De Palma: Carrie (1976)
Carrie was the first adaptation of a novel by Stephen King, and it’s still one the best, holding its own against the massive progeny of King adaptations that it spawned, let alone the various efforts to reimagine and continue this particular story. At the same time, it was one of the defining films in Brian De Palma’s career as well, and between these two authors, or auteurs, emerged one of the quintessential releases for articulating the cusp between the early and late 70s. Like King’s novel, the screenplay revolves around a young high school student called Carrie White, played by Sissy Spacey in one of the all-time great horror performances. Quite provocatively, the film takes the key moment in the novel – Carrie getting her first period in the school gym shower – and uses it for the opening credits, which De Palma shoots in the highly fetishised, stylised manner that would become such a hallmark of his subsequent career. Splitting the difference between softcore pornography and art cinema, it’s a sequence that enacts the exact moment at which perverse impulses are subsumed into tasteful and collectively approved spectacle, setting in place the preoccupations and predilections of the film to come. At the same time, this opening sequence also establishes the central metaphorical connection between menstruation and telekinesis that drives the novel, with Carrie’s first flow of womanhood seeming to somehow unlock dormant powers to move, manipulate and destroy objects with her mind.
This opening scene also introduces the main way in which we are encouraged, as an audience, to view Carrie’s body – namely, as an object of the most abject, pathetic and vulnerable horror, thanks in large part to the collection of popular teenage girls who gather around her to make fun of her confusion, terror and disorientation, since it’s clear that she’s never had menstruation explained to her before. In large part that’s due to her mother, Mrs. White, played by Piper Lee in a forerunner to the fierce soapiness of Catherine Martell on Twin Peaks, and who takes on the role of suburban guardian and biblical mouthpiece in lieu of any actual father figure for Carrie to look up to. Given that Carrie herself exhibits about as undisciplined, amorphous and polymorphously perverse a female body as might be imagined, it almost goes without saying that Mrs. White’s discipline of Carrie is also a mode of self-discipline, a way of internalising the commanding paternal voice of suburban normality while also ensuring that she is never again manipulated by that voice either, since it gradually emerges that Carrie was only born to Mrs. White out of marital rape from a husband and father that promptly abandoned both. In her own way, Mrs. White has set herself the impossible task of outdoing this absent father’s voice, even as that voice is abstracted from any single locus of paternal authority – there are almost no men in the film – and instead deflected into the masculine auteurism of De Palma’s highly structured and consummately disciplined camera work, all of which guides, organises and commands the viewer’s gaze with the same authority that Mrs. White longs to impart to her own daughter.
In other words, Carrie takes place at the exact cusp between suburban melodrama and suburban horror, as Mrs. White takes the monstrous maternal presence that galvanised so much melodrama about as far as it will go before it tips into the slasher that would become necessary to contain and balance out that maternal authority in subsequent horror cinema. Occupying the vacuum when the father figures of suburbia had been utterly dismantled but a new generation of serial killers hadn’t yet arrived to take their place, Mrs. White plays like a distant ancestor of Jason Vorhees, whose first representative was, after all, his mother. At the same time, Mrs. White attributes and refers all her power and authority to the religious imagery she keeps scattered throughout her house, and especially to the eerie figure of Jesus Christ that bookends the narrative and stands in for the paternal omniscience required to keep this version of suburbia humming along. Yet for all that this is clearly a general Christian milieu, it’s only Mrs. White who seems prepared to completely identify with Christianity, to the point where she often plays as a dark and distorted version of Mary Magdalene, left with no other choice but to perpetuate whatever she can redeem of a man who raped, impregnated and left her so abruptly that he might never have been human at all. One of the most provocative implications of the film, then, is that Jesus was the original slasher, or that the slasher is an inherently Christian figure and institution, with Mrs. White’s icon seeming to grow more unsettling, eerie and terrifying as the film reaches its conclusion.
As one of the foundational texts of suburban horror, Carrie has a peculiarly poetic affinity with the figure who usually poses the greatest threat to this paternal omniscience – the young girl poised on the cusp of womanhood. Much of the film plays as a meditation on what is required to become a woman, or to be recognised as a woman, within the suburban universe in which King’s narrative unfolds, with King himself having acknowledged that the novel was his attempt to do away with the “macho” writings of his juvenilia and engage with feminism in some way, at his wife and fellow novelist Tabitha’s behest. That meditation is all the more schematic and suburban in that both the novel and adaptation retain some distance from the bucolic Maine backdrops that would become King’s stock in trade, opting instead for a more deracinated and anonymised cusp between small town homeliness and deadening urban sprawl. As with so much suburban horror, too, this process of becoming a woman is presented as a new form of perception, with Carrie’s telekinetic powers speaking to a more general, dawning awareness of the presence and potentiality of her body – and, specifically, an enhanced sense of how her proprioceptive thresholds now radiate beyond her conscious desire to animate the vicinity of her body with a new kind of agency and intensity, if only she can now learn how to channel and manage those expanded thresholds.
Yet the lesson of Carrie’s primal encounter in the gym is that she needs to relinquish this new mode of perception as soon as she has discovered it, and subordinate the most anarchic parts of her femininity in the name of being recognised as a woman by her peers and superiors. This isn’t something she is expected to achieve alone, but is instead presented as the responsibility of the entire community, all of whom – even the most well-meaning and sympathetic – find themselves compelled to bully, belittle and discipline her body into submission, an impulse that De Palma encourages the audience to participate in as well. To some extent, that impulse stems from the fact that the abjectly unprocessed nature of Carrie’s desire is clearly contagious, contaminating those around her to such an extent that the only way to prevent themselves succumbing it to turn all that energy back upon Carrie herself, shaming and belittling her until she can be disavowed and even destroyed. That abjection is all the more noticeable within De Palma’s strict visual scheme, which is always elastic enough to accommodate Carrie, but never flexible enough to fully domesticate here, a tension encapsulated in one of his most emphatic uses of cross-cutting. As De Palma juxtaposes Carrie’s investigations into “cosmic consciousness” in the school library with the gym detention that has been assigned to the girls for bullying her in the locker room, it becomes clear that this detention is really a form of remediation rather that punishment, since these girls have become so infected by Carrie’s energy that only the most rigorous calisthenics – and rigorous crosscutting – can return their bodies to normality.
As that might suggest, things quickly reach a point at which all the relationships in the film can only exist by destroying Carrie, while the sexual relationships, in particular, become unthinkable without being mediated through Carrie at her most abject. While we never see a world before the opening credits, it seems as if every romance has suddenly become uncertain and unstable from the moment Carrie starts menstruating – the banter goes awry, the push-and-pull has too much push or too much pull, the rough love gets a little too rough. Finally, Carrie’s main nemesis – the queen bee – has no option but to ask one of the jocks to invite Carrie to the upcoming prom so that the bullies can take their revenge by pulling a prank on her for the benefit of the entire student body. It’s no coincidence that this queen bee asks the jock for this favour in the midst of fellating them, nor that she apparently does so to bring herself to orgasm as much as manipulate him at a vulnerable moment, since this is the beginning of a whole sequence of scenes in which humiliating Carrie comes to stand in for, and then actually constitute, the way sexual pleasure is structured across the high school as a whole. In the process, shaming Carrie becomes the in crowd’s way of having sex, and despite the semi-pornographic moments of nudity, the most explicit moments of the film come from the oneiric bliss that washes over the perpetrators faces when they are setting up their plan, and then when they are finally watching it unfold.
In other words, De Palma and King present a world in which policing female desire is held up as the greatest object of desire, even or especially for women. In fact, given that becoming a woman is more or less synonymous with policing the desire of other women, it’s questionable whether Carrie herself ever attains femininity, or can be conceived of as feminine. While she may be biologically a woman from the moment she starts menstruating, her inability or unwillingness to police the femininity of other women in turn is the best indicator, within the film, that she hasn’t yet been socialised as feminine, and is unable to be recognised socially as feminine. Instead, she’s a woman devoid of femininity, which makes her particularly threatening to the other women around her, but also opens the film considerably beyond the scope of second wave feminism to examine more contemporary contemplations of sex and gender, with Carrie’s defeminised womanhood often playing as a forerunner of what would be described as queer politics a decade later. Nowhere is that queer sensibility clearer than in its prescience for the libidinal excess that suffuses every gesture of cruelty, and the cruel excess that suffuses every gesture of kindness, since it’s impossible, within the logic of the film, form characters to encounter Carrie without at the very least condescending to her, as De Palma deforms even the most apparently normal and normative dialogue into the mouthpiece of a shared and tacit sadism.
All that comes to a head at the prom, which differs quite sharply from other depictions of this high school tradition that were promulgated at the time as fodder for 50s nostalgia. Here, the prom is an ideological consolidation of high school and a perceptual preparation for the prescriptive sightlines required to navigate suburbia in the years to come. Accordingly, this is also where De Palma’s auteurist flourishes really come into their own, even as they tend to subsume the architecture of the prom into the bullies’ architecture of Carrie’s humiliation. Far from feeling like an anomaly, the shame in store for Carrie feels like the driving principle and critical lynchpin of the prom. For as much as it might seem to hate her, this suburban optic also needs Carrie as a cautionary counter-example, and an object lesson in what doesn’t constitute properly achieved femininity. To that end, De Palma’s use of deep focus also intensifies during the preparations for the prom, as he relies increasingly on shots that alternately place Carrie’s face in the extreme foreground or the extreme background of the image, as if to capture the tension between everything attempting to contain her and everything about her that unwittingly refuses to be contained. Part of the signature of these shots is that the scale is just a bit off – the background is a little too big or the foreground is a little too small – as if to capture the dynamic interdependence between Carrie and the world that seems to spurn her, to the point where it sometimes feels as if the teenagers, and the entire school, have conceived of her simply for this particular occasion.
That closeness between Carrie and her nemeses is beautifully encapsulated in the first part of the prom, where, in the great twist of the film, Carrie turns out to be eminently capable of presenting as a normal, conventional, “feminine” girl under the right circumstances. Sure, she’s still fairly shy, but by the time the night arrives at its conclusion she’s developed into a more than naturalistic character, speaking and moving in a fairly unremarkable manner, and even appearing to have garnered quite a sincere and repentant attention from her male partner. By the time she walks forward to accept the title of prom queen, it feels strangely and entirely plausible that she could actually be his queen, as De Palma enacts a kind of fantastic flash forward to her wedding day that embeds her entire subsequent suburban trajectory within this one formative moment of prom glory – a literal promenade, if you will. As Carrie and her beau spin and spin, in one sustained shot, they seem to become one person, or to even become one with the prom itself, as in one brief shining moment Spacek is permitted to offer up something like a “realistic” performance of teenage womanhood.
Yet there are warning signs throughout this final sequence as well, the most damning of which comes from Carrie’s “kindly” gym teacher, who has always seemed like her biggest ally – even if she sheepishly admitted to sympathising with her tormentors – and sets the night in motion with a self-deprecating story about her own prom experience. For all the hokey details, however, one fact shines out – namely, that this teacher went to the prom with the captain of the basketball team, who was presumably a jock of some standing, meaning she’s really not all that different from the bullying girls she half-heartedly chastised earlier; she’s simply come out the other side of prom to process and internalise what it stood for. As a result, even her best intentions can’t prevent her feeling like an inadvertent mouthpiece for the conspiracy at large – “you’ll never forget tonight” – while her beneficent personification of the prom mindset is somehow even more chilling than the cruellest bully.
Certainly, it’s this teacher’s face that is hardest to read as the architectures of the prom and of the conspiracy finally and completely collapse into that outlined by De Palma’s camera, whose single most elaborate shot is reserved for the moment at which Carrie and the bucket of pig’s blood poised precipitously above her head are fused into the lynchpin of the space at large. As De Palma outlines every step along the way to the denouement, we’re met with one bully after another crouched amidst the scaffolding, all of whom play as so many debased auteurs, occupying the nooks and crannies – the syntax, if you will – of De Palma’s own auteurist architecture, and getting off on that architecture more than they ever could from actually participating in the prom. Accelerating from one oneirically perverse expression of glee to the next, the film seems prescient that watching people watch pornography is infinitely more discomfiting than actually watching pornography, since that is very much the impression here, with De Palma coming closer to visualising his own enraptured and masturbatory immersion in his self-conscious stylisation than at any moment in his career before this point. In its own way, then, Carrie is a meditation on the messy desires that structure the most apparently clinical auteurism, which is to say that this is also the moment in his career at which De Palma meditates most unflinchingly at what is actually at stake in his incessant citation of Hitchcock in the name of an auteurism that has supposedly been detached from its original desires and then subsumed into mere “style.”
It’s the great paradox of the film, then, that the climax prompts what is arguably De Palma’s most recognisable auteurist signature, as one of the most iconic transformations in horror cinema ensues, and Carrie goes from quite a plausible performance of prom queen to a terrifying concatenation of blood, skin and bone, doubling down on her telekinetic powers to destroy the school gymnasium and everyone inside it. To some extent, this means destroying De Palma’s immaculate architecture of sequence shots and spatial cohesion as well, with the film now breaking into split screen for the duration of the rampage, as if Carrie’s supernatural apotheosis had irreversibly dissociated his camera from the prom, and the prom from the prank, rupturing the entire suburban optic of the film in the process. Yet those split screens have become more integral to De Palma’s vision than virtually any other stylistic gesture, begging the uneasy question of whether this final devolution – or evolution – of Carrie was exactly what the prom ultimately required as the dark fantasy to give its own fantasy of normality some kind of way to orient itself. Put simply, it almost feels as if Carrie’s final transformation is a continuation of her ritual humiliation at the hands of the pigs blood – rather than a riposte to it – and that what we are seeing is nothing less than the prom’s collective vision of what they need to expunge from themselves in order to remain whole.
That bind may be why De Palma opts for a considerably hokier and balder register in the final scene – a nod back to melodrama – as Carrie returns home for an epilogue that also plays as a prologue to the slasher films that were just around the corner. Indeed, by the time she gets back Mrs. White has literal become a slasher, wielding her kitchen knife as she tries to embody the phallic potency that Carrie’s father wouldn’t, even as she has also apotheosised the intensive femininity that phallic potency was supposed to contain in the first place. The very definition of a self-defeating father, or a self-defeating slasher, she becomes more and more gleeful with each stab of the knife, forcing Carrie to telekinetically stab, crucify and, finally, kill her, before reverting to the same abject state we saw at the beginning of the film. Watching this scene, I realised that all slashers are in some sense self-defeating slashers, since for all their insatiability they’re too indebted to the worlds they supposedly rupture to ever really emerge victorious in a clear way. Given that slashers already apotheosise an absent father figure, they can never achieve an apotheosis of their own – they’re already someone else’s fantasy – with the result that their apparently insatiable seriality is really a testament to their inability to decisively articulate themselves.
Something of that paradox animates this final scene, which, once again, draws a provocative connection between Jesus and the suburban slasher, with the self-defeating lifespan of both producing an eerie calm, as Mrs. White is consigned to a painterly pose amidst a serene sea of candles. In death, Mrs. White suddenly seems to have achieved the power she was never able to fully arrogate in life, if only because the version of paternal authority she was striving for was so fantastic that it could only ever be perpetuated through the kind of dead image and stylised tableau into which she has finally been subsumed. As strange as it may sound, her very stillness is eerier and more compelling than even her most histrionic and unhinged monologues, trapping Carrie in her presence more completely than her most Gothic efforts to lock her up earlier in the film. Accordingly, it’s only now that Mrs. White finally wins the battle over Carrie, whose telekinetic powers abruptly depart from her body to become embodied by and embedded in the house itself, which bursts into flames and consumes itself on the spot. In the end, this was what the teenagers needed to see – the spectacle of Carrie’s powers destroying themselves and enabling their own, as if suburbia were an ecosystem that required periodic bursts of flame to remain fertile for the future.
Yet it’s at this point that De Palma departs most radically from King’s novel, which offsets this traumatic ending with an whole ancillary apparatus depicting Carrie’s evolution into a folk hero and icon of resistance. This sprawl is conveyed through one of the most textually diverse and experimental palimpsests of King’s carer, but from the way De Palma shoots it you’d assume this was adapted from the most constrictive of omniscient narrators, since all we have to contour this final destructive spectacle is a short epilogue in which the one girl who managed to escape the prom strays out of her perfectly adorned bedroom to make a pilgrimage to Carrie’s grave, which happens to be situated on the remains of her house. In one final, splendid, hallucinatory gesture, this girl “wakes up” into the very scene from which she started, seeing Carrie’s bloodied hand in her mother’s reassuring caress, and the Whites’ charred house in her own immaculate bedroom, before De Palma cuts back to his bucolic pastoral score for the closing credits. In the way it foreshadows virtually every suburban horror film of the next two decades, its perfectly pitched fusion of languor and terror, and its final, inchoate cry of chaos, it’s one of the greatest moment in King, De Palma and, of course, Spacek’s careers, and the benchmark for all subsequent adaptations of King.
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