Killtoberfest 4 – #6: Carrie (1976)

In All, Movies by Kyu

“Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!”

It’s hard to imagine now how thunderous Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of King’s first published novel really was. Carrie was a big financial success (it made more than $33 million on a budget of only $1.8 million–the equivalent today of a $7 million budget film making $137 million at the box office). It essentially invented the idea of ending a horror movie with one last scare, a practice memorably taken up in the original Friday the 13th. The film also garnered two Academy Award nominations, for Best Actress (Sissy Spacek) and Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie). And when you say “Carrie at the prom,” everybody knows what you mean. Plus, the film’s success meant the paperback rights went for enough money that King could quit and write full-time, kicking off his long and prolific career. When Stephen King got the advance check for the novel Carrie, he cashed it and went right back to work–teaching during the school year, summers at an industrial laundry. It was the movie that made him a success.

King has had perhaps more film adaptations of his work than any living author, and even among the dead, he may only be surpassed by Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, William Shakespeare, and whatever human hand wrote the Bible. There are approximately 54 cinematic adaptations of King’s novels and short stories, along with another 15 TV movies and miniseries, 6 television shows, and other sundries. Arguably he’s also had some of the biggest variance in quality along the way. A number of King adaptations rank among the best horror movies ever made, and The Shawshank Redemption regularly lives in the top five of the IMDB’s Top 250 list. On the other hand, there are nine motherfucking sequels to Children in the Corn, King has meaningfully contributed to the subgenre of horror movies whose antagonists are inanimate objects, Maximum Overdrive exists, and although with enough booze I can forget the atrocity that is Dreamcatcher, Morgan Freeman never will. So it ranges.

Most of the problem is just that old issue with adaptations across mediums: King writes books, not movies. His prose, his sense of rhythm and pacing, his use of foreshadowing, even his dialogue are all meant for the page, not the screen; and King is one of the great American writers of the internal. So much of what happens in his work is a matter of mental state, of characters reacting emotionally to situations. These are all things that are invisible in a movie, and there’s really only three ways to deal with that. One is to make a bad movie–too often, without King’s facility for slipping his reader into the character’s state of mind, what’s happening comes off as either stilted and emotionless (Dreamcatcher) or cheesy and outlandish (It). Another is to recreate King’s effects through different means–subjective filmmaking, expressive direction, and other tools of cinema, as Kubrick did with The Shining. The third is to tackle the story on a different level entirely, reversing King’s patented trick of adding psychological depth to pulp by presenting high octane, high quality pulp. De Palma took this latter route with Carrie, and that’s why the film had such an outsized impact and remains a part of our cultural lexicon. The film lives in a few key iconic set pieces, invested with energy and import, backed more by image and feeling than King’s typically meticulous character and story development.

The rest of the movie has unfortunately not aged well. (My god, Tommy’s hair!) But underneath the campy elements and the weird comedic vibe, the story’s raw appeal remains. It’s a familiar story to every student in America: the bullied girl gets even. Maybe more than.

The genius of the story, the reason it’s so accessible, isn’t that everyone’s been Carrie White (Spacek), a young girl with ugly clothes, socially inept because of her overbearing religious upbringing, socially ostracized because the other kids sense weakness. It’s that everyone knows the impulse to be one of Carrie’s bullies. Besides Carrie, the main viewpoint characters of the film are Sue Snell (Amy Irving) and gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). Despite being smarter and more sensitive than, say, that bitch Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), Sue is right alongside all the other girls in the locker room, throwing tampons and yelling “Plug it up!” at poor Carrie, who doesn’t understand what’s happening when she gets her first period in the shower. Collins punishes the girls for their cruelty so harshly and angrily because she recognizes in herself the sick desire to join the mob and shun the outsider. What draws us into the film is that we, too, share that impulse. Of the great movie monsters, we feel sorry for Frankenstein and King Kong, but we feel guilty about Carrie White.

That said, Carrie’s terrible home life feels like one of the elements of the film that hasn’t aged well. For better or worse, adolescents simply aren’t this isolated anymore. There is no Carrie in a world with internet access, because Carrie is trapped in ignorance and abuse by her mother’s religious insanity, and that brand of fundamentalist control is more and more porous in the age of global digital connections. This is one reason why the 2013 Carrie remake fell flat; in 1976, the loner student who explodes into violence was still rare, if not total fantasy, while today “going Columbine” is, sadly, a familiar part of modern American life. To his credit, De Palma is well aware that Mrs. White is, to put it mildly, over the top. He gives Piper Laurie all the room she needs to chew the scenery, and also knows when to poke fun at her. One of the quietly funnier moments in the film comes when Carrie tells her mother that Tommy has asked her to the Prom. “The Prom?” her mother repeats in horror, and lightning crashes in a moment of mock ominousness.

It’s in moments like these that the film slides readily into the realm of camp. Another is the ridiculous relationship between Chris and Billy Nolan (a young John Travolta failing to bring any real menace to the role), who spend their scenes hitting and cursing at one another like they’re Punch and Judy dolls. There’s an amusing (but pointed) moment midway through the film where both Chris and Sue decide to use their boyfriends to deal with Carrie; while Sue convinces her Prom date, Tommy, to ask Carrie in her place, Chris stops in the middle of performing oral sex on Billy to tell him, “I hate Carrie White!” The scheme the latter couple comes up with is inspired, in an evil kind of way, striking at the heart of Carrie’s deepest fears while reminding her of her greatest trauma. The film’s plot essentially compares and contrasts the two plans, asking whether or not a sincere attempt on Sue’s part to reintroduce Carrie to normal high school society is able to overcome not only a history of social ostracizing but also a sincere attempt on Chris’s part to destroy Carrie. (It’s clearer in the film than the novel that Chris isn’t displacing anger at her punishment for the shower room incident towards Carrie so much as she is using the situation to justify going nuclear on a girl whose weakness arouses her fury.)

Why is the pig’s blood moment so horrifying? Part of it is the pacing. King’s novel pads out the main story with a number of epistolary sections consisting of letters, diary entries, interview segments, and particularly books, many of which have been written after the events in question. So there’s heavy foreshadowing throughout–we know something horrible will happen at Prom, and the course of events that lead there are heavy on dread but relatively low on suspense. De Palma takes a much lighter touch, which gives those lead-up scenes some real interest of their own, and even the early Prom scenes have you wrapped up enough in being happy for Carrie that you nearly forget what’s coming. As soon as Carrie and Tommy win Prom King and Queen, though, the film slows way down, and the dread kicks in. There’s the sense that this is too much, that Carrie can’t possibly reach this high and must, by the inexorable laws of high school, be struck down. Through slow motion, cross-cutting, and the use of score in place of diegetic sound, De Palma modulates the pace way down, framing the impending moment of shock and humiliation for maximum doom–and then, once Carrie’s vengeance begins, explodes the scene into a fast-paced orgy of death, as the special effects fly, the crowd screams and scatters, and the director’s trademark split screens compress multiple actions into the same span of time. The overall effect is of watching a lit fuse burn until the bomb explodes, and the rest of the movie, where Carrie walks home to deal with dear old Mom, is comparatively sedate.

The other reason the pig’s blood moment works so strongly is theme. Blood is one of the story’s principle motifs. In The Shining, Kubrick spilled an ocean of it out of an elevator in order to symbolize a repressed, violent past overflowing chaotically into the present. In Carrie, blood indicates sexual repression spilling forth. In the opening scene, an idyllic vision of girls showering and joking with one another is interrupted by Carrie’s first period and the distress it brings her. Carrie’s mother later explicitly connects blood to sexuality (and, to her mind, sin): “After the blood, the boys come. Like sniffing dogs.” That the shower scene is replayed at the Prom when a bucket of pig’s blood is dropped on Carrie from above is no coincidence; both moments essentially parade Carrie’s nascent, late-blooming sexuality before her fellow classmates, who react with cruel humor. Although Chris and Sue’s goals and means are radically opposed, these girls are wielding their femininity to achieve their ends with a sophistication that it is beyond Carrie. Her one consolation is her wild talent, which, triggered by the arrival of menstruation, directly mirrors the sexuality: both are forms of female power, both are forbidden by Carrie’s mother’s religious insanity, both spill out over their boundaries in a way that is swiftly, massively destructive.

Like the film itself, Carrie’s rampage lingers on. King’s novel concludes with Sue feeling Carrie’s mind die, the ultimate moment of painful empathy with a girl who, mass murder or not, remains a pitiable victim. De Palma takes a different tack. Prom is supposed to be a night to remember, but the cruel irony here is that the massacre ensures that Sue will never forget what happened–and her role in it. Because her attempt to help Carrie ultimately failed, she’ll never find freedom from the resulting guilt and trauma. Hence the film’s famous closing scare, which proves that Sue will never be rid of Carrie. Neither will we. Like it or not, laugh at it or not, Carrie is a part of film history, and will remain not only the movie that got Stephen King started but also an enduring, effective, iconic horror classic.

Every year, Kyu attempts to watch and review 31 horror movies in 31 days. This year, it’s Killtoberfest 4: Four Gore and Severed Ears Ago, because even the Prom King and Queen election is rigged. Check out past Killtoberfests along with this year’s reviews, and be sure to follow us on Twitter @insidethekraken to track Kyu’s progress.