Comfortable and Furious

70s Horror Classics: Carrie

Tagline: If only they knew she had the power.

Fair Value of Carrie (1976 version): $14.00. An all-time classic that’s mellowed with age, iconic yet dated.

Who is this film perfect for? Teenage girls who don’t watch a lot of horror films. I’d say it’s a perfect slumber party movie.

Who will not like this film? Horror enthusiasts are looking for more suspense or thrills. This film is mostly about slow burn psychological horror.

TL, DR: Telekinetic teen goes postal at prom.

Moar, Please By now it is a firmly established dramatic trope that teenage girls are the cruelest entities in the universe. The problem with regarding revolutionary innovations is that such innovations become so firmly enmeshed into the modern world that our modern mind has trouble understanding the significance of what has become mundane for us. But in 1976, there weren’t movies about teenage girls bullying teenage girls; there weren’t movies about school massacres. Like the 1931 Dracula, or many other horror films, it can be hard to understand why it was considered so scary. But we have to understand that horror itself is a sociological phenomenon; its not just the scariness of the story, but the way in which that scariness harmonizes with the anxieties of society in the moment.

So, it’s difficult for us, with modern sex education, with cognizance of school violence, to appreciate the novelty of Carrie. Stephen King’s first published work catalyzed and synthesized a great deal of ideas that had been growing and coalescing in our collective sub consciousness.

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is raised by a psychotically fundamentalist mother, to the point that she doesn’t even understand what a period is. She’s quiet and graceless and she is despised by her classmates. When a gym teacher (Betty Buckley) tries to defend Carrie by punishing her tormentors, the teacher sets the plot conflict going: there’s a Sue (Amy Irving), who’s trying to make amends to Carrie by giving her the My Fair Lady/ She’s All That makeover treatment; and there’s Chris (Nancy Allen) who’s out to make Carrie as miserable as possible for getting Chris into detention. We know where this story is going; what matters is how ti gets there.

Social Context: Carrie emerged at the first crest of major cultural phenomena: feminism, the concept of teenagers as a distinct demographic, and evangelical fundamentalism, and the rise of parapsychology. 1976 can be regarded as the apogee of Second Wave feminism: abortion was legalized, Title IX was implemented in schools, and the Equal Rights Amendment looked to be about to pass. Domestic violence laws were being passed, and marital rape was being recognized as a crime. More importantly to Carrie, there was a consequence of talking about the unmentionable- female puberty. The very concept of mentioning menstruation in a film was breaching a huge taboo.

That taboo is part of why Carrie is a landmark in horror. It was the first film to treat the process of puberty as a theme of horror- the metamorphosis of the body, the sudden changes. In doing so, it opened up two new sub-genres of horror film. The first is the teenage girl monster genre- Ginger Snaps, Teeth, Jennifer’s Body, Let the Right One In. Horror works by giving an outlet for the ordinary experiences of fear and revulsion- the disgusting spider becomes the giant colossal spider, and the stranger becomes the twisted serial killer. There is a part of the human psyche that wishes to live within our worst-case scenarios, and horror is a channel for those masochistic explorations. It is in the realm of horror films that our nightmares finally are allowed to be bigger on the outside world than they are on our inside world.

The other sub-genre was the briefer series of films about psychics- Scanners, The Fury, Firestarter, etc. This sub-genre has faded away with the rise of superhero films and the decline of parapsychology. Teenage monster girls are here to stay- well always have to deal with adolescent girls- but psychic ability is far removed from the public consciousness of what is possible that it has returned to the realm of fantasy and daydream rather than nightmare. In the 1970s/80s, Uri Geller and other frauds were prominent enough that an event like the one depicted in Carrie was realistically implausible.

In 1976 Jerry Falwell was just getting started at organizing the religious right. The Duggars and the Huckabees weren’t familiar to us. At that point, they were just religious fanatics, isolated and obnoxious. I could easily see Carries mother throwing blood at abortion clinic workers, or attending a protest by the Westboro Baptist Church. But the narratives were different, again. At that time, the Christian fundamentalists weren’t an established presence. They were new, weird- and therefore unpredictable and therefore scary.

Carrie was one of the first wave of movies about high school experience. There are only three adult characters in the cast. Think of Carrie as the female Lord of the Flies– the first film to really make the argument that girls could be just as nasty, vicious, and psychopathic as boys, both as a social group and individually. Carrie is an innovation in being a film that’s naturalistic about teenagers, their lives, and their priorities. Teenage movies are focused upon social position and status, more so than films with adult casts. And Carrie depicts a different kind of horror- the horror of social violence and social death. Has there ever been a humiliation more complete, elaborate, and drastic as the one that Carrie White experiences just prior to the climax of the film?

That combination of anxieties is what makes Carrie a classic.

The Antagonist: Piper Laurie’s performance is one of the all time greatest female villains. There’s a way in which we might not have gotten the character of the Evil Church Lady if it hadn’t been for Piper Laurie’s Margaret White. She works because she’s an anti-feminine woman- a mother who is against motherhood, one who openly speaking about sacrificing her child to God, and who ultimately attempts to murder her daughter for the crime of becoming a woman.

How does this film compare to others like it? It’s a central, iconic film, which has become the measuring rod for other horror films of a similar subject matter.

What works in this film? One of the reasons that De Palma is a master director is that he can juggle related genres to achieve the right cumulative effect. In Carrie, De Palma was working in a field where there were no established conventions, and so he masterfully plays a kind of genre jiu-jitsu upon the audience. Carrie pivots from the music and cinematography of bad after school specials to cheesy exploitation teen sex comedies to horror. If you were to somehow watch Carrie with no context for the film, you wouldn’t be sure what kind of a film you were watching. You might expect a revenge comedy, or a tender Lifetime channel moment about the cruelty of school bullying. Most directors have one cinematic style that they use for a movie- in Carrie, De Palma uses three different styles masterfully. The total effect builds to keep the audience completely unready for what is going to happen next.

What fails in this film? This film succeeds by doing something that is hard to imitate effectively, and that is the off-kilter genre bouncing. There are points where the juxtapositions are incredibly powerful- the transfer from soft-core porn shower shots to Carries traumatic first period (which sets off the events of the plot). And there are just as many points where the same abrupt transitions undercut the work. There’s much in this film that is incredibly dated as an artifact of the 1970s- the costumes, the music, the soft-focus shots. The same things which made it perfectly connect to 1976 audiences also serve to distance a modern audience from enjoying the film.

John Travolta’s first starring role as Billy Nolan, the boyfriend of antagonist Chris (alpha bitch and arch-tormentor of Carrie) is a dud. You don’t believe that he’s interested in any of the female characters for an instant. He doesn’t bring any presence to his character. Even in his first film, John Travolta comes off as a pretty face there to collect a paycheck.

Your enjoyment of the film will vary depending on how much you can relate to Carrie as a sympathetic monster. Her ordeal of abuse and retaliation is the heart of the story. And as others have pointed out, Carrie’s motivations and reactions aren’t that well-grounded. There’s not enough transition from her pariah status at the outset of the film to her downfall. That’s a limitation of budget and film length. And it’s a measure of how good a film is, more then you find yourself wishing that there was a longer version with more scenes.

Lessons on How Not to Die: This is one of the great anti-bullying films. It was the first film to really argue that bullying wasn’t just something that happened to boys, and that bullying was an endemic problem, and that bullying was not OK. It didn’t win the argument, it hasn’t changed minds, but it did open that conversation within our society.

Conclusion: Success can be the bane of horror; in becoming iconic, the monster is removed from the mystery, becomes quantified, categorized, tamed. The myth of Carrie has become so pervasive, so utterly saturated through our culture as to be diluted. This is the film that put Brian de Palma and Stephen King on the map, and with good reason.



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