Monday, August 20, 2012

'Carrie' (1976) directed by Brian DePalma, 17th August 2012

(Seen as part of the 'MGM Terror in the Tunnels' at the Old Vic Tunnels)

'Carrie' is a film that wears its subtexts on its sleeve (and eventually all over the rest of the body as well).  In adapting Stephen King's story, DePalma doesn't pull any punches in telling us of the passion of Carrie White.  It's a chilling film, but on a quite a few levels, 'Carrie' shares a lot of beats with a 'Revenge of the Nerds' style high-school comedy - all of the beats of the genre are here: the bitchy cheerleaders, the girl with the heart of gold, the doofus dorky guy, the pleasant 'Prince Charming'.  The school itself seems anonymous, a faintly antiseptic archetype of the 1970s school.   But DePalma gradually twists the knife and slowly the nostalgia (to modern audiences anyway) boils away to reveal immense cruelty bubbling just under the surface.

In the famous opening credits sequence scene DePalma puts us on a slow motion tracking shot through a steamy girls changing room.  It's a tableaux of innocent, wholesome feminine behaviour.  The girls play tricks on each other, giggling and gossiping. The billowing clouds of steam in the air coupled with the dreamlike slow motion and the soft, lilting flute music playing lulls us into dreamy state, it seems like a distilled idealisation of a girls changing room.  As a male viewer I begin feel like an interloper, a peeping tom in a feminine world absent from the influence of men.

We track through a cloud of steam to find the Carrie White alone in the shower.  She's depicted here as something like a classical nude, something vaguely classically statueesque in the steam clouds.  But this image is dashed when, she's brought back down to earth with a bump.  At the moment she touches between her legs and sees blood on her fingers, this pastoral scene shatters.  She staggers out seeking help and the girls, who have just been explicitly painted as communal, friendly and beautiful, quickly morph into a terrifying pack of harpies.  They pelt Carrie with sanitary napkins as she cowers screaming in the corner.  It's this sort of duplicity and rapidly transforming identities that DePalma exploits throughout the film.  It's also the first of many examples of femininity unexpectedly morphing into something uncontrollable and violent, the ultimate example being, of course, the climactic prom sequence.

As far as famous movie monsters are concerned, Carrie White is one of the most obviously sympathetic.  This is someone who's been systematically ground into the dirt by almost everyone she meets.  Even those who are ostensibly trying to help commit tiny, thoughtless atrocities against her without noticing.  One of the earliest demonstrations of her telekinesis occurs when the principal of the school repeatedly addresses her as 'Cassie' even when corrected repeatedly by both Carrie and her sympathetic gym teacher.  He's trying to help, but not out of sympathy, but because it's his job. 

As I said before, DePalma is not particularly subtle about any of the essential misery of Carrie, and this on-the-nose symbolism comes to a head when Carrie returns home.  From the outside her house looks like any other US suburban home, but inside it's a candle-lit gothic nightmare.  It's a space filled with dirty surfaces covered in religious icons.  We repeatedly focus on a statue of the martyrdom of St Sebastian, the tortured human body covered in tiny bleeding wounds.  Draw your own connections here.

I hadn't seen the film in a long time before this, and I'd forgotten just how much of the rest of the film spends rehabilitating Carrie.  The opening sequences are such a concisely powerful demonstration of the miserable life she leads that there isn't any need to underline it.  We properly meet Amy Irving (who feels genuinely guilty about her behaviour in the changing room) and Tommy Ross.  In what can begin to feel like a straightforward revenge horror, it's nice to see two genuinely pleasant people who want to do make amends and do a nice thing for someone.

Tommy Ross
Tommy Ross especially is an interesting character.  He seems cut from the cloth of the meathead quarterback, but is perhaps the only truly good person in the film.  Despite initially being sceptical of Amy's plan for him to take Carrie to the prom, he persists and succeeds, treating her well and surprisingly even himself by genuinely feeling attraction to her.

Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) and Billy Nolan (John Travolta)
As for antagonists we have the amoral Chris Hargenson who comes up with a very complicated and cruel plan to humiliate Carrie for extremely petty means.  Her sidekick is John Travolta's Billy Nolan.  He's more of a sketch than a complete character, but Travolta manages to make him completely venal, slapping his girlfriend more than once and taking an obscene pleasure in killing a pig.  

Carrie and her mother (Piper Laurie)
Closer to home, as far as enemies go is Carrie's mother.  She is the ne plus ultra Christian fundamentalist oppressor.  She is so obviously bonkers, sinister and genuinely odd that you begin to wonder how exactly she fits into society at large.  In the rare moment of her interacting with someone that's not Carrie, people seem to humour her with the intention of getting rid of her without causing too much offence.  It's interesting that Carrie seems to live in an authoritarian matriarchal world.  The people that have active power over her, whether they have good or bad intentions are all women.  The men are relegated either to incompetence, or in Tommy's case elevated to the level of a faintly intangible holy icon.  This  pushing back against a matriarchy from the point of view of the outcast is intriguing, for me, it represents a violent rejection of the plethora of potential feminine roles that have been offered to her by society.  Everyone seems to think they know what would be best for her, but even if they have the finest intentions they are still intending to impose their will upon her.

All of these plans for Carrie converge at the prom.  On one side we have the perhaps overly complicated revenge plan of Chris and Billy.  This has involved killing a pig, draining it of blood and setting up a complicated pulley system that allows them to hide under the stage waiting for just the right moment to dump the blood on her head.  To make sure they'll get her on stage they've contrived to have someone infiltrate the prom organising council with the plan of rigging the election for Prom King and Queen.  You've got to hand to them, as far as sadistically diabolical revenge plans go it is at the very least competently executed.  We also have the far more straightforward plan of Amy and Tommy.  Tommy will take Carrie to the prom, and give her at least one enjoyable night.  

It's a sign of a great film that even with a famously grand guignol and fun sequence like Carrie's psychokinetic rampage, I find myself wishing that maybe just this once, Carrie will dodge the bucket of blood and go on to live a happy and fulfilled life.  Pre-rampage, the prom is shown as heavenly, shot in soft-focus and in the same ethereal slow motion as the changing room sequence in the beginning.  The emotional high point is the slow dance between Tommy and Carrie.  It's as if they're floating on air, and as Carrie looks at him we see his blonde hair illuminated from behind giving him a clear angelic halo.

But once more in the film, as soon as we are lulled into a sense of the heavenly we are brought back to earth with a bloody bump.  The echoes of the opening shower scene are unmistakable.  In majestic slow motion, with a flute playing softly, Carrie takes the stage with Tommy as King and Queen. Everyone smiles and claps, seemingly pure, sincere praise.  But cross-cut with this are sharp, 'Psycho' like violin stings as we see the bucket teetering above the stage.  We flash to close-ups of Chris, teasing the string that'll bring the bucket down.  She's hidden under the stage, lit from below and looking utterly devilish.  The tension expertly build and builds, crosscutting back and forth, panning around the stage.  Suddenly it all feels inevitable, and with a lascivious lick of her lips and a smile she pulls the cord.

Carrie is rebaptised in pig's blood, and at the moment of this corruption of Christianity her repressed witch-demon self is unleashed.  The empty bucket strikes the angelic Tommy on the head, and he collapses like a slain sacrificial lamb at her feet.  From powerless to all powerful she controls wind, water, fire and earth, cutting a sadistic and cruel swathe through friend and foe alike.  He shows the rampage through moving split screens (in a style that's faintly reminiscent of the documentary 'Woodstock').  This allows us to keep focus on the now wide-eyed and masklike visage of Carrie as well as simultaneously seeing how she uses the architecture and infrastructure of the school itself to wreak havoc.  In an unforgettable shot we see the backdrop of the stage erupt into flames as Carrie seems to glide through the panicked crowd.

What is DePalma telling us about femininity and womanhood here?  He seems both awed and  fearful of the power of women.  Prior to this we are encouraged to view Carrie as a sympathetic protagonist, but now she has tipped over into the world of the movie monster.  Her rage is indiscriminate: one of the most disturbing images is when her sympathetic and friendly gym teacher stares in fear at Carrie before being crushed by a falling gym sign.  Even though 'Carrie' is a film about interactions between women and the internal life of a high school girl, the power of these images suggests DePalma's conscious inability to know the workings of the female mind, and the fear that this lack of understanding creates.  

In the concluding scenes of the film, Carrie ends her telekinetic rampage by destroying the remaining aspects of her life.  She is ritually penetrated by her mother upon returning home, and in her final moments impales her mother in return with kitchen knives, leaving her in the same pose as the martyrdom of St Sebastian.  Then in the last paroxysms of rage brings the house down around her.  Her rage has ended in self-destruction, and her epitaph is 'Carrie White Burns in Hell!'.  In the iconic closing scene she proves that her influence will extend beyond the grave in the minds of both the characters and the audience, reaching out of her grave to pull a dreaming and traumatised Amy in after her.  This archetypal 'furie' has returned to the land of mythology.  The bucket of blood being a direct callback to the menstruation in the opening scenes leads me inevitably to the conclusion that DePalma's intention is to paint a repressed fury as an crucial facet of femininity.  Truly, "hell hath no fury like a woman scorned".

After 35 years 'Carrie' still works amazingly well, and still has many valid and relevant points.  To modern eyes there are a few scenes that approach camp, and some of the fashion is a bit laughable, especially Tommy's ridiculous powder blue prom suit.  But in another sense the concept of the bullied outcast going on a violent, murderous rampage has new cultural currency in the modern era.  In particular, it is hard not to think of the Columbine massacre as Carrie gets her sadistic revenge on her classmates.

It's fast-moving, propulsive plotted and darkly satirical.  All of the performances are spot-on, with Sissy Spacek giving a career defining performance.  Her horrified transformation into a cold-eyed force of destruction is chilling, especially in contrast to the beaten down and submissive girl in the rest of the film. DePalma uses rapidly cut montage sequences throughout, as well as the split screen techniques and occasionally cheesy vaguely synthesised bubblegum music to create an ephemeral 'pop' aesthetic that only makes the inevitable horror more shocking when it arrives.  But, shocking as the events may be they remain always enjoyable.  

Because while only a real monster couldn't empathise with Carrie, we also take pleasure in watching that bucket wobble precariously over her head.  We're filled with the same kind of sick anticipation that the bullies are feeling, crouched in the wings, waiting to see her disgusted reaction.  This carefully set up duality is what makes the film so much fun, so memorable and so effective.

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