It’s taken me a few years, but I finally got around to seeing Carrie this year, a classic horror film that’s been on many of my to-watch lists, including both my yearly horror watch lists AND the New Hollywood marathon list I went through last year (but never made it to Carrie). With all that build-up, I was really hoping it would live up to my expectations, and I can pretty well say it did, and even that it had a few surprises in store for me.
Carrie is an outsider at school, the kid that’s ridiculed in PE for being bad at volleyball, and generally shunned for her mousy looks and intensely shy persona. While the other girls cavort around the girl’s locker room freely and joyously, Carrie is content to hover alone in the showers, letting the soothing water wash over her loneliness. Until the soothing water is mixed with blood, and a confused Carrie screams for the help of her classmates, who helpfully explain the menstrual cycle and hand her a sanitary pad. Er, that’s not right. They mercilessly tease her and pelt her with sanitary pads and tampons, trapping the poor girl in the corner of the shower until the kind gym teacher comes to her rescue.
My only thought at this point was “does she not have a mother to tell her about this stuff, or what?” As it turns out, she does, but her mother is C-R-A-Z-Y. As soon as Carrie gets home from school and tells her what’s going on, her mother goes ballistic on her, telling her that the bleeding only comes after a woman has sinned. When we first see the mother (a scenery-chewing over-the-top performance from Piper Laurie), she’s earnestly evangelizing the neighbors, and I was about ready to write her off as just another lame attempt at a Christian character from writers who don’t know what they’re talking about, but she is far beyond that. I don’t know where she got her theology, but it is MESSED UP. Never you mind when she finds out that Carrie intends to go to the prom WITH A BOY and, oh right, has also gained telekinetic capabilities.
Anyway. The coach chastizes the rest of the kids for their behavior toward Carrie, and one of them, Chris, plots revenge on Carrie with her boyfriend (a super-young John Travolta) while another, Sue, sends her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom as a gesture of kindness – I wasn’t sure at first if Sue was sincere, and I kind of liked how that played out. The prom scene is pretty famous, and I knew essentially what was going to happen. What I didn’t know was how long and how well-played the prom scene is before Chris’s plot swings into action and Carrie takes her bloody revenge. There are some over-done parts that nevertheless end up being effective, like the constantly circling camera while Carrie and Bobby are dancing, a scene that’s both beautiful and ominous, since we know something’s going to go down but desperately wish for Carrie to have her moment in peace.
And that’s really the strength of the film. Sissy Spacek is able to get us on Carrie’s side really quickly, and make us ache for the acceptance she seems to be gaining at the prom. Everything is going so right for her, Bobby is genuinely kind to her, and she’s coming out of her shell into a beautiful young woman able to stand up for herself. The fact that we know it’s all going to go wrong makes it all the more painful. Well-drawn characters like this should be at the heart of every horror film – otherwise, they’re mindless exercises in jump scares and gore. Granted, no one else here is as well-written as Carrie (most of them are types to fill a specific role, and most of them play over the top), and De Palma doesn’t trust her solidity quite enough, resorting to camera tricks and flamboyant stylistics when they’re not really needed. But Spacek grounds things enough to stop all that from being too distracting.
The prom isn’t the end, though, as I always thought it was. There’s a whole other section after Carrie goes home and tries to seek comfort from her mother (“you were right, they did laugh at me!”), but there’s none to be found. Thre are some great visual moments in this secton, especially when Carrie climbs the steps to her attic bedroom and we slowly become aware of her mother’s presence in the shadows – an incredibly eerie moment that’s chilling to the bone without being a jump scare. But I’m not entirely sure what to make of this part. I’m going to spoil the ending, since I want to talk about it, so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading now.
Carrie’s mother thinks she’s been possessed by a demon, which is giving her the telekinetic powers. And to be fair, the film doesn’t explain that power at all (I haven’t read the Stephen King book it’s based on, so I don’t know if it’s explained in there or not). After Carrie returns from the prom, her mother stabs her, believing that Carrie is now evil due to the demon possession and needs to be killed. Instead, Carrie uses her telekinetic ability to throw knives at her mother, and immediately after that, the entire house starts imploding – perhaps due to her inability to control her telekineses, I’m not sure. She and her now-dead mother end up in the little cubbyhole where her mother made her pray and do penance before a crucifix which – get this – has wounds in exactly the same places as the knives made on her mother. So there’s a visual connection between Jesus and the mother. The house eventually disappears entirely into a charred plot of ground, and Sue later visits the site, which has been marked with a sign saying “Carrie is in hell.” After the empowerment of the prom scene, I have no idea what this ending means. She WAS possessed by a demon and has returned to them in hell, after symbolically killing Christ through her mother (which would indicate that her mother was a valid representation of a Christian, which I think is categorically untrue)? I kind of have a problem with that.
So I didn’t really care for the ending except for its visceral intensity, which was quite good, and the last few moments did have a solid scare, albeit the shift to Sue’s point of view is a little odd since we’ve been so closely tied to Carrie’s throughout the film. But so much of the rest of it was so good, especially the entire prom scene, that I’d still say I quite enjoyed it. As a character-driven horror film it’s quite effective, I just thought its overall message was muddied a lot by the ending.