Jay’s review published on Letterboxd:
There are few things more awkward in this World than watching the opening credits of Carrie in the presence of your parents. Any teenage boy who has had to endure such a scenario will know just how uncomfortable it is. You just don’t know where to look! Worse still, if you’re in the boat that I was in when I first sat down to watch it, you’ve got the added dilemma of pretending that you’re enjoying it – but not too much – so as not to arouse suspicious glares from your parents who, despite your love of Abba and Duran Duran, are very much in the dark about your choices in life. I’m not sure if that was the root cause of my discomfort but I spent my first viewing of this film completely on edge and it had nothing whatsoever to do with the horror unfurling on the screen in front of me. For that alone, I’ve always associated Carrie with sheer terror.
Fast forward a good few years and I’ve now seen this film approximately fifteen times. It was a key component of my final year dissertation at University (don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with an in-depth analysis of the representation of gender and sexuality in Carrie… well, not much anyway) and I’ve spent many a day and many a night, laboriously poring my way through every little scene to find evidence in support of my original theory that this is about as far from a feminist film as one can get. Alas, my attempts to buck the trend failed and I had to concede that this is a great piece of feminist cinema, albeit one that isn’t completely devoid of male-biases (but that’s a debate for another day). I pretty much know the entire film like the back of my hand. Yet, despite that, I still love it to pieces. If anything, I love it more now than I did when I started my dissertation. It truly is a masterpiece of modern horror cinema and though it’s not quite as true to the novel as it could have been, it is most certainly one of the greatest adaptations of all time.
The story of Carrie White is one of which I’m sure you’re all aware. Shy and retiring, Carrie (Sissy Spacek) – the daughter of a fanatical Christian named Margaret (Piper Laurie) – is the least popular girl at her school. She doesn’t fit in with any of her classmates and, as a result, she is the victim of a cruel and vicious bullying campaign. Her home life offers no solace as her puritanical Mother abuses her and forces her to beg forgiveness for her “sins”, and refuses point blank to inform her of the great changes that she will soon be going through. Then, one day, she has her first ever period. She doesn’t have a clue what is happening to her and has a breakdown in front of her classmates, who use her terror as a stick to beat her with, callously bullying her as she begs them for help. On returning home, her Mother brands her a sinner. Feeling guilty about her role in the bullying, Carrie’s classmate Sue (Amy Irving) asks her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to accompany Carrie to the prom. Reluctantly, Carrie agrees to go. Determined to humiliate Carrie further, Chris (Nancy Allen) – another of Carrie’s classmates - and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) rig the Prom Queen election so that Carrie wins, only to dump a bucket full of pig’s blood on her when she’s accepting her prize.
Now, if you’ve heard nothing about this story before then it might not sound particularly scary. Gruelling, yes, but not scary. If anything, it sounds like a pretty standard teenage drama film. However, what I failed to mention is that Carrie is going through an additional change that none of us have ever experienced; she’s developing telekinetic powers. As the film progresses and Carrie’s Mother and her classmates continue to make a fool of her, these powers grow until, ultimately, she becomes an unstoppable force and is able to wreak violent revenge on all of those who have made her life a misery. It’s the ultimate anti-hero tale. As a character, Carrie is so instantly likable that it is impossible not to root for her as she’s massacring her classmates. It’s like horror in reverse – rather than shifting our sympathies from the killer to the final girl, we instead shift them from the final girl to the killer. Better still, they’re both the same person! It’s a total mindfuck.
And that is where Carrie’s great success lies. It is one of the few horror films in which the male audience is forced to sympathise with the female lead from the very beginning. Carrie White is our hero and our villain. We have no choice but to view the action through her eyes and to invest in her as a character. Not only does she represent man’s most primitive fear – feminine power – but she is also the vessel through which the predominantly male audience have their fears realised. It’s a fascinating contradiction that makes her one of the most complex and intriguing characters that the genre and, indeed, literature in general has to offer. Whilst it is Stephen King who is primarily responsible for this creation, one simply cannot fault Spacek’s performance or Brian De Palma’s interpretation of the character. The beauty of her is that she is just like every other teenager. She gets bullied, she’s sexually confused, she feels suffocated by her Mother and she can’t cope with the vast changes that are occurring in her life. Every teenager – male and female – goes through all of these emotions at some point in their lives and, despite the fact that she is the epitome of feminine strength, males both identify with and support Carrie. It is one of the very few films in which the male gaze practically doesn’t exist at all… outside of the shower scene of course.
However, pretentious literature student bullshit aside, what really makes Carrie work is that it is just so perfectly executed. For a story about a girl with telekinetic powers, you really couldn’t ask for a better film. Stylistically, this is probably De Palma’s greatest work. Though the film takes a while to get going, the build-up has a consistently eerie undertone that is aided rather marvellously by Piper Laurie’s spectacular performance. Capturing the essence of King’s original novel, De Palma’s direction couldn’t be more perfect (except for that awful scene in the tuxedo shop, which I really do have to put to the back of my mind and dismiss if I’m giving this film a five-star rating). Everything about Carrie’s house and the town in which she lives is afforded a great deal of care and attention and, as the film reaches its denouement, De Palma ups the ante and gives us what I consider to be the most simultaneously beautiful and creepy scene in all of cinema. I mean look at it – the music, Piper Laurie’s insane smile, the almost wistful swaying of the camera, the knife as the cross, Spacek’s eyes and, of course, the crucifixion of the knives and Margaret’s almost orgasmic reaction to her own demise… everything about that scene is just magnificent. Having been treated to the massacre at the prom, we then get that as well. Maybe it’s just me but that entire sequence is about as perfect as cinema gets.
And then, of course, we have the obvious stuff. Firstly there’s the acting. Spacek and Laurie are phenomenal in their roles and Amy Irving puts in a sterling performance as Sue, by far the most likable of the supporting characters. Whilst Travolta offers us nothing particularly exciting, his performance is solid enough and the cast, as a whole, really does work. The script is solid throughout, with Piper Laurie’s Margaret offering the best of the film’s dialogue, and the story is an engrossing one. I stuck this on because I’ve just watched the teaser trailer for the remake, out next year, and it really pissed me off. Carrie is timeless. The themes are timeless, the characters are timeless and the message is timeless. It doesn’t need updating because it’s perfect enough as it is. So, on behalf of everyone, ever, allow me to end this review with a plea to the film industry; stop desecrating my favourite films, you selfish, money-hungry, artistically stunted motherfuckers. I hate you all and I wish you’d never been born. Thank you.