24 October 2012

pity the prom clean-up crew.

35. Carrie (1976)

There are certain movies that I really liked the first time I watched them, but then I saw them again and I decided that they really kind of sucked and I must have been a complete idiot to ever think otherwise. A few examples that come readily to mind are Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her and Into the Wild, Sean Penn's adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book. It goes without saying (then why am I saying it?) that there are many factors that contribute to our enjoyment (or not) of a given film, but one of the most significant, I think, is whether the film complements our mood and expectations at the time we watch it. If I am feeling happy, I'll be more tolerant of a stupid comedy; if I'm in a reflective mood, I'll probably want something more. Occasionally a particular film shows up at the right time and place and seems to speak to a very specific emotion I happen to be experiencing—and that was the case with Into the Wild, for sure. Certain events in my life at that time had made me feel especially estranged from the world at large, and as a result Christopher McCandless's rejection of society and its standards hit an emotional sweet spot for me—but when the feeling went away, so did my appreciation of the film—which seemed like a trite television movie the second time around. 

When I recently saw Paul Thomas Anderson's much-acclaimed The Master, I liked it, sure—but I didn't exactly experience the kind of religious rapture that swept most film critics away into a fever-dream of ridiculous hyperbole. And yet... I have a sense that this is a film that my opinion hasn't fully 'settled' on yet. I need to see it again to know how I feel about it. The three-and-a-half stars that I would give it today are provisional—and I suspect The Master will open up to me in successive viewings.

I offer these introductory remarks on our changing attitudes toward certain movies to set the stage for my experience with Brian De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's Carrie. The first time I saw it—long before I was aware of who Brian De Palma even was—I thought Carrie was the quintessence of middling entertainment. It seemed to me like so much nothing leading up to the prom set piece, which was the only thing that really mattered in the film. I really was a fucking moron back then. (Some of you will argue that I still am, but I'd like to think I'm a more evolved fucking moron today.)

I've seen Carrie several times since then, and each time I love it a little more. I've come to realize that it belongs to a very small pantheon of nearly-perfect horror films that also includes Rosemary's Baby and The Shining. Along with Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, and Femme Fatale, Carrie is one of the masterpieces of Brian De Palma's long career—featuring many of his signature stylistic cues, like split-screen, shots with two different camera focuses at once: a close-up beside a distant background, quotations from Hitchcock, and a pinch of camp. 

As a side note, I think one of the weirdest things about watching Carrie today is seeing Edie McClurg playing a teenager...

Am I right? (Nice glasses, Edie.) She was always in her mid-thirties even in her teens, apparently. Thankfully, I don't think she's visible in the nude shower frolicking scene at the beginning of the film—a bizarrely predatory slo-mo trip to the fantasy peephole in the girls shower room. 

And would you just fucking look at William Katt's hair? It's a thing of beauty, is it not?

But of course the film really belongs to Sissy Spacek as Carrie White and Piper Laurie as her mother Margaret, a truly demented religious fanatic who refers (without irony) to her daughter's succulent breasts as 'dirty pillows.' I don't know how Piper Laurie managed to do it—and it's a credit to her acting talents—but she made me both hate Margaret and feel sorry for her. When Carrie uses her telekinetic powers to finally lash out at her mother, I felt a certain satisfaction in this horrible woman's demise—but then I felt bad about it. Margaret was such a sad, fucked-up woman—unable to manage her pervasive sense of guilt in any practical way—that I have the sense that she was once a Carrie herself... a bullied misfit, condemned to unhappiness by her inability to accept a world (on any terms) that once rejected her. 

At its heart, Carrie is a very sad film. Carrie ends up destroying even those people who tried so hard to help her, like Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) and Tommy Ross (William Katt). She wants desperately to be 'normal'—but she can not fight the exceptionalism that she embodies. She is condemned (in the words of postmodern theory) to otherness.

How many horror movies offer their viewers this level of psychological depth? Yeah, I know... a lot of people don't even want psychological depth in their horror films. They just want cheap thrills and a high body count—but I am not one of those people. I'll take Carrie over Final Destination any day.


  1. This one still kinda creeps me out.

    As to Into the Wild, I never saw the movie but I read the book (while on my own adventure living in Korea) and, by its end, I was glad that guy was dead. I have a severe romantic streak in me, but Jesus Christ.

    1. I read the book too. Apparently a lot of people feel the way you did about McCandless—they think he's a self-absorbed, messianic twit.

      I always felt bad for the guy. I don't know if that means I'm extra empathetic (unlikely) or that I'm a self-absorbed, messianic twit too.

    2. Oh, I was sympathetically predisposed to the entire thing, but by the end I was exhausted. I felt he was just as much a mismatch for society as Jack the Ripper, just on from another extreme. I doubt he ever would've integrated to any degree. Which, perhaps, was the point.

      Anyway, I'd hardly call you a twit...

  2. A few examples that come readily to mind are Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her

    Thank you! I hated that movie.

  3. ahhh i've caught the end of carrie so many times on tv and the slow motion, when carrie thinks everything is going to be okay, maybe even better okay--it makes me just sob, every time. fucking a.