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‘Carrie’: Brian De Palma’s Empathetic Reflection of Abuse

Written by Willow Maclay on July 6, 2016 

Carrie

Brian De Palma‘s Carrie begins in the soft-haze of a high-school girls’ locker room. The camera lingers of the naked bodies of Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) abusers and clearly sets them apart from the frail girl who showers by herself. As the others frolic and laugh among themselves, Carrie rests inside of her own body. In close-up, Carrie washes her face, breasts, and abdomen until she reaches her inner thigh. She drops her bar of soap and the lilting score from composer Pino Donaggio changes key into something more sinister when it is revealed that Carrie has begun her first period and menstrual blood slides down the side of her leg. She screams at the arrival of the punishment of Eve, and blood will be a harbinger of everything to come for one Carrie White.

Carrie is De Palma’s most empathetic picture in large part because of Spacek’s meek fragility and her ability to convey the submissive whipping girl within Stephen King’s original text. The camera seems to understand that Carrie is not a woman for whom voyeurism is appropriate. This alone sets Carrie apart from films like Blow Out, Body Double, and Dressed to Kill, among others. The opening shower sequence is as close as De Palma comes to viewing Carrie in a sexual lens, and, after the close-ups on her breasts and inner thigh, the camera retreats to a respectful distance of mostly medium shots for the movie’s remainder. De Palma’s lens is historically pointed, much in the way Hitchcock’s eye was, but the major difference in Carrie is a softness and a space to let a hurting girl breathe, for getting too close would mean her crumbling.

Carrie‘s mise-en-scène is reflective of abuse in ways that intertwine the hormonal and evangelical. Her mother (Piper Laurie) is drenched in black and always seen with a cross hanging around her neck. Her house is a connection to her religion, with arched windows that bleed red into the cracks like stained glass. A wounded Christ hangs in decomposition on a battered cross in a closet of punishment. Carrie prays to this figure (who looks strangely like Carrie’s mother) when she sins, and for simply being a woman is a sin in the eyes of her mother. Outside of Carrie’s lambs-blood house, her teenage peers are seen flirting with boys, locking eyes, and cusping mouths over erections. They live fast and dangerously with no consequences beyond detention or a bad orgasm. For Carrie, there are always consequences.

After Carrie begins menstruating, she starts to exhibit telekinetic powers, moving objects with her mind or breaking glass when she becomes overexcited or starts to experience anxiety. In a wry joke of his own predispositions towards Hitchcockian forgery, De Palma copies the crashing screech of Norman Bates’ knife in Psycho to exhibit these evolutions in Carrie’s body. But these aren’t her only changes, for she starts to fancy taking a boy to the holiest of ceremonies for high-school youth: The Prom.

Carrie’s shower incident was book-ended by those same girls pelting her with tampons and rejoicing “Plug it Up! Plug it Up!” These girls would face detention, and, if they didn’t comply, would lose their privilege of attending prom. The girls saw the reason in gym teacher Miss Collins’ (Betsy Buckley) punishment, but Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) isn’t one to lie down for anyone. Definitely not a freak like Carrie White. She’d get her revenge. This would end in crimson just as it began.

After a moment of empathy from Sue (Amy Irving), one of the girls who chanted “Plug It Up” in the shower, she convinces her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom as penance for her earlier cruelty. Tommy is a tiger-beat dreamboat with Peter Frampton hair and bright eyes. With Carrie on his arm, they go. The Prom is lit beautifully by cinematographer Mario Tosi. In a wide shot, the room’s geometry is laid out from stage to backdoor, a typical high-school gymnasium shimmering with silver and red like a discotheque on Mars. De Palma’s expressive camera work is elegant and dream-like until it needs to be violent and sharp. But before the bucket there’s the dance, a moment of rhapsody that sees Carrie and Tommy staring into each others eyes with a 360-degree spinning image of sheer artistry that perfectly captures the feeling of Carrie White. It may very well be the best moment in her life. De Palma created that image by placing Spacek and Katt on a platform, spinning it one way, and using a dolly to spin the camera in the opposite direction. It’s dizzying, joyous, and brilliant.

Where the dance is the prom at its most effervescent, the following scene is of sheer brutality. In a tracking shot up a chord and into a balcony, the camera shows a bucket of blood hanging above the stage where the eventual prom king and queen would stand. Carrie and Tommy find their way up as they’re about to be crowned, but De Palma hangs on the moment for maximum suspense. It isn’t an issue of what will happen, but when, and it is agonizing to wait for Carrie’s eventual downfall at the hands of Chris Hargensen’s bucket of pig’s blood. De Palma lingers on the inherent evil in the moment by showing the dichotomy of Chris’s vengeful face and Carrie’s true moment of acceptance. There’s cutting back and forth between the two of them, as well as to an overhead of the rickety bucket. The moment’s happiness is tragic, ironic, and full of black comedy, but Spacek plays the scene straight, and when washed in the blood of a pig, she’s crestfallen, broken, and angry. Her eyes widen to Marilyn Burns (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) levels and the camera is split as she rains hell down on the high-schoolers in a bleeding red à la Marnie. The split-screen, the screaming, and the quick editing on the deaths create pure horror, and Spacek’s silhouette in the flames — covered in blood, gliding, inhuman — is nerve-wracking.

Underneath all of that blood is a broken-hearted girl who found nothing but misery in her life. When Carrie returns home later that night, she washes off the prom in a bathtub, crying and waiting to fall back in her mother’s arms, but even then Carrie couldn’t find peace. Carrie is a tale of two separate authors, Spacek and De Palma, and their instincts mesh into a film that is incendiary. Spacek brought with her the trauma and confusion of her abuse and carried it in her body language, and De Palma knew how to push the camera enough to amplify that abuse and multiply her sorrow. It is De Palma’s answer to Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie, a film of similar trauma and explosive craftsmanship.

Continue reading our career-spanning retrospective, The Summer of De Palma, below.

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