Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Earlier this week, I watched the documentary A Decade Under the Influence, which was all about the film culture of the 1970s, and this inspired me to check out Carrie, one of the 70s classics I hadn't seen yet. I'm not usually a fan of the horror genre, for the same reason that I'm not usually a fan of comedy either. The need to get a specific audience reaction, either a scare or a laugh, can upend logical narrative progression, and it also means that character and plot development can be sacrificed in favor of a bunch of cheap laughs or scares.

In some respects, you could say that all mainstream Hollywood films today suffer from this problem, the need to keep the audience's attention with frequent bits of action can screw up the construction of the film. But, Carrie hails from the era when studio films were more like art films, it's a horror film where the horror is secondary to the primary character conflict.

The best horror or sci-fi films are the ones where the genre elements are used in support of an emotionally real story. Carrie reminded me a lot of Buffy in the way that it used these horror elements to dramatize the very real problem of bullying in school. Watching it in a post Columbine era, it's striking how closely Carrie's story matches up with the arc of the killers in Elephant. It's the same basic story, it's just Carrie uses telekinesis rather than guns as her means of getting revenge.

Going in, I was familiar with the prom scene, and the fact that it was a horror film. So, it was striking how restrained the film's first hour or so is. The opening scene is very intense, not because of the TK, but because of the raw cruelty of the girls. The way the film is constructed, Carrie's TK is equated with her maturation into womanhood. Her first notable TK experience occurs at the same time as her first menstruation, and she has a similar lack of control over each. In the following scene, when Ms. Collins calms her down and tries to explain things to her, she finds control, but when the principal disrespects her, her TK acts up again.

It's notable that her mother is extremely disapproving of her development, both sexually and with the telekinesis. By equating each of these things with sin, Mrs. White is putting Carrie in an uncomfortable position. Things can't stay the way they are, even her mind wants to, her body won't allow it.

What's striking about the film is how economical it is. The first scene is so powerful that it tells us everything we need to know about Carrie's existence, and that allows us to skip most of the traditional exposition and get right into the central setpiece, the prom scene.

As someone who knew what was coming, the prom scene works for the same reason that all tragedy works. Carrie finally breaks from her mother's influence and takes what she wants. Tommy is a really kind, understanding guy and helps to bring her out of her shell. However, we know that this isn't the kind of movie where the girl has a good prom and then the film ends. Yet, as she's succeeding, you don't want things to go wrong.

This left me wondering whether the film would have worked if she hadn't been attacked and the film had just been the story of this girl who overcomes her bad mother and bullying classmates to succeed. It wouldn't have been as good a film, but I think it still would have worked because of the film's tone. If Carrie had turned out for the best, it still would have been a difficult road, she would have earned her happiness through her ordeals during the film, and that's what would keep her success from being cheesy.

However, as Joss Whedon said, you've got to give the audience what they need, not what they want, and the very fact that you're rooting for Carrie to succeed is what makes it essential that she go through pain. Clearly, DePalma is aware of the audience's feeling, because he draws out the moment before the blood falls, you're aware that everything is about to come crashing down, so Carrie's happiness becomes cruelly ironic. You're no longer happy with her, you're sad that she's come so far, only to fall.

And fall she does. At this point, DePalma does some interesting things. The first is the subjective laughing sequence. I think it's pretty clear that Carrie is exagerating the reaction in her mind, there's no way that Ms. Collins would actually laugh at her. Instead, it's her mother's conditioning coming back, implying that she couldn't possibly succeed and be happy. And this makes everything fall apart.

Carrie chooses to kill everyone in the prom because in her mind, everyone there is complicit in her torment, it's the social system that's at fault. Again, this is her mother's influence, bringing this fire and brimstone vengeance down on everyone around her. The scene is shot in a really interesting way, with split screen used to juxtapose Carrie's grim resolve with the violent excess going on around her. The world that created her will now be destroyed its own creation.

This scene is a classic for a reason. The image of the blood stained girl, her virginal white dress stained by the blood, which of course, echoes to the previous blood flow in the first scene of the film. It clearly taps into a primal desire for revenge that has become only more relevant as time has passed.

This is the emotional peak of the film, and even though the confrontation with her mother is interesting, everything after the prom scene feels somewhat irrelevant. It had to be there, but there's not much more that needs to be said after she leaves the gym.

There's a bunch of random, notable things about the film. The actress playing Carrie's mother is Piper Laurie, of Twin Peaks. Her hair looked the same, but her face looked completely different. If I hadn't known it was the same actress, I never would have guessed.

And the other notable thing is the 70s fashions. I think the content is timeless, but the clothes were not. Travolta's mullet, the really short shorts, the powder blue tuxedo, these do not hold up so well today. Still, they don't seem as dated as the awful early 90s clothes from Heathers.

So, Carrie was a great film, one of the best uses of the horror genre to tell a real, emotional story. This is what horror should be about, using a metaphor to explore an issue, rather than just random acts of violence.


Anonymous said...

You're no longer happy with her, you're sad that she's come so far, only to fall. "

I felt exactly this way. You dislike her at the end, but your devestated she didn't make it and integrate into the social setting.

What did you think of the end ? It has little relation to the actual movie, but when that hand came out I swear I almost shit in my pants.

Patrick said...

The hand was definitely a shock. That whole scene had this really cool ethereal glow, very reverent, and then the hand just blew things up. That said, I was really glad when they revealed it was a dream.

The end as a whole wasn't the film's strongest part, but pretty much nothing could live up to the prom scene. That's the part that really lingers emotionally. And because Carrie has gone so far, there's really no other choice but to have her die at the end, she had seriously crossed the line, and I think her suicide was an acknowledgement of that. It was her mother's moral conditioning forcing her to punish herself for the sins she had committed.