Sunday, October 11, 2009

They're All Gonna Laugh at You!

You may be wondering why, in a post that about one of the few really good movies based on a Stephen King novel, I didn;t use this more iconic image. Two reasons: That second image is overworked and this shot of Sissy Spacek says volumes more about the movie. It comes near the very end of the movie, so I don't want to talk about it too much, right now. I'll get there.

Let's talk, instead, about how director Brian DePalma, who, despite all the flashy camera work and split screens (which work so beautifully in this movie, by the way), allows Carrie to be about the characters and their stories. And he was smart enough to allow his amazing (almost all-female) cast to just do their thing. In fact, Carrie may well be the first modern Feminist Horror Movie, ever. Warning: There be massive spoilers ahead. If you've never seen Carrie (and again, shame on you if you haven't), you may want to skip the embedded clips.

Ok, the movie does have John Travolta and William Katt, who are both fine actors, but they are actually tertiary characters in this story of feminine sexual repression and it's consequences. The boys in this movie are merely pawns of the bitch and the good girl, both manipulating their respective boyfriends to do their parts in the debacle that is to come at the Prom. Even the School Principal is a befuddled oaf who can't remember Carrie's name (he keeps calling her "Cassie" until she snaps and his coffee cup breaks all by itself). The other boys are simply goofballs and comic foils who have little screen time and exist only because boys do.

So, what about the vast cast of female powerhouses? Well, there's our villainess, Chris (the future ex-Mrs. DePalma, Nancy Allen). She's the one who starts the "Plug it up!" chant when Carrie gets surprised by her first menses in the girls' shower. Punished when caught and then banned from the prom when she won't take the punishment, Chris builds a campaign of hate towards Carrie that rivals few in in Evil Bitch history. She uses sex to get her boyfriend, Billy Nolan (Travolta) into killing the pig and rigging the bucket of blood above the stage.

Then there's the well-meaning gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). It's Miss Collins who comes to the rescue when Carrie is being terrorized by the other girls and Miss Collins who encourages Carrie to try to fit in and make friends. And poor Sue Snell (Amy Irving). She feels so guilty about being so mean, she uses the promise of sex to get The Greatest American Hero to take Carrie to the prom. And let's not forget about Chris' Posse (insert your own cat joke, here) of hateful High School Bitches, including the underrated Edie McClurg (who would go on to greater fame as Grace, the school secretary in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) and 80's 'Scream Queen' P.J. Soles (Halloween; Stripes).

I know... I'm getting there. But Carrie, herself, has to come first. Raised by a single, fanatically religious mother; sheltered from reality and beaten into believing, Carrie knows it's not just her social retardation that makes her different. She's always know it. In the novel, King talks about an episode of rocks falling from the sky when Carrie was a child. Her father long gone (according to her mother, he was an alcoholic sinner, though it's more likely he couldn't take his wife's brand of crazy, anymore), Carrie obviously didn't go to school in the same district I did, because one day in 5th grade, all the girls went to see a movie in the gymnatorium and the the boys got an extra recess. Maybe her mom kept her home that day. Whatever the reason, her ignorance is the trigger that turns her powers on. Or more literally, just as a woman's first visit by her 'Friend from Redbank' (that's what my Mom grew-up calling it) signifies the "on" switch for procreation, so does it trigger the "on" switch for her telekinesis. Suddenly, she has power and can assert herself. She accepts Tommy's invitation, defies her mother for the first time ever (even restraining her on the bed with her mind) and goes to the Prom, with her mother's words echoing in her head: "They're all gonna laugh at you!" And we all know how that turned out. But really, what can one expect when you break the painfully shy girl's back with a bath in pig's blood?

Finally, there is Carrie's mother, Margaret White (the incomparable Piper Laurie). Bat-shiat crazy doesn't begin to describe Margaret White. Blinded to reality by her fanatical Pentecostal beliefs, Margaret's guilt over having enjoyed sex with her husband has made her devote her life to raising a sinless child. When biology catches up with Carrie, Margaret is sure it's because she's sinned and locks her up in a close with a creepy, day-glo-eyed statue of the crucifixion of St. Sebastion. Maragret pulls her hair and flagellates herself; she covers nearly inch of her skin and calls Carrie's breasts 'dirty pillows.' It's no wonder that when Carrie finally takes her out, it's with tremendous irony:

(I wish that clip included the original score and sound, but it was teh only one I could find that wasn't 8 years long).

Of course, even sole-survivor Sue Snell may have gone crazy, by the end. Starting a craze that lasted for a very long time, DePalma tacks on an epilogue dream-sequence that made every one who saw it for the first time nearly pee their pants:

And that's where the above image comes in to play. Scared, confused and still feeling the height of powers, Spacek's face in that shot is filled with more emotions than I can count. Both Spacek and Laurie were nominated for Oscars for their remarkable performances, though in true genre fashion, neither won. But pretty much everyone brings their A game to the table. Sadly, Ms. Buckley went on to star as Margaret White in the ill-fated Broadway musical version, Carrie White aka Carrie: The Musical. Now whoever would have guessed that a serious musical of this story would have failed? Sadly, a camp production of the show will never be, as King has had his attorneys seal up the rights forever and ever, Amen.

And of course, Carrie and her classmates attend "Bates High School." And we all know who Norman Bates loved above anyone. So who wins here? No one, obviously. The villainess and her thugs are dead; The Greatest American Hero, the gym teacher and the mom are dead. Indeed, the title character is dead. Christ! I just realized that Carrie is the female Hamlet with Amy Irving as Horatio. OK, maybe not. But it is an interesting treatise on the feminine power. Plus, it's a damn good ride!

On a personal note, here are two odd stories about the first time I saw Carrie:

In 1976, I was not old enough to drive, but I looked old enough to get into an 'R' rated film. At the time, there was the Eric Theaters chain in the Philly area and they had recently converted all their theaters into twins (the precursors to today's multiplexes). In the other auditorium, an 'X' rated porno called "Tarzan" was playing. I went to the box-office and asked "One, please." The bored ticket girl, without batting an eye, asked "For which movie?" At 15, I was sorely tempted to try my luck, but I had read the book and really wanted to see Carrie, so I didn't. Instead, I saw the movie and ate it up like delicious horror-movie candy corn and went outside to wait to be picked up (remember - I wasn't old enough to drive).

Also waiting to picked up was a fellow a bit older than I, maybe in his late 20's. He was obviously the kind of social misfit King was writing about, but I was stuck and kind of had to acknowledge it when he said "Some movie, huh?"

"Yeah. It was great," I said.

"They have that, you know."


"The Government. They have people who can do that stuff."

In my mind, I'm thinking "Oh God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God..." but I say aloud, "Oh, yeah?"

"Yeah. They're trainin' 'em to kill the Russians."

I was never so happy to see my mother in my life as I was at that moment. Of course, he may have known something, after all:

There is a dreadful sequel to Carrie that is not worth mentioning and a TV remake that doesn't really work quite as well, though is slightly more faithful to the book. Still, nothing will beat sitting in a darkened theater and seeing Carrie for the first time.

We'll talk again about King films. Some are actually very good: The Frank Darabont Trilogy -- The Shawshank Redemption/The Green Mile/The Mist -- ; Stand by Me; Misery; Pet Semetary. Some are pretty good: The Stand (the best of the made-for-TV King movies from director Mick Garris); 1408; Apt Pupil; Creepshow. Some are just OK: It (ruined, as is the novel, by a stupid ending); Christine; Firestarter. Some are downright awful: Maximum Overdrive; Thinner; Desperation (the worst of the made-for-TV King movies from director Mick Farris). But those are for another post.

Tonight is all about King's first published novel, rescued from the trash by his loving wife and made into the movie that cemented the careers of both Brian DePalma and Sissy Spacek, Not bad for 1976.

More terrors, anon.


Geoff said...

Re: "They have those, you know"-- that would be the very subject of De Palma's very next film!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I love me some Stephen King and at one point had read all his books. That changed after grad school and he lost his way in the early 90's. In recent years he has written a few good ones but nothing like his work in the 70's and 80's.

ps. you forgot Dolores Claiborne, a great movie and writing the book completely in first person added so much to Dolores's story.

Mrs. Pine said...

agreed, great post! thinking back to you and carrie inspiring me with my halloween '08's costume. we need to go to a scary movie together, and soon!

Stephen said...

To say nothing of Carrie-The Musical!