Carrie (1976)
By: Stuart Giesel on October 30, 2013 | Comments
20th Century Fox | Region B | 2.35:1, 1080p | English DTS-HD MA 5.1 | 98 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Credits
Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travolta, Nancy Allen
Screenplay: Lawrence D. Cohen
Country: USA
When Brian De Palma departs from this world he'll most likely be remembered for directing one, particular film: 1983's Scarface. But in his obituaries, you can bet the other film to be name-checked will be Carrie, and for good reason. It might feel a tad dated due to the very 70's wardrobe and the set design, but in essence it is a very relevant story even by today's standards. In fact, its themes of alienation and the pains of adolescence are possibly even more relevant now. Importantly, Carrie still retains that perfectly creepy factor that sets it apart from other horror films of its period. And that's before getting to that show-stopping ending.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a teenage outcast at her school, having been brought up by her puritanical mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) to mistrust and fear people - essentially she is a shut-in and a bit of a basket case. In a horrifying and humiliating sequence, Carrie experiences her first period in a crowded girls' locker room at school, and because she never had things like puberty explained to her, thinks there's something terribly wrong with her, and she freaks out in front of everyone. Naturally, she's tormented by her schoolmates. The girls responsible, including ringleader Chris (Nancy Allen) and Sue (Amy Irving) are given detention. Sue feels genuinely bad about the way she treated Carrie, so she compels her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt - whose crows' feet make him look 30 rather than 18) to ask Carrie to the upcoming prom. Chris doesn't feel quite so bad, because she and her dopey boyfriend Billy (John Tavolta) plot to embarrass Carrie on prom night. Problem for them, and everyone else, is that Carrie has realised she's developed telekinetic powers, powers that she can't quite control in times of shock and stress, meaning that everyone is caught in the fallout, regardless of who might or might not have wished her harm.

Carrie is a pretty straightforward story when it comes down to it, but there are a few reasons why it works so well. Yeah, sure, there are interesting themes that are still relevant today: the effect of indoctrinated religion on children, the power of peer pressure, the crippling effect of bullying - but thankfully you can just as easily view the film as a straight-up thriller with great camerawork, an undeniably creepy atmosphere and some grand guignol moments if you'd prefer. And when it comes down to it, there are two reasons why Carrie works so well. One - the acting is uniformly terrific. And two - Brian De Palma knows precisely how to balance this sort of material, ensuring Carrie teeters comfortably on the tightrope between slick and shlock.

Carrie herself is an interesting character. She's such a nonentity that the Principal continually gets her name wrong. As played by Spacek, you can (sort of) see why she's treated as the outcast she's become. Now, Spacek isn't the unattractive weirdo she's made out to be in the film - she's not classically beautiful, true, but nonetheless she's extremely striking, possessing almost alien features. It's to Spacek's credit that we can really see her struggle between wanting to fit in with people of her age and lead a normal life, and conforming to the twisted world-view of her delusional mother who, admittedly, just wants the best for her daughter but is so fucked-up that she can't see how much damage she's doing to her. Or maybe Margaret knows exactly how much damage she's doing. Are Carrie's powers truly Satanic, as she insists? By the end, you might agree, part of the cleverness of the script and the source material, Stephen King's original novel.

Spacek is sensational in the lead role. Having made her mark in Terrence Malick's brilliant and moody Badlands, she's even better here, her character absolutely stripped down, physically and psychologically, to its purest form, so that we know things are going to go bad - really bad - by the time the prom comes around. You sort of know what's going to happen by the film's climax, but it doesn't stop it from being absolutely heartbreaking thanks to Spacek's vulnerability. She nails the character's awkwardness, her character's conflicted emotions between her mother's strict upbringing and her desire for male companionship. Piper Laurie is also excellent as Carrie's unhinged mother, quite over-the-top at times, but given the material absolutely fitting. And whenever Laurie threatens to derail the film with another religious rant, Spacek is there playing against her nuttiness. Their scenes together are the best in the film, and both were deservedly awarded with Oscar nominations, a rarity for a horror film. Obviously Spacek and Laurie overshadow the rest of the cast, including a goofy and, as it turns out, malicious John Travolta who DOES NOT like to be called a "dumb shit". And - holy shit! - is that memorable 80's comedy sidekick stalwart Edie McClurg as one of the bullies? Yep, sure is - though she'll always be remembered as Grace, Ed Rooney's secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

As much as Carrie is a showcase for Spacek and Laurie's performances, it is as much (or maybe even more) a showcase for Brian De Palma's cinematic show-off stylings. He's pretty shameless in his use of his now trademark elaborate tracking shots and slo-mo, typified best in Carrie by its opening credits title sequence in the girls' locker room. De Palma manages to make this scene feel lecherous (there's a lot of full-frontal nudity), horrifying (Carrie's treatment at the hands of the girls is sickening) and exotic all at the same time, quite a feat. De Palma is at least canny enough to realise that Carrie wouldn't work without a healthy dose of camp and "wink wink" humour; therefore, the film is able to shift from outrageous to deadly serious and back again with ease. He makes use of a split diopter lens - basically, bifocals for a camera - where objects in the foregound and the background are both able to be kept in focus. Elsewhere there are dutch angles, slow zooms and all sorts of other trickery that De Palma's become renowned for. He's able to build a legitimate sense of dread, such as when Tommy Ross and Carrie White are called to stage as the king and queen of the prom. De Palma stages this scene perfectly - a slow-motion trek to the stage that's gorgeously scored and slow but never boring. Throughout the entire sequence, however, we're feeling sick in the stomach because we know what's to come - this is the true horror of Carrie; not the chaos that follows, but the anticipation. And some scenes are truly memorable and unsettling, such as the one where Spacek slowly walks through the hall illuminated by the beautiful bloom of spreading fire.

Speaking of spreading fire, everyone's probably familiar with this famed prom sequence - pig's blood, split-screen shots and all - but what you tend not to remember is how brilliantly edited the sequence is - and also how short and (pig's blood aside) how bloodless it is; it's precisely edited for maximum impact. It's odd that Carrie still warrants an Aussie R rating, though I suspect it's as much for the nudity and sexual content as it is the violence (though there's a death at the end of the film which is a ripsnorter). And, aside from Jaws, Carrie probably has the most legendary shock scene in horror cinema history (though if you know it's coming or have seen the film before it's not particularly shocking). Still, don't expect Carrie to be filled with scenes of explicit gore or violence - gorehounds will almost assuredly walk away disappointed.

Like De Palma's later The Fury (which might as well be a companion piece to this), much of the satisfaction is seeing our protagonist (who was played by Amy Irving in The Fury) grasp the extent of her powers. But it's not exactly a satisfying payback a'la Death Wish. That's not the point of the film - this isn't some feminist vigilante film like Ms. 45. Carrie is meant to be heartbreaking and devastating, not provide cheap, revenge-soaked thrills. Yet even though Carrie's story is ultimately a grief-stricken one, the film is also a delightfully over-the-top experience, bolstered by the expert camerawork and Pino Donaggio's unsubtle, occasionally beautiful, mostly overbearing score, which knows precisely when to go large and operatic, and when to dial it back - its grand, almost arch quality suits the material perfectly, though there's a bit too much of the "Psycho violin shriek" here for its own good.

With the forthcoming and unnecessary Carrie remake due to hit Aussie cinemas soon, it's perhaps fitting that a lot of discussion around that particular film and its shortcomings suggest that, in 2013, Brian De Palma's almost forty-year old film is more relevant than ever. But thankfully, 1976's Carrie never betrays the source material by treating it with deadly seriousness, because to do so would actually rob the legitimately horrific moments of their power. It's a fitting testament to De Palma's talent as a director (albeit, a show-offy one) and a skilled cast that the pulp, but extremely strong, source material has elevated Carrie as one of the horror highlights in a decade that also gave us Halloween, Deliverance, Jaws, The Exorcist and many others.
The Disc
The Blu-Ray video quality is decent but a little disappointing - the picture is a little soft but colours are vibrant - sometimes so vibrant that they practically bleed out of the screen. Scenes at the prom which are overwhelmed with garish greens and severe reds almost drain the picture of any significant detail. There is also notable grain at times, and blacks appear wishy-washy. However, skin tones remain natural. The English 5.1 master audio is certainly piercing thanks to Pino Donaggio's grand, operatic score; the violin-work practically bleeds the ears if you happen to have the volume cranked up. The film works best, from an audio perspective, when it's ratcheting up the tension at the prom and then, of course, during Carrie's final humiliation and retribution, filling the space with all manner of panicked cries and dreaded sound effects.

The disc's features are mainly notable for two excellent featurettes. The first is Acting Carrie. This is a thorough 40+ minute discussion with most of the principal cast and some of the crew talking about the performances of Carrie. Brian De Palma talks about casting Carrie along with George Lucas, who was auditioning actors for Star Wars at the time. Sissy Spacek talks about her audition and working with the cast including Piper Laurie and the crew including Jack Fisk (Carrie's art director, whom Spacek married). Other actors including Laurie, Amy Irving, P.J. Soles (Norma), Nancy Allen (Chris), Betty Buckley (Miss Collins) and others (but no John Travolta) talk about how they prepared and bonded with each other, shooting the infamous shower and prom scenes, and other aspects of the film. This proves to be a detailed and informative feature. The second featurette is Visualising Carrie: From Words to Images. De Palma, writer Laurence D Cohen and editor Paul Hirsch along with others talk about transferring Carrie from page to screen; the challenges involved, making things leaner (i.e. they were forced to have Carrie destroy the high school hall, not the entire town which is what happens in King's novel, for budgetary reasons), finding the perfect place to stand in as the White home, the visual style of the film including the long take at the ball, the use of split screen, sound design and music and how the ending was inspired by Deliverance's last shot. This particular 40+ minute featurette is probably the highlight out of the disc's features. The disc also contains another featurette which is substantially less interesting - Singing Carrie: Carrie, The Musical - where Cohen and Betty Buckley talk about the ill-fated musical version of Carrie. Elsewhere, there's a spoilerific original trailer for Carrie, along with the international theatrical trailer for the 2013 Carrie remake. The film looks OK but derivative, and it seems from the footage that Chloe Grace Moretz is too Hollywood-pretty to pull off the role.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Brian De Palma may get criticised for ripping off Hitchcock and being a show-off with his often stylised, in-your-face camerawork, but when he's working with good material and strong actors his films transcend the silliness to become truly cinematic. Carrie is one of his best films, both horrifying and cheesy, thankfully possessing enough self-awareness to ensure it never takes itself completely seriously. Picture and sound quality on this Blu-Ray release is fine if hardly definitive, but a decent collection of extras will find favour with Carrie fans.
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