[Originally published in Movietone News 53, January 1977]
For the past 16 years I’ve been unable to step into a shower without thinking of Psycho. For the next 16, Carrie will have the same effect on me. The film’s opening credits sequence is the most audacious voyeuristic fantasy Brian De Palma has yet given us. In Sisters, an apparently blind woman mistook the men’s dressing room for the women’s, walked in and started to undress as we watched. In Carrie, in a sort of National Lampoon–ish low camp, De Palma takes his camera into a high school girls’ lockerroom just after gym class. But even more quickly than it does in Sisters, the adolescent leering turns to painfully mature shock and horror. In the locker room scene and throughout the film that follows, De Palma has captured the uniquely abominable cruelty of which adolescents are capable (a side of high school that’s been conveniently overlooked in recent TV and movie high school nostalgia); and, though it may be a bit overstated here, it’s a chillingly universal basis on which to build a monumental film of emotional and spiritual horror.
A number of reviewers and critics have attacked De Palma’s use of slowmotion and split screen in the film’s central prom night sequence, contending that the devices detract from, rather than enhance, the shock value of Carrie’s humiliation by a cruel practical joke and her subsequent vengeful unleashing of telekinetic powers. But De Palma has figured his audience well: he knows that by the time most of us get into the theater to see Carrie we will already know generally what happens in that scene. He’s not going to surprise us with it. But he can deliver some excruciating suspense by slowing the action as audience adrenalin builds, wondering not what’s going to happen but how, when, and how awful it’s going to be. And he can still shock us. The slow motion at first builds up and sustains the moment of Carrie’s social triumph, her selection as prom queen with her at first reluctant but later surprisingly romance-struck date as king. The slowed action is heartrending since we know the inevitable will happen, no matter how we may try, with De Palma, to hold back the movement of time and enjoy Carrie’s happiness as long as possible. When the worst occurs, the slow motion works the other way, dragging out the horror, humiliation, degradation, and shattering revelation of human cruelty that lie in that awful moment.
The polarities of the film are such that, when Carrie’s social debut is turned into horrible ridicule, it serves only to reaffirm her fanatical mother’s equally extreme response to the world (that everything but prayer is evil). We desperately need a figure of balance; for though we sympathize heartbreakingly with Carrie White, we cannot identify with this odd-girl-out’s warped religious upbringing and manic inferiority complex. And her telekinetic vengeance on her tormentors (and a number of innocent bystanders as well), while it doesn’t entirely alienate her from our sympathies, moves her decisively out of the realm where empathy is called for.
Fortunately we have our point of balance in Sue Snell, Carrie’s one classmate who seems to have a genuine sense of guilt for having shared in the gym class ridicule and locker room torment. Sue is most endeared to us by her “Shut up, Chris” to Carrie’s arch-tormentor who, kept after school as punishment, determines to make a major issue out of the detention. Sue’s more remorseful take-your-lumps attitude is the earliest clue that she will become the pivotal figure of the film. She asks her boyfriend, top jock Tommy Ross, to take Carrie to the prom instead of her; and though her motives aren’t at first clear, we later see them as a sincere effort to help Carrie to social acceptance. When we need Sue most, De Palma gives her to us. In the prom-night slow motion sequence our interest is slowly shifted to Sue, who spots the bucket-of-blood setup and tries—as De Palma has us do by protracting time—to avert disaster, an effort that gets her sent out of the hall by the misunderstanding gym teacher and ironically saved from the conflagration that follows. We don’t see Sue for the next few intensely dramatic and violent scenes; but we remember her, and become identified with her more than ever when she reappears toward the end of the film. Something Happens (it’s safe to tell you that because no matter how ready you think you are for it, De Palma will still get you), and when It does, we become Sue Snell: understanding Carrie White, sympathizing with her, feeling sadness and guilt for what happened to her, yet finally utterly terrified of her and unable to free ourselves from her chilling grasp. And if we are Sue, the logical extension is that Carrie is Brian De Palma, and telekinesis a terrible metaphor for the power of cinema to make the impossible real—a power of which Brian De Palma is rapidly demonstrating himself to be one of the supreme masters.
Direction: Brian De Palma. Screenplay: Lawrence D. Cohen, after the novel by Stephen King. Cinematography: Mario Tosi. Editing: Paul Hirsch. Music: Dino Pinaggio. Production: Paul Monash.
The players: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley.
© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow