hatred for Chris, is borderline irrational even if it seems warranted.

As for Amy Irving and William Katt, they have a difficult task here as well. They are the only two totally sympathetic characters in the film once Sue begins to atone for her own actions in the torment of Carrie. It is imperative that we believe Sue’s decision to have Tommy ask Carrie to the prom is done with the best of intentions, and that her and Tommy are not a part of Chris’s revenge plan.

It would be easy to think that the two of them are just henchman in Hargensen’s elaborate revenge plan since its success rests entirely on two events: Carrie must go to the prom, and she must be elected prom Queen, two events that are impossible if Tommy fails to ask her.

But both Katt and Irving do a great job of making us believe in their honorable intentions, and we can only surmise that Chris hatches her plan only after she finds out for sure that Carrie will indeed be a prom participant. Why is this important? Because even though we know disaster is afoot, we still want to believe in the fairy tale of Carrie as Cinderella going to the ball. We will always love the glass slipper story, which makes the outcome of the film even more devastating when our Pygmalion tale is tragically brought to a sudden halt.

Carrie may be lacking a bit in the suspense department  but DePalma makes up for it with some highly stylized and memorable scenes. Every shot is perfectly thought out and planned to exact specifications. Whether it’s the opening moments when the camera swoops down from above on the volleyball game to focus on Carrie, the slow motion pan of the locker room, the chilling interiors of the White home (for which the set designers deserve special recognition), or the dizzying dance at the prom between Carrie and Tommy, there’s a lot here to absorb and admire. There is much symbolism as well, as we see in this particular moment where Carrie reveals her intention to go to the prom.

For me, what occurs in this film is far more horrifying than any ax wielding, meat cleaving, monstrosity rising from the nearest cemetery. It is certainly surreal but it is a bit too real as well. Think about it.
Hasn’t this incident been tragically played out in headlines in another form time and time again over the years. There is the misfit kid who doesn’t fit in at school. He is an outcast, and is often picked on. Perhaps his parents just ignore him and are totally indifferent to him. Perhaps he finds a friend who is facing similar circumstances. And then something goes haywire in their brains.

So they take their revenge. But instead of telekinetic powers, they use pistols, or assault rifles. And, everybody within their path gets taken out. And they finish their mayhem off by taking their own lives. And that’s what makes Carrie really scary. In its own way the film was a prognosticator of events to come in the years ahead, which makes the thought of a misfit kid with telekinetic powers a very frightful notion. If you want an idea as to how bad it would be, read Stephen King’s novel which the film is based on. Carrie’s wrath is far more widespread whereas Palma was limited by his tight movie budget as to how much destruction he could show on the screen.

What DePalma also does, and Stephen King did in his novel, is to make Carrie totally sympathetic. She is as much a victim of those who later become her prey.
But then the rug is pulled out from underneath us and when the innocent are punished along with the guilty by simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, our sympathy towards her dissipates, despite the fact that she is the same girl at the end of the film that she was at the beginning.

Does Carrie still deserve our sympathy, or do we ignore the tragic circumstances of her life, and hold her in contempt? Would you extend your sympathy to someone who would do the same thing in the real world using real weapons under the same circumstances? Not many of us would.

But that is a can of worms that I don’t think DePalma was planning to open when he made the film. But even so, its stunning conclusion and the aftermath will stay with you for a long time. And although my initial feelings toward the film may have been lukewarm, I have learned to admire it more and more with each subsequent viewing. And when a film does that I have no choice but to give it an A-.

No wonder Carrie remains one of the most watched films on Halloween.

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