Wednesday, October 6, 2010

I Never Once Saw Carrie Eat Shit -- Reflections on "Carrie" (1976)

"Where are all those tampons now?"

Those that know me, know that I'm a Stephen King junkie. I first read The Dark Half when I was 12, and there was no turning back. His brand of storytelling appealed to the darkest parts of my soul, and I loved him for it. He was my first hero.

This in mind, it's rather odd that I had never seen Carrie, the 1976 film version of his 1974 novel. I'm not sure why I never saw it, just that I never did. Most consider it an adaptation that's even better than the book, but I didn't get around to seeing it.

Well, I've finally seen it, more than 15 years since I last read the novel, and it definitely lived up to its reputation as a horror classic.

Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a 16-year old high school student. She's hated by the kids at school. They insult her and tag insulting things about her ("Carrie White eats shit") on the school walls. Her story begins in earnest the day she gets her first period, which just so happens to be in the shower, right after gym class. Having no idea about menstruation,* Carrie is horrified by the blood streaming down her leg, appeals for help from the other girls, and gets scorn and ridicule instead of help and understanding. The girls grab tampons and pads to throw at Carrie as she crumbles in the corner of the shower. It's the ultimate teen girl nightmare.

*Maybe I'm jaded by the change in the times, but if Carrie has gone to school for 11 years, how has she not heard about girls being "on the rag" or getting their period? I'm pretty sure most kids' sexual understanding came from the schoolyard even as far back as the 1970s.

As if things weren't bad enough for the girl, it's worse on the homefront. Carrie's mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), gets my vote for worst mother in movie history. She's a Jesus-freak, self-righteous, delusional woman who views Carrie's passage into womanhood as a sin and a sure sign her daughter is now sexually active. She throws Carrie into a prayer closet, or Jesus Room, filled with religious artifacts and one of the creepiest Christ figures I've ever seen. Her abuse of Carrie is as powerful as it is frightening.

But Carrie has a few tricks up her sleeve. Becoming a woman seems to have unlocked a power within her. She discovers she's telekinetic, able to manipulate objects with her mind. Her ability is triggered by powerful emotions, such as when she breaks the vanity mirror in her bedroom.

For their behavior in abusing Carrie, the girls in the locker room are punished by Ms. Collins* (Betty Buckley) with a week of after-school detention. The girls react differently. Chris (Nancy Allen), the pretty party girl, blames Carrie and vows revenge. Sue Snell (Amy Irving), the girl next door, feels ashamed of herself and vows to help Carrie out. Her idea is to get her boyfriend and captain of the football team, Tommy (William Katt), to ask Carrie to the prom. Chris, on the other hand, hooks up with her boyfriend, Billy (John Travolta**), to stage a humiliating prank on Carrie at the prom.

* Ms. Collins has to be one of the most abusive teachers ever. When Carrie's freaking out in the shower, Collins hauls off and slaps the shit out of her. And again, during detention, the moment Chris gets out of line, Collins puts a handprint on her face, too. Ironically, Ms. Collins is also the movie's sweetest character, defending Carrie at every turn after her opening scene humiliation. We teachers are complicated, huh?

** Travolta's acting is horrible. His best scene involves slapping Chris for calling him a "dumb shit." His laugh is like that of a braying donkey. The more I see of his film catalog, the more convinced I am that his best work was in Pulp Fiction.

Things don't end well for Carrie, and I guess they probably shouldn't. Before the end, though, we are treated to moments both touching and awful. There's a beautiful shot at the prom in which the camera circles Carrie and Tommy as they dance, helping us understand the disoriented feeling of the overwhelmed teen girl. For every moment like that, though, there are the wonderfully grotesque. Carrie psychically throwing knives at her mother is iconic, especially when the impaled mother hangs on the wall like the twisted Christ doll in the closet.

What most people talk about with this movie, though, is the shock ending, which paved the way for endings of films like Friday the 13th. Maybe because I knew it was coming I wasn't as affected. It was still pretty cool, but it didn't "make" the film for me like watching Carrie's disturbing reaction at having pig's blood dumped on her as she's crowned Prom Queen.

Carrie's strength today comes from its honest portrayal of high school relationships. The bullying we see in this film is pretty extreme, and mostly unjustified, but that's the horror of it. Kids don't always have good reasons for bullying. And if one kid does, that doesn't justify the herd mentality of the others. This film captures the inconsistency and cruelty in a way that makes it relatable even now.

Here's a clip of the ending of Carrie. Enjoy.

1 comment: