|Sissy Spacek goes to the prom as Carrie in Carrie. They are all going to laugh at her ... but not for long.|
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.
Day 10: Carrie (1976)
Many horror films succeed because they are sustained slow burns, building tension as the story goes along before finally releasing it all in one glorious crescendo. Others are more direct. Brian De Palma’s Carrie is one of those others. Make no mistake. There is a gloriously gory and disturbingly cathartic climax. But from the opening credits to the final scroll, every frame is bathed in blood – menstrual blood, pig’s blood, the blood of Christ, and the blood of anyone who thought prom would be a laugh.
The film is about two very specific kinds of hysteria, and thankfully, neither refers to the misogynist interpretations of female hysteria often peddled in movies. Working from a Lawrence Cohen adaptation of a Stephen King novel, De Palma explores the psychotic depths of religious fervor and the dehumanizing effects of group think; however, all of this analysis and gore is wrapped up in an otherwise-conventional coming-of-age story, and from that, it derives its power.
Carrie White is a typical awkward teenager. She is late to bloom and draws the attention of a faceless mass of bullies. There are ringleaders, as there always are, but it is the crowd whose insults hurt the most. They do not know her, but they target her because it is better her than any of them. They blend in for survival, and Carrie, the shy, quiet girl from the odd family, sticks out just enough that she must be beat back down.
At home, there is no respite. Her mother is the kind of obsessive evangelical who believes human existence itself constitutes a sin. If we do not pray for salvation and God does not absolve us of the sin of being mortal, then we do not deserve to be saved. Piper Laurie plays Mrs. White with a reckless abandon and a refreshing lack of vanity. A beautiful woman, her inner ugliness seeps out of every pore until that is all the audience sees.
Going toe to toe and head to head with Laurie is Sissy Spacek as Carrie. Already in her mid-20s by the time she made Carrie, Spacek is perfect as the embodiment of a generation’s worth of repressed high school memories and pained social interactions. Youthful and freckle-faced, the best thing Spacek brings to the character is a well-spring of hope. In her eyes, there is optimism – until the mob goes too far, and Spacek shuts down that essential inner light like flipping a switch and plunges us into the abyss.
This is De Palma’s best film by some distance. Not a filmmaker known for his restraint, his confidence to dive headlong into the woozy delirium of the narrative is what sells the picture. The whole thing is an anxiety-inducing spiral into despair, and rather than hold our hands through the darkness, De Palma’s primary function is to push us away from the edge as soon as we have grasped ahold of something.
On top of all that, the cast and crew are playing with some of King’s best work, in which he steps outside himself to give us a unique and rich character not based on a middle-aged writer. The text, and thereby the film, has a lot to say about bullying and acceptance and abuse and community and religion and pain and the will to overcome and how consuming and destructive that will can become. It is almost remarkable it all fits into a horror story about a girl who becomes a woman. Such is the power of Carrie.
Tomorrow, we join another outcast teen, but one lucky enough to find a companion.