45 Years Later, Carrie Is Still The Scariest High School Movie Ever Made
Hell hath no fury like a telekinetic teen scorned; 45 years on, in its agony, beauty and terror, Carrie remains a coming-of-age tragedy to behold, relish and fear.
Carrie, both Stephen King’s debut novel and first to be adapted for a film, gave way to a truly seminal legacy: Nancy Allen’s Chris is one of the original Mean Girls, armed with baseless hate; Betty Buckley’s Miss Collins walked so Tina Fey’s Ms. Norbury could run; even preceding the slasher boom of sexually-raging teens, it invested in a girl who wasn’t ‘another stereotyped product of the horror production line’, as Roger Ebert wrote.
In addition, with mass mainstream audiences roped in via word-of-mouth – it grossed more than $33 million off a $1.8 million budget – Brian De Palma gave them the ultimate final scare with Carrie’s hand reaching from the rubble; a fright that still thuds the heart even when the grab isn’t ferocious and would go onto inspire the ‘feel-bad ending’, primarily with Friday the 13th.
On its 45th anniversary, its opening scene is slimier to defend; as the camera glides through the steamy changing room, narratively young but obviously adult girls prancing around, the gaze is firmly erotic and male. It’s almost hallucinatory, like a teenage boy’s oasis in a Porky’s era.
Then, next to the showy split-diopters and swirling cameras, that unbecoming fantasy is key to De Palma’s arsenal. The Gaussian glow employed in the cinematography by Mario Tosi, much like the bulk of Stand By Me‘s sunny skies, gives the whole thing the aura of a daydream, transforming Sissy Spacek’s fabled teen into a modern-day Cinderella as she glides past her cheering peers.
There’s moments of adolescent joy and high school staples, like Miss Collins punishing students with P.E. detention, Tommy Ross (William Katt) charmingly pushing Carrie to say yes to the prom after she murmurs praise for his poem in class.
Everything is punctuated with horror. The shower scene soon drifts to Carrie lost in her own world, when she gets her first period. Her God-fearing, sin-obsessed fundamentalist mother – played with marvellous camp by Margaret White – never warned her, so she thinks she’s dying. Her pleas to classmates are met with inhumane ridicule, closing her into a corner with towels, tampons and chants of ‘plug it up’. It’s unbearable to watch.
As Pino Donaggio’s orchestra tenderly and manipulatively swoons and swells, both sensually and magically, it directly nods to Psycho with its spikes as Carrie flexes her powers. It’s like someone grabbing your lungs. After John Travolta’s young Lothario makes out with Chris, he goes onto brutally kill a pig as she moans, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’
Pauline Kael wrote it best, ‘Carrie becomes a new trash archetype, and De Palma, who has the wickedest baroque sensibility at large in American movies, points up its archetypal aspects by parodying the movies that have formed it – and outclassing them.’
The downfall of the prom is the director’s most wicked, masterful trick of all. We’re forced to endure Carrie’s long walk to the stage as a bucket of blood hangs above her, Donaggio’s score becoming more operatic, the atmosphere of a fairy tale slowly seeping into a nightmare of bloody, horrifying proportions. The best suspense leads to something foregone and no-less feared.
As she radiates into the girl she deserves to be, the notion she could be loved – or even liked – is washed away in a flood of crimson. Even amid the imagined laughs, her worst fears spurred by her mother come true, the wrath she unleashes is a little cathartic, but utterly chilling. The slightest passing curtness or guilty giggle yields an unspeakable death in her clouded eyes.
Blustering egos and knuckle-whitening, ground-staring insecurities lace the walls and halls of high schools; the slightest embarrassment feels atomic, the merest flirtation is a flutter to herald. It’s a puberty-powered, ultimately formative place where a sense of emotional security is almost always false.
School can be exciting, even joyous; but for many, it’s almost insufferably cruel, treading on tugging carpet that may or may not be yanked from underneath you. That’s what makes Carrie so universally, immensely sad: for a brief flash, like we all have, she believed her footing was firm. ‘They’re all gonna laugh at you.’
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