THE RESPONSIVE EYE OF DEPALMA PT. 1: CARRIE
Ever since first seeing Brian DePalma’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s novel Carrie (a tale about a girl with supernatural mental powers), it has been one of my most favorite works of cinema.
A group of high school girls are playing volleyball in gym class. One girl in the corner misses the ball when it’s hit towards her. The other girls taunt her and we see the innocent, shy freckle faced girl is embarrassed. Her name is Carrie White (Sissy Spacek).
The film’s opening credits sequence is shot in a dreamy slow motion as Brian DePalma’s voyeuristic camera slides through the girls’ high school locker room and we hear Pino Donaggio’s equally dreamlike score playing over it. We then see almost erotic shots of Carrie washing herself in the shower. As she soaps herself, the camera scans over her pale skin. Suddenly, from below her leg, we see a dribble of red. Carrie is having her period, but she doesn’t even know what it is. Carrie looks at the red liquid and becomes horrified then frantic. She screams out for help, but the other girls notice what has happened and they just laugh and throw tampons at her yelling: “PLUG IT UP!”. Carrie sinks down into the corner of the shower room as the girls cover her with the tampons. We get to see an introduction to Carrie’s strange mental powers when her rage pops a lightbulb in the locker room. Their gym teacher Ms Collins (Betty Buckley) arrives and consoles Carrie.
Ms. Collins brings Carrie to see the principal (Stefan Gierasch) who excuses her from school for the day while continuously getting her name wrong (I’m sorry CASSIE!) which then brings the film back into almost a comedy. Carrie gets angered at his ignorance and makes his ashtray flip right off the desk. Carrie leaves and walks home from school beside a long row of trees. A young boy rides his bike in and out of the tree lines. Brian DePalma cuts from one side of the tree line to the other. The boy screams out at Carrie and her power takes him down. The boy scowls at Carrie as she walks on. Another hilarious scene which mixes shock with laughter.
Not only is Carrie tormented at school, but she has to contend with her religiously obsessed mother, Margarget White (Piper Laurie). Mrs White is truly messed up in the head and we see that to her everything in the outside world is evil. When Carrie arrives home, she asks her mother why she was never told about menstruation. Her mother grabs Carrie and locks her in a small closet where she has made a Jesus shrine. Carrie must pray her sins away. The homes interior has accents of a real church (look at the dining room’s gables).
At school the thorn in Carrie’s side is uber-bitch Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen). She hates Carrie and after swearing at Ms. Collins during a detention for the cruelty towards Carrie in the locker room, Chris is kicked out of the prom. She plans on getting Carrie back for all the trouble she’s caused. Chris’ boyfriend is Billy Nolan (John Travolta) a big dumb oaf. Travolta definitely used his character Billy as a sort of continuation of his dopey Barbarino character from Welcome Back Kotter, only Billy’s much more evil. We see from Chris’ relationship with Billy she’s a sadistic person.
Carrie’s fellow classmate Sue Snell (Amy Irving) has compassion for Carrie and understands that she needs something to help her come out of her shell, so she asks her own boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to ask Carrie to the prom as a favor. Tommy is the All American blonde haired, blue eyed sports hero and a real good guy. He tells Sue he’ll do it for her. Tommy asks the shy Carrie several times and she finally accepts his invitation. Chris finds out that Carrie is attending the prom with Tommy Ross and she gets an idea. She has Billy and his pal kill a pig and get the blood from it. Their plan is to get Carrie and Tommy nominated King and Queen with fake ballots, then drop a bucket of the blood on Carrie.
Brian DePalma creates so many memorable visual pieces in the film with his use of things like deep focus (see Tommy Ross’ poem reading). One sequence in particular I’ve always loved is the shot of Carrie and Tommy dancing during the big prom. The camera circles around the two as they dance in circles themselves. Gradually, the camera picks up speed and we get a sense of things spinning out of control. Brian DePalma not only records the acting, he brilliantly tells the story through the language of cinema. During the prom, he cuts back to Carrie’s mother who is anxiety ridden at home, worrying Carrie will be de-flowered. She has some carrots and the camera focuses on her chopping the phallic vegetable, zooming in fast Hitchcock style: 1, 2, 3!!
The slow motion sequence of Sue Snell discovering the bucket of blood placed in the rafters above Carrie and Tommy Ross when they are on stage for the King and Queen of the Prom ceremony is another incredible piece of visceral cinema. Brian DePalma shoots Sue slowly looking at the rope leading up to the bucket, meanwhile we see Chris’ wide eyes and shiny lips showing both an ignorance and a pure evil.
Carrie also showcases one of Brian DePalma’s most exciting split screen sequences. When Carrie gets the bucket of pigs blood dropped on her from above, she hears her mother’s words of warning in her head (“They’re all going to laugh at you!”) and everyone at the prom spins in a laughing kaleidoscope. We see Carrie covered in blood, and as the bucket swings, we hear the tension of the rope getting tighter and tighter. The rope finally breaks and hits Tommy on the head knocking him to the ground. Carrie switches the prom lights to a blood red and her inner rage finally explodes, as the previously joyful gathering becomes an all out massacre of fire and water. Carrie exits the prom, still in her death daze as the gym becomes an inferno behind her. As Carrie walks home, a group of fire trucks rush by her. Chris and Billy drive up behind Carrie intending to run her over, but she senses the danger and turning quickly (We zoom in to Carrie’s face 1, 2, 3) she uses her deadly powers to flip the car over. It tumbles several times and explodes hellishly. Carrie gets home and goes upstairs to undress and wash the pigs blood off herself in the tub. Mrs. White is standing like a mannequin behind her bathroom do or which creates an even more haunting, macabre mood.
When Carrie finishes her bath, she calls downstairs for her mother, but like a black widow spider, Mrs White moves from behind the door. Carries mother calms her down, but as Carrie is nestled in her arms, Mrs White raises a large butcher knife and stabs her. Carrie tumbles down the stairs and is in shock as her mother insanely smiles down on her, blessing Carrie with the bloody knife in her hand. Carrie crawls into the kitchen and tries to hide, but her mother has lost it and she goes to slash her in a Norman Bates style, but Carrie unleashes her powers once again and impales her mother with kitchenware (including a frosting knife and a potato peeler). Her mother finally loses her breath and dies. The camera pans back and we see Margaret White, a female Jesus, crucified. Suddenly, the house begins to shake and Carrie pulls her mother off the wall and hides in the closet. The house collapses as if to tell us Carrie’s soul has died with her mothers and they are both gone forever. The final sequence in this film is one of cinemas legendary shock endings thats up there with the very best of them.
Brian DePalma’s continuously creative and daring visual ideas mixed with the overt religious imagery/themes and his nods to Psycho (ex: Bates High School) and his trademark black humor get me every time I watch Carrie. Its one of his greatest works of pop culture cinema!!