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Carrie (1976)

by on 2010/10/28

“Conventional wisdom” has suggested that men tend to be stronger physically while women rely on their wits.  Discounting the innumerable exceptions which throw such thinking into doubt, I have more recently encountered a different perspective:  females cooperate to sabotage the strongest in their peer group, whereas males work to conceal the failings of their weak.

Whether there’s any truth to either view, Carrie herself seems to have missed the memos.  Then again she doesn’t get out much, but her uniqueness and independence make her all the more compelling, both as a character and cautionary tale.  To stamp her story “horror” is to dismiss its brilliance somehow.

Teenaged Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a late-blooming naif, abused and neglected by her fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie), and bullied by most of the kids in her high school. Some staff members seem to look the other way while others join in denigrating her.  Some feel pity, but the only one to publicly support her is Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), the girls’ gym coach.  Just as Collins begins to help her, however, Carrie manifests a telekinetic defense mechanism which could prove as much a threat to herself as her tormentors.

I initially noticed similarities to X-Men, but soon realized the extent of Alfred Hitchcock’s influence.  Technical tricks like foley sound over silence, transitioning on black, zooming jump cuts, and childlike instrumental riffs work well.  Still, the greatest lesson learned here is the director’s ability to wring every bit of suspense out of his climactic scenes.  Slow tracking shots control the release of information, playing out the revelations in a terrible crescendo.

Other devices are less successful:  a circling camera, the high speed and slow motion, a kaleidoscopic viewpoint, those Psycho (1960) string stabs — Psycho Pstring Pstabs, if you will — and the wipes, dear lord, the wipes.  They were a gimmick in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), they’re a gimmick in 24 (2001), and they were never fashionable in the interim.  All in all, these attempts prove hit or miss, but they’re used sparingly enough to forgive, and not inappropriately; you can see what director Brian De Palma hoped to achieve with them.

I find it curious how two productions, specifically Duel and Carrie, can both be informed by Hitchcock, and feel so different.  Where the former (though excellent in its own right) felt somewhat padded, in the latter case De Palma has crafted a work with almost no fat or filler.  Every scene makes an important contribution to the whole, even (or especially) those which exist to serve character as much as plot.

Fortunately even its less successful production tricks fail to obscure the insights at the core of this film.  Yes there is cruelty here but, unlike an Event Horizon, it serves a higher purpose, not existing for its own sake or that of “entertainment”.  We can learn from Carrie’s trials without pedantry.  The supernatural does not exist solely to empower her, but serves as a cinematic metaphor for the repercussions of mistreatment.

I’ve seen criticisms levelled at this piece which amount to, “If it hadn’t been made in the Seventies, it would be better.”  To criticize it for the trappings of its era — the clothing, hair, and music — is sheer ignorance.  Venture beyond the shag carpets, Moog music, and moustaches, and you may be struck by how little of significance has changed in the generations since.

In fact I think it’s safe to say that few movies are able to approximate this poignant combination of bitter and sweet.  John Hughes comes to mind, though his works have less at stake.  Carrie imparts some valuable truisms about victims and compassion, actions over words, and the power of independence.  Evil and apathy, even in service of an alleged good, have the power to change our world for the worse.

And if you’re not in a particularly touchy-feely mood, just think Matilda Goes Rambo.

* * * * *

Rated 14A for adult situations, frightening scenes, language, nudity, and violence

98 minutes

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