In the previous two installments of "Shelf Life," we took a look at a couple of prominent Oscar winners that have been both canonized and churned up by the annals of history. Interestingly, both of them held up a lot better than we originally expected, primarily because of our own hazy memories of Titanic and American Beauty, but also because of the wealth of films their successes inspired in terms of characters, stories, styles and even spectacles. As such it seemed appropriate to go back and check out a movie that in no small way served as the foundation for literally countless imitators and rip-offs, potentially one of which, Jennifer's Body, opens this week. The film we're referring to, of course, is Brian De Palma's Carrie, and we recently rewatched this venerated horror classic to see if it's still as worthy of its classic status as it was when everyone and their insane, God-fearing mother decided to do their version of it.
The Facts: Released in 1976, Brian De Palma became a superstar director with this adaptation of the Steven King story of the same name, about a young girl who discovers she has telekinetic powers, much to the horror of her, yes, insane, God-fearing mother. With a budget of $1.8 million, De Palma's operatic nightmare went on to gross almost $34 million dollars domestically, earn two Oscar nominations (Best Actress for Sissy Spacek and Supporting Actress for Piper Laurie) and essentially initiated a windfall of King adaptations that would continue throughout the next three decades. Additionally, its surprise ending was the first of its kind, and led to a never-ending series of horror films that felt compelled to leave the audience scared half to death in the final shot, no matter how little sense it made in the context of the rest of the movie.
What Still Works: De Palma's style, which was exercised with a perfect (and rare) balance of restraint and indulgence. Notwithstanding the epic prom finale, the director does a wonderful job of making everything seem just a little bit abnormal, starting with an opening that provides horror fan with a requisite amount of titillation, then more or less obliterates that feeling by having one of the girls discover her period in a disgusting and horrifying way. Spacek and Laurie are really wonderful in their roles, especially the younger actress, who imbues Carrie's transformation from wallflower to bloodsoaked prom queen with believability and pathos. Additionally, the idea that Amy Irving's character would conspire with her boyfriend to do something to make Carrie feel happier and more confident is really kind of beautiful and optimistic, and gives the film's ending a sense not only of horror but tragedy.
What Doesn't Work: Rare is the film that I think isn't long enough, but at a swift 98 minutes, the buildup to Carrie's unleashed rage seems too slight and abrupt for its sizable payoff, and the film would have probably benefited from a more understated escalation of events as Carrie discovers and begins to master her powers. And while hot, "evil" high school girls are a staple of Hollywood movies, Nancy Allen's Chris Hargensen is a special brand of bitch, not only humiliating Carrie by dumping pig blood on her head, but literally trying to run her over with a car afterward. (This is also another sequence that would have benefited from more patient, or at least slightly better-developed storytelling.)
What's The Verdict: Carrie holds up, but for modern audiences (especially those unfamiliar with the film before now) it's impossible to imagine it being as scary or disturbing as it was in 1976, again before so many other movies took its ideas and exploited them over and over again. Much like Fatal Attraction in the 1980s and Silence of the Lambs in the '90s, Carrie really elevated genre conventions and took what was essentially a b-movie concept and legitimized it through tone and execution.
While the look of the film is practically a case study in De Palma's visual hallmarks, however, it also seemed to reduce the director to the sum total of the effect he could produce with them. This in particular is why despite his widespread acclaim and commercial success, I don't feel like De Palma is a true auteur, because his influence on source material – especially in the later years of his career – seems primarily if not exclusively technical, rather than emotional or even conceptual. But as a visual stylist he is unmatched in terms of creating iconic, powerful sequences, and Carrie remains a calling card that works precisely because is still surpasses the hordes of imitators that followed it.