In the spring of 1999, I had a unique experience. The Roxie Cinema (in San Francisco) was opening a brand-new print of Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976), which I suspect had been struck as a sort of apology for the now-forgotten The Rage: Carrie 2, released just a week before. I attended their press screening -- the very first unfurling of the new print -- but oddly enough, I was the only one to show up. Had the other critics already seen it? Or was there something else? The Roxie guys shrugged, asked if I'd like to go ahead, and I said yes. I sat in the middle, all by myself.
I've seen it again since then, and have become doubly convinced of its excellence. Along with The Untouchables (1987) and Mission: Impossible (1996) it was De Palma's biggest success and yet it's usually left out of diatribes calling De Palma a ripoff artist and a misogynist. Based on the first novel by Stephen King, Carrie uses virtually no Hitchcockian elements, and, actually, only about a half a dozen of De Palma's 28 feature films to date, do. Likewise, it's a fairly perceptive view, not of female sexuality in itself, but of the male fear of it. (And, more importantly, an awareness of this fear.) Moreover, both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie received Oscar nominations for their performances, a justification for two strong female roles.
Carrie's mother (Piper Laurie) is a religious zealot who tries to wipe all traces of sin from her life, except that Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is living proof that she once had sex. "Sin never dies," she says. At the slightest hint of sin, she makes Carrie retreat to a little room to pray. On the other hand, Carrie's high school bursts with awkwardness, passion, and fear. The film's first scene has Carrie, the clumsiest of all, flinching from a volleyball during gym class. Her teammates gang up against her. Then, during the opening titles, director De Palma shows us the girls in the locker room, showering and dressing, laughing and teasing each other. The camera tracks for a long time, then stops to linger on Carrie, the last one in the shower. As she washes herself, perhaps enjoying her sexually changing body, she has her first period (something her mother never bothered to explain to her). She understandably freaks out while her classmates (played by P.J. Soles, Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, and others) make fun of her.
Unexpectedly, after this introduction, De Palma keeps the blood and gore at bay until the climax. The bulk of the movie is spent developing themes and characters. It turns out that Carrie has developed telekinesis at the same time she receives her sexual awakening, which of course, exploits the male fear of female sexuality by channeling it into supernatural powers. Carrie must try to learn about her power at the same time she learns about her body and about relating to other people in an adult way. Carrie's gym teacher (Betty Buckley) is the only one who seems to take the time to guide Carrie. Sue Snell (Amy Irving), too, begins to feel sorry for her, and insists that her gentle, beefcake boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) ask Carrie to the prom. Meanwhile, the cackling Chris (Nancy Allen) and her belligerent boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) begin to cook up a nasty revenge.
The climax itself has become legendary, and deservedly so. Chris plots for Carrie to be voted prom queen so that she can dump a bucket of pig's blood on her when she takes the stage. (Again, the blood metaphor.) In a normal movie, this sequence would have lasted a few seconds, designed as a quick shock. De Palma makes it into an opera. He shows us Sue watching from behind the stage, noticing for one second that a rope that is attached to a pail perched in the rafters above. The camera climbs with the rope, shows us the bucket, then Carrie in the audience as her name is called. De Palma lets her revel in her greatest moment for several long moments. She has fully awakened, become a woman. When the bucket is turned and the blood falls, De Palma goes to his trademark split-screen. As Carrie's full potency is released her powers, also, have reached their peak. Tellingly, the blood she is covered in makes her look as if she's just emerged from a womb: born anew. She begins to wreak destruction on the prom. On one side of the screen, we can see Carrie's eerie face, on the other, some kind of violence. At other times, we see a scene of horror, and a character's reaction to it at the same time, doubling the power of the scene.
De Palma's virtuoso technique and full-color gore were among the first new horror films (after The Last House on the Left, The Exorcist and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) in a changing industry. The days of creepy shadows and scary noises were over. But what makes Carrie so effective is not that De Palma simply pointed his camera at some gore; rather, he imagined a way to visually tap into our bodies and souls, arranging his shots with sinister skill to evoke the most extreme reactions. If there is still any kind of resistance to Carrie, it's not because of any failings on De Palma's part, but because of an unwillingness to get so close to a more real kind of horror.