IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
I’ve never been that big a fan of CARRIE (1976).
Granted, there are those who love it, who hail it as a masterpiece by director Brian De Palma, but this interpretation of Stephen King’s novel has never quite done it for me.
I caught up with it again the other day on streaming video, in preparation for the October 18, 2013 release of the remake, starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore.
While this 1976 version of CARRIE failed to wow me yet again, I came away during this latest viewing with a deeper appreciation for its two lead performers, Sissy Spacek as Carrie, and Piper Laurie as her mother.
The story of CARRIE is quite simple. Awkward Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is made fun of and bullied in her high school classes. She’s awkward because she’s raised by her religious fanatic mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) who’s prone to locking Carrie in her room to pray for forgiveness for her sins. In short, her mom’s a lunatic.
One of Carrie’s classmates Sue (Amy Irving) feels sorry for her and arranges in good faith to have her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) ask Carrie to the prom. However, the vindictive Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), angry that her bullying of Carrie led to a week-long detention, plots with her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) to sabotage the prom date.
Oh yeah. There’s one more thing about Carrie. She has telekinetic abilities. She can move objects at will, just by using her mind, and when she gets angry, she kinda loses control of herself. So, if I were Chris and Billy, or Carrie’s mom, I’d be careful about pushing her buttons, but I’m not, which means these folks don’t have a clue about what they’re getting themselves into, and it goes without saying, that they get what’s coming to them. Big time.
CARRIE is a disturbing tale of a young high school student dominated and tormented by her mother and bullied by her classmates. The mother-dominated relationship has shades of Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, and I’m guessing this is what attracted director De Palma to the project, since so many of his early movies were rip-offs— er, homages to Hitchcock movies.
De Palma’s best films display a creative visual style that some critics say were rip-offs of Hitchcock, but I liked De Palma’s signature moments, and when he’s on, it’s difficult not to enjoy his work. That being said, there’s not much of that style to be found here in CARRIE. The prom sequence which is nicely choreographed comes closest, but for most of the film, De Palma’s camerawork is uncharacteristically subdued.
My favorite part of CARRIE is Sissy Spacek’s performance. She creates a perfect shy and withdrawn teen, and she’s totally believable in the role.
Equally as good is Piper Laurie as Carrie’s mother Margaret. By far, Laurie is the scariest part of CARRIE. She’s absolutely terrifying, and it’s frightening to imagine what growing up under her roof would be like. If she had a son his name would have been Norman Bates.
Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for Academy Awards for their roles, Spacek for Best Actress in a Lead Role and Laurie for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Neither actress won.
The rest of the cast plays like a “who’s who” for up and coming stars of the 1970s. Amy Irving plays good girl Sue Snell, and she’s okay. Irving would be even better in De Palma’s THE FURY (1979).
William Katt, TV’s GREATEST AMERICAN HERO (1981-86) does a nice job as nice guy Tommy Ross, and pre- SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977) John Travolta plays bad boy Billy Nolan. Travolta actually enjoys one of the film’s most entertaining scenes, when he’s in the car with his girlfriend Chris (Nancy Allen). It’s a great scene, as Chris goes back and forth between teasing her boyfriend and tormenting him, manipulating him perfectly, and Travolta’s confused reactions during this sequence are priceless.
As Chris, Nancy Allen delivers one of the better performances in the movie, right up there with Spacek and Laurie. Chris is a royal pain in the butt, and Allen is full of spoiled angry energy throughout. Allen appeared in several other Brian De Palma’s movies after CARRIE. She starred in DRESSED TO KILL (1980), and BLOW OUT (1981). No surprise since she was married to De Palma at the time.
And P.J. Soles who we’d see later in HALLOWEEN (1978) and STRIPES (1981) is also on hand as one of the conniving teens.
The screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, based on the novel by Stephen King, tells a very sad story. High school can be a scary place, and for Carrie it’s full of horrors. Her home life with her mother is even worse. This is the horror that is CARRIE, a sad portrait of a lonely girl.
For some, this is what horror is all about, producing an emotion in the audience, in this case extreme sympathy for Carrie. This is all well and good, but I prefer my horror with a greater sense of fun, and by “fun” I don’t meant “let’s-throw-a-party” type deal, but “let’s get you squirming in your seats” type of fun. There’s none of that here, which is a major reason why I’ve never been all that into CARRIE. There’s nothing fun about it.
It also has a ridiculous over-the-top ending that just doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. And it’s a bit dated. For example, there’s a scene where a teacher slaps a student, which is something that wouldn’t happen today, and later on we see high school students casually driving while drinking beer.
Compared to the other big horror hits of the 1970s, films like THE EXORCIST (1973), THE OMEN (1976), and HALLOWEEN (1978), CARRIE just doesn’t measure up. It’s not as scary as these other movies, its story isn’t as riveting, and it’s not as stylish.
While you’re watching it, CARRIE plays like a depressingly bad prom date. It’s painful to get through. But after it’s over, and time passes, you realize it’s really not that big of a deal.
Neither is CARRIE.
—Did you like this column? Then check out the book, IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, available now as an EBook from NECON EBooks at www.neconebooks.comand also as a print edition at https://www.createspace.com/4293038.