Over the course of Brian De Palma’s controversial career, critics have dismissed him as a mere Hitchcock imitator and feminists have disparaged his films for their alleged misogyny. There’s no getting around the fact that much of his work is indebted to Hitchcock. In fact, it would not be overstating the case to say that his most compelling films are hyper-Hitchcockian: Sisters, for instance, is an amalgam of both Rear Window and Spellbound; Obsession is an oedipal reworking of Vertigo; and Dressed to Kill is an imaginative variation on Psycho. Carrie, on the other hand—De Palma’s most famous film after Scarface—does not build its story from a particular Hitchcock film. Instead, De Palma renders a second-rate novel by Stephen King into a staggering pop-horror masterpiece. The picture is not only the ultimate teenage nightmare but, in a strange way, one of the darkest coming-of-age tales to ever make its way to theaters.
Director: Brian De Palma
Writers: Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King
Producers: Paul Monash
Cinematographer: Mario Tosi
Editor: Paul Hirsch
Music: Pino Donaggio
Cast: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, John Travolta, Nacy Allen
Runtime: 98 minutes
Genre: Horror, Thriller, High School
US Theatrical Release: November 3, 1976
US Distributor: United Artists
Carrie is the kind of film that typifies the downbeat, experimental filmmaking of the Vietnam era. During this time, Hollywood underwent a renaissance that resulted in its 2nd Golden Age. It was an era in which the director ultimately emerged as the superstar of the cinema. By this time, the Major Studios of the old system had crumbled and out of the wreckage, a new kind of auteur cinema was born in the tradition of the French and British New Waves. Although few want to admit it, De Palma was one of the great American directors of this period, along with Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, and Arthur Penn.
In the film, Sissy Spacek is perfectly cast as the eponymous Carrie White. Like so many of the antiheros who populated the cinema of the Vietnam era, she plays an outsider, a loner, a nobody—a character utterly alienated by her surroundings and herself. It wouldn’t be much of a reach to compare her to Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle: both are lonely, despairing characters whose attempts to connect with people are thwarted; and though both are pushed to the edge in different ways, each emerges from a bloody inferno of their own creation. As scholar Robert Kolker insightfully noted, the “cinema’s bloodgates opened” in 1967 with Bonnie and Clyde, and the bloodletting culminated with Carrie. In fact, blood is both the film’s motif and MacGuffin. All of the narrative verve revolves around red imagery and blood. Even the United Artists logo that prepares us for the credits is emblazoned atypically in crimson red.
Paradoxically, I think the reason De Palma is looked down upon by critics is the very reason he is worthy of praise. He shares Hitchcock’s fascination with voyeurism and pure cinematics, but he plunges these ideas into territory that’s darkly sensual and perversely comic. This is a remarkable instance of a great artist enriching and transcending not just another filmmaker’s style but the grammar of film itself. A close look at Carrie does not reveal a cinematic plagiarist, nor does it show a cruel misogynist. Instead, it shows a director who’s deliberately challenging the conventions of film and complicating its theoretical frameworks. As Picasso famously said, “good artists borrow, great artists steal.” And Carrie proves that De Palma does indeed steal from the best—Hitchcock.
From the very outset of Carrie, De Palma delves into the realms of Psycho. Like Hitchcock, he uses the shower as a set piece for horror and voyeurism. As the blood-red credits appear on screen, his camera slows down to a creeping pace as he takes us into a teenage girls’ steamy locker room. In slow motion, girls prance about in the nude and change into their clothes. We’re aware that we’re being lulled into a state of voyeurism. The entire scene is a clever sendup of the male gaze. To fully grasp what De Palma is up to here, we have to look no further than Laura Mulvey's polemical essay Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema. Using Vertigo as her prime example, she contends that the formal structure of Classical Hollywood is organized around male pleasure, which consequently gives form to the idea of a male gaze.
According to Mulvey, this means that the camera is masculinized, positioning women as the “erotic object for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic objects for the spectator within the auditorium.” The camera eye becomes a peeping Tom, and so does the audience by virtue of watching. Thus actresses are turned into spectacle for the satisfaction of male spectators. De Palma is constantly indulging and kidding Mulvey’s theory. And as his camera continues to weave its way around naked body parts dreamily drifting through the locker room, we hear schmaltzy, soap-operatic music, heightening the tongue-in-cheek eroticism. Soon we make our way to the showers where Carrie is under a shroud of steam and water. The camera examines her body in fragments, and suddenly, a stream of blood trickles down her thigh; the music fades out and the sound of running water is finally heard. This change in sound alone punctures the surreal, voyeuristic state of mind we’ve been in. We’re pulled out of the scene, as Carrie cries out in terror, completely unaware she’s menstruating, completely unaware of what menstruation even is. The tone of the scene changes to horror with wizardly speed as her classmates torment her with a torrent of tampons and pads.
Just as in Psycho, the shower becomes a horrific setting, as does her very own body. Carrie is the object of contempt from the gaze of her female classmates. When the class’s gym coach eventually intervenes to calm Carrie, a light bulb shatters above her head. De Palma references Hitch again as we simultaneously hear the shrieking violin notes of Bernard Herrmann’s immortalized theme from Psycho. It’s the first sign of Carrie’s telekinetic powers, and hereafter the shrill notes become something of a running gag as they accompany every one of her telekinetic maneuvers.
This is a story that’s never been told before in the movies. Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby is equally unique. Pregnancy and menstruation are what propel the plots in each film. Both pictures are also boldly original studies of women in psychic distress, with overtones that are darkly parodistic of religion. Nevertheless, the punishment Carrie’s classmates receive for their malevolence is a week’s worth of detention with their gym teacher, which results in another excellent piece of voyeuristic virtuosity. As the teacher facilitates a militant workout, the camera gazes up and down their bodies. But the goofy moog music that accompanies the scene undermines any kind of sensual thrill the probing camera could possibly create. What we get is a whacked out aerobics video. We can’t help but smirk with delight at the mean girls who’ve made Carrie suffer so much. And yet, despite their maliciousness, the true villain of the picture is Carrie’s mother.
After a fifteen-year hiatus from pictures, Piper Laurie makes a striking return to the screen as Margaret White, a monstrous religious zealot cloaked in black. She looks as though she’s just walked off the set of an old Universal horror film, perhaps one directed by James Whale. And her performance is as frightening as it is campy. Even the old, ramshackle house they live in looks like a set from Universal. There are flourishes of high camp any time she’s on screen. When Carrie tells her mother she’s been invited to the prom, she queries the word “prom?” with fear and trembling, as if the word itself were unholy; thunder booms and lightening flashes. It’s a moment of gothic comedy and simultaneously intimates at the horrors to come. It’s what the legendary critic Pauline Kael appreciated so much about the movie and De Palma in general: the melding of tones, the ability to merge violence so well with dark humor that it appears as though they go hand-in-hand. Mrs. White’s death epitomizes this. It’s grotesquely comic, and also one of the most violently eroticized in the cinema. Flying knives penetrate her as she moans orgasmically. It’s a crucifixion by phalluses. It’s perverse, hilarious, and—in Freudian terms—exactly what Margaret White wanted. It’s also this kind of violence that has raised the eyebrows of many feminists.
When accused of misogyny, De Palma replied, “I like to work with women. I like women characters. If I were interested in men, I’d make movies about men in similar situations. After all, in [De Palma’s 1974 film] Phantom of the Paradise men represent both sides of the coin; the Phantom is tortured and manipulated and he strikes back. That is essentially what happens in Carrie.” A viewing of Carrie corroborates De Palma’s quote. Of the entire cast, there are only two male characters with substantial parts; moreover, these characters are ultimately powerless. A fresh-faced John Travolta plays Billy Nolan, a character with no agency of his own, a character completely controlled by Nancy Allen’s teenage femme fatale. She seduces him. He, in turn, kills a pig to collect blood for a malevolent menstrual prank. Amy Irving’s character, plagued by guilt for the pain she’s caused Carrie, also dictates her boyfriend’s actions. She pays for her sin by prodding her hunk to take Carrie to the senior prom, a teenage rite-of-passage that is utterly subverted. In the end, both girls further Carrie’s suffering, even though their intentions couldn’t be more different.
Fascinatingly, Carrie is the first American film to depict a high school as a place of horrors and nightmares. The final massacre sequence at the prom is prescient. And equally prescient is the fact that Amy Irving’s character is the sole survivor, for she is the one cursed with the gift of telekinesis in De Palma’s next horror piece, The Fury. One of the greatest scares in all of cinema comes at the very end of Carrie. No matter how many times you’ve seen the film, it leaves you jumping with fear. It’s a dreamy, otherworldly finale. Amy Irving’s character floats through a heavenly haze on her way to visit Carrie’s former home, which is now nothing but a cemetery of rubble. The mood shifts from one of wistful mourning to absolute terror in a mere second. And the film closes with a scream of terror, just as it began.