They're all going to laugh at you!
If you've read many of my reviews, you're probably getting tired of me referring to my mental list of "haven't seen, but must" movies. You probably will not be shocked to learn that Carrie was on that list, and that when I learned we had the new Special Edition available to review, I jumped at the chance. The last time that happened was with another classic "horror" film, Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and I was not as impressed with it as I hoped I would be. With Carrie, my expectations were not high. After all, I'm not particularly a fan of Brian De Palma's derivative directorial style, it was one of John Travolta's earliest films, and adaptations of Stephen King novels have a checkered history in the move from book to screen. Did it live up to my low expectations? No…it far exceeded them.
Facts of the Case
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek, Coal Miner's Daughter) is a senior in high school. Like most social misfits, she is hated and reviled by her peers for no reason better than she is different. The root of her difference is her overbearing mother Margaret (Piper Laurie, The Hustler), who with her unruly, fiery red hair and hood/cape combo looks for all the world like a witch, except she's the most extreme Bible-thumper the screen has ever seen. The turning point in Carrie's relationship with her peers is an unfortunate incident in the locker room following gym class. It leads to popular girl Chris (Nancy Allen, Robocop) having her tickets to the senior prom revoked. With the aid of her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta), she concocts a diabolical scheme to humiliate Carrie at the prom. Playing into the plan is Sue Snell (Amy Irving, Traffic), who feels sorry for Carrie and asks her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt, Jawbreaker) to escort Carrie to the prom.
I realize that that's probably a poor representation of the plot. That's because 1) you're probably already familiar with it and 2) because I intend to discuss it in more detail to come.
Art often serves as a mirror of the social mores of its day. The science fiction and horror genres have often served as mirrors of the troubles and fears of the time. It's quite easy to give examples. The Day The Earth Stood Still warned of the perils of war; at the time, World War II and the Korean War was still fresh in Americans' minds. Hitchcock's Psycho, among its myriad of meanings, can be seen as a misogynist cautionary tale about women in the workforce, which was becoming prevalent in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, you see several horror films that dealt with religious matters. The most obvious is The Exorcist, with its story of a demon-possessed girl and the priests who must fight the evil inside her. Others films with this religious bent were The Omen (and its 1978 sequel) and Communion. Upon watching Carrie, my first thought was: why? Why was religion in the front of filmmakers' minds at the time?
America in the post-World War II years was a nation in rapid transition. Progress brought prosperity, and vice versa. The legendary "Baby Boom" of 1946-1964 gave an influx of fresh minds to the changing times. With the social progression came a move away from the "Christian" morals and traditions that had been de rigueur since the times of the pilgrims. The Church as a social body lost its significance, rendered obsolete to the free-thinking younger generation. It was stagnant through much of the 1960s, until the "Jesus Movement" of the late '60s brought old-time religion to the "make love, not war" generation. Suddenly, there was renewed interest, but with it came the extremism that tends to come with new religious movements. Things of the spirit realm suddenly became issues rather than hushed topics. There was the "Charismatic Movement," which embraced things like speaking in tongues, faith healing, visions, prophecy, and the like that were shunned by the staid mainstream churches of the time. Exorcisms became more commonplace, and many Catholic priests who had never learned the rituals were taught to perform them. With the new millennium a few short decades away, end time predictions became more dire. I believe it's out of that tumultuous time that these movies arise. The Omen preyed on fears of the Antichrist, that figure written about in the Biblical book of Revelation who would come before the end of the world to lead the faithful astray. The Exorcist was based upon a novel that was supposedly built upon a true story of a demon-possessed child. Though the movie adaptation was not produced until the early 1980s, you might even include Stephen King's short story "The Children of the Corn," first published in Penthouse in 1977.
And then there's Carrie. The eponymous teenager is not the evil of the story; she's merely fighting against the evils acting against her. Instead, the evil influences are Carrie's mother, and the perils of conformity. Carrie's mother is representative of the dangers of religious fanaticism. She preaches to anyone who will listen about the errors of their ways, going door to door (much more prevalent in the '70s than it is now) spreading tracts and the "good word." Her house looks like a temple, with tapestries of da Vinci's "Last Supper," crucifixes, and candles everywhere. She domineers her fragile daughter, forcing her to kneel in a tiny closet, the sanctum at the center of their house, to pray for her "sins." She quotes and distorts the scriptures to make her daughter feel like a wretched, flawed person. And what is Carrie's sin? Being a woman, and having her first period. This is just what is shown in the movie; imagine this girl's life from birth! Unlike Carrie's contemporaries, which used the emerging awareness of Christian spirituality to create terror, this film is a reaction to the old-fashioned religion that had become irrelevant to modern society and just plain weird by the mid-1970s. It's no wonder that Carrie at the end triumphs over her mother. Carrie, representing modern society, puts an end to old-fashioned moralism, personified by her mother, who dies in a pose evocative of a statue of St. Sebastian seen in Carrie's prayer closet. (St. Sebastian was nearly slain by arrows, and is the patron saint of archers, athletes, and soldiers, and people pray to him for protection from plagues. I think the arrows are the important point here, no pun intended.) However, it's interesting to note that once she has killed her mother, she retreats to the prayer closet—her place of simultaneous punishment and absolution of sin—while she causes the house to sink into the earth, burning all the while. It's as if she knows that her eternal resting place is Hell, and she pulls herself into it.
It's also interesting to note that Carrie, while a symbol of spiritual enlightenment, is also a reaction against the hedonism, immorality, and conformity of her day. She lashes out and destroys her peers who embrace that philosophy. She even kills Miss Collins (played by Betty Buckley of Eight Is Enough fame), her well-meaning gym teacher; I couldn't figure out why, because it was intentional, not accidental, and Miss Collins had never done anything to hurt Carrie intentionally. The only teen who survives is Sue Snell, the only teen who did not share the philosophy of the other teens. Carrie's revenge on her is more diabolical than mere death—she haunts her dreams.
I'm reluctant to discuss Brian De Palma's directorial style, because like I've said, I'm not a fan of his work. I liked The Untouchables and thought it was a fine movie, but that was due to the strong cast and David Mamet's literate screenplay. I think the success of Carrie is also due to the strength of its cast and the screenplay, this time provided by infrequent screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, who only had four scripts produced after Carrie…and two of them were adaptations of other Stephen King novels (television productions of It and The Tommyknockers, to be precise). Carrie is one Stephen King novel I have not read, but I recognize that Cohen has maintained the atmosphere that is common to his novels, that of the terror that can be found in the commonplace. The movie's failings—and they are forgivable—can be traced to De Palma's dated direction. For the pivotal conflagration at the prom, De Palma chose to use split screen, which looks incredibly passé now. The dance scenes leading up to it were filmed by rotating the camera in the opposite direction that the dancing couple was spinning, and instead of building tension, it just looks silly.
This is not the first time Carrie has been available on DVD, but the previous release had a non-anamorphic transfer and no extras, so this is the sort of double-dipping we can appreciate because this disc is a marked improvement, and MGM isn't asking you to spend an unreasonable amount for it. In fact, they give you a pretty good bang for the buck. There's no mistaking that this is a movie that's 25 years old, but the transfer is acceptable. The anamorphic transfer preserves the 1.85:1 theatrical aspect ratio. It has flurries of dust at times, and overall has a soft, grainy appearance with colors that are almost muted. That's not to say it looks bad, because it looks exactly like a film from the 1970s. Audio is available in a 5.1 remix and the original mono (presented in two channels). The mono track is very, well, mono, but for completeness sake I'm glad MGM chose to include it. The 5.1 is much livelier with better frequency range, though it rarely makes use of all channels.
Kudos to MGM for the extras included with this disc. You get two documentaries, a featurette, an "animated photo gallery," the theatrical trailer, and a selection of text essays. The documentaries are entitled "Acting Carrie" and "Visualizing Carrie," and run 43 minutes and 40 minutes, respectively. The ubiquitous Laurent Bouzereau produced the documentaries, and as most DVD fans know, that's the sign of quality. "Acting Carrie" details the process by which the cast was chosen, and features interviews with many of them discussing their filming experiences. "Visualizing Carrie" goes through the entire film, examining the choices made in its look. It features interviews with Brian De Palma, production designer Jack Fisk, editor Paul Hirsch, and screenwriter Lawrence Cohen. Between these two documentaries, you get a very complete look at the making of the film. The featurette is "Carrie: The Musical," a six-minute look at the acclaimed Broadway musical based on the film (or at least they make it sound acclaimed; I know little about Broadway musicals). The essay section, written by Bouzereau, details Stephen King's novel, the writing process and King's inspirations, its transition from novel to screen, and the differences between the book and the movie. I should also note that, though it is not listed among the extras on the packaging, there is an eight-page booklet of liner notes, which give some cool facts about the making of the movie.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have to admit that while in the process of writing this review I had the pleasure of reading and editing Judge Gary Militzer's review of De Palma's Dressed To Kill. He made me realize something about De Palma. He may be derivative, he may borrow liberally from other filmmakers, but when it comes down to it, he has great visual flair and makes interesting-looking films. Even my favorite director, Tim Burton, has a visual style that's strongly evocative of something else, namely German expressionism. So, I may not care for De Palma all that much, but I will admit that he has panache. And besides, even he admits in the documentary that he overdid it with the split screen. It's a good man that can admit his mistakes.
Carrie is a classic, and MGM has given us an excellent special edition presentation. For a retail price of $19.98, it's quite the bargain, and I'd recommend it heartily for horror buffs and for anyone else that appreciates strong, visceral filmmaking.
Judgment on Brian De Palma is waived, Carrie is declared not guilty, and MGM is given the court's commendation for a great disc.
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Scales of Justice
• "Acting Carrie" Documentary (43 Minutes)
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