Carrie: Special Edition Review
Carrie is an extraordinary achievement on just about every level you might care to mention. As a horror film, it is memorably chilling with one truly classic shock moment; as a portrait of a vulnerable outsider, it is deeply moving; and as a study of the casual cruelties that teenagers inflict on each other, it is penetrating and truthful. It's also, for what it's worth, one of the most faithful of all literary adaptations, serving Stephen King's original without enshrining it at the expense of the overall cinematic effect.
Carrie White (Spacek) is a lonely teenage girl who is incapable of fitting in either at school, where she is tormented by her classmates, or at home, where she is abused by her insanely religious mother Margaret (Laurie). Her anger, at herself and her tormentors, is subsumed into herself where it manifests itself in her burgeoning telekinetic powers. These begin as small acts of defiance - an ashtray flipped over onto the floor, a nasty little boy pushed off his bike when he calls her "creepy Carrie" - but the power disturbs her and it troubles her mother even more. Margaret, whose response to Carrie's first period - which has resulted in a particularly cruel bit of bullying - is to say "So you're a woman now", beat her and lock her in a closet, decides that her daughter is a witch. For her part, Carrie becomes increasingly reluctant to take the abuse from her mother. So when the best looking boy in the school, Tommy Ross (Katt), is persuaded by his girlfriend Sue (Irving) to ask Carrie to be his date for the Prom, it seems that Carrie is about to come into her own. But life is about to play a horrible trick on Carrie through the mean-spirited machinations of Chris (Allen), the ringleader of the bullies, and her dim boyfriend Billy Nolan (Travolta). Their trick, involving a bucket of pigs' blood balanced precariously over the stage of the high school gym, is nasty and ingenious, but they aren't prepared for the consequences of their action when it tips Carrie over the edge from anger into pure, destructive rage.
For a director so often accused of coldness and "misogyny", De Palma's handling of the female characters at the centre of Carrie is pretty astonishing. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie have never been better than they are here, handling difficult roles with consummate skill. Carrie is still Spacek's defining role, casting a shadow over the rest of her career, and she makes this sad, slightly irritating young woman come to convincing life. The change from pathetic victim to confident Prom Queen is subtle but totally believable - while not conventionally 'pretty', Spacek is certainly striking and when she arrives at the Prom she really is beautiful, her inner beauty becoming radiant when she smiles. This is not the work of a director who hates women - nowhere is it suggested that Carrie is anything other than a tragic character whose eventual explosion into terrifying self-assertion is the inevitable result of her treatment by others. The surprising tenderness of the scene where she returns home after the prom is vital to this reading of the film; her agony at being unable to "go home again", even while she enters her own house, is achingly poignant, as is the moment when she holds on to her mother, desperate for some spark of feeling from the one person with whom she has never been able to connect. As for Piper Laurie, her return to screen acting after a lengthy absence is quite simply a triumph. Margaret White could have been overplayed as a screeching God-bothering harridan, but Laurie does something more subtle. Margaret is a monster certainly, in a sense, but she is also a sad mess of a woman, spouting platitudes and Biblical references without ever stopping to think about the consequences for her daughter. We see her humiliated by her neighbour, more politely than her daughter but just as casually, and it becomes clear that Margaret is protected by her outsider status and is desperate to pass this protection on to her daughter. Within the restrictions of her blind faith, Margaret is safe from a world which has proved to be a sad letdown for her. Her monologue towards the end of the film, when she describes a drunken rape by her husband, is a desperately sad and painfully truthful moment, making what follows both more horrific and more tragic. When these two actresses get together, there are enough sparks flying to ignite the hundreds of candles in the White household when Carrie returns from the prom.
The performances are universally good in fact. The film was cast at the same time as Star Wars, with De Palma and George Lucas choosing alternate leads for their two films. Of the debutantes, Nancy Allen makes the most vivid impression as Chris, the foul ringleader of the bullies, and her scenes with John Travolta, as the deeply dim Billy Nolan, are constantly funny and inventive. P.J.Soles is great as the simpering Norma and Amy Irving makes a good impression as the rather inconsistently characterised Sue Snell (this was a problem in the book as well). William Katt is adequate as Tommy Ross and Betty Buckley does well as the nice games teacher whose attempts to help Carrie don't bring her the satisfaction she deserves.
The film benefits enormously from Brian De Palma's careful and stylish direction. In some ways it is quite restrained - a number of scenes simply rely on the actors to deliver the effects - but when he lets himself go, he really makes an impact. He is certainly a show-off director, and to some extent he deserves the accusations of style over substance, but his visual tricks here do serve the material and the characters rather than simply display his own talent. The opening, beginning with a crane shot swooping down to pick out Carrie as she drops the ball in a Volleyball match and then moving on to a slow-motion view of a girls' locker room as it might appear in a teenage boy's masturbatory fantasy, is beautifully paced and sets up both the characters and the visual themes of the film. The use of the colour red is particularly significant of course, beginning with Carrie's menstrual blood and culminating in the Prom night disaster. De Palma also utilises religious imagery with imagination, notably the hideous doll of St Sebastian with the glowing eyes, later mirrored by the scene in which kitchen implements become the metaphorical arrows in an ironic martyrdom. For most of the film, De Palma plays with the audience with the confidence of a master illusionist. He's a manipulator, but the manipulation is such great fun that it's more a case of the audience being in complicity with the filmmaker is a suspenseful game. He extends scenes of tension, such as the agonising wait for the bucket of blood to fall, so long that they become witty, especially when he throws slow motion and a variety of perspectives into the mix. Tricks which become a little tiresome in his later films, such as the clever tracking shots and the mad spin around the couple, work here because they have an emotional pull that comes from the characters and the narrative (the same is true, but even more so, in his masterpiece Blow Out about which more soon).
The one big mistake in the film, the one which drags it down from a 10 to a high 9, is the split-screen sequence during the prom. De Palma now accepts that it was an error of judgement. It's not disastrous, it's too brilliantly staged to be that, but it does damage the effectiveness of the key scene in the film. Just when we should be most involved in Carrie's character and what she is doing, the split-screen distances us and reminds us that this is all an elaborately stages set-piece by a very talented director. It also results in two important characters being dispensed with in casual asides, which is almost like a betrayal of good, committed performances. As a display of De Palma's skills, it is very effective, but as a resolution of a story it is unsatisfying. The later confrontation between Carrie and her mother is considerably more effective, and the final shock, which is one of the most famous in cinema history, still works beautifully while also being totally illogical.
The script is consistently good which is a fairly surprising achievement in the annals of Stephen King adaptations. The adaptation serves the book while also finding an individual cinematic identity - perhaps only The Dead Zone and Misery have been equally successful in reconciling King's original with the film. Most of the additions are improvements, especially the resolution of the battle between Carrie and Margaret. The lush appearance of the film is largely down to Mario Tosi's beautiful cinematography - another DP worked on the film initially, but the end result is seamless. The other key collaborator to shine is Pino Donaggio. His score does explicity reference Bernard Herrmann at times - his shrieking strings from Psycho appear in homage to the composer who died before he could begin his work on the film - but is also very typical of Donaggio's mix of the uneasy with the achingly romantic. His main theme is particularly gorgeous, as is the brass scoring for the scene where Carrie returns home at the end.
Carrie is a great shocker, with lots of good scares and some unforgettably effective set-pieces. But it's also a moving character drama with an uncomfortably close insight into the cruelty of teenagers and the tensions in family relationships. Unlike some other horror movies which attempt to be deeper than your average genre flick, it really does work on a number of levels without sacrificing the things we go to see horror films for. As a launch pad for a number of careers it is fascinating. It was, deservedly, De Palma's first big commercial success and it still ranks as one of his best films. Hugely recommended.
MGM originally released Carrie on a bare bones disc with distinctly unimpressive technical qualities. This new Special Edition is a considerable improvement in most respects.
The picture quality is generally avergae. It does look as if the same master print was used though and this results in some annoying artifacting and print damage. The anamorphic enhancement does make this better than the earlier release and the colours are splendid throughout, but there is a lot of grain and a certain softness throughout, even given the deliberately soft-focus visuals of the film.
The sound is much better. The original mono soundtrack of the film has been remixed into subtle but effective Dolby Digital 5.1. The music gains the most and sounds impressively rich and full, especially in the opening scene. The prom sequence makes highly effective use of the surround channels. There is a certain amount of directional dialogue. The original mono soundtrack is also on the disc. I preferred the remix to be honest, since the restoration work does improve the audibility of the dialogue and supplies an extra frisson to the sound effects.
There are plenty of extras to make this release worth buying for fans who have already got the original release.
The jewels are two documentaries, both of them forty minutes long. The first is called "Acting Carrie" and contains interviews with all the key performers from the film except John Travolta. Excellent stuff and compulsively watchable, with the best anecdotes coming from Sissy Spacek (who was known to De Palma after her job as a set-dresser on Phantom Of The Paradise), Piper Laurie and Nancy Allen (ex Mrs De Palma of course). Laurie is particularly interesting as she relates how she was tempted to come out of retirement and explains how she approached the part. All of the actors seem to respect De Palma, but none of them seem to like him very much; his methods are a rather, er, 'hands on', not quite to the extent of William Friedkin but quite similar. The second documentary is called "Visualising Carrie" and is an equally in-depth examination of the making of the film, centred largely around De Palma. There are also comments from Jack Fisk, the production designer, Paul Hirsch, the editor, and Lawrence D.Cohen, the writer. Most interesting are the comments on the deleted opening sequence which would have featured Carrie as a little girl, and De Palma's reflections on the split-screen sequence. Both documentaries are carefully put together by Laurent Bouzereau, the man who has become the master of the making-of feature. I would have liked to see some comments from Stephen King and Pino Donaggio, but that's just niggling since it's hard to seriously find fault with these documentaries.
There is also a six minute featurette on "Carrie The Musical" which consists of interviews with Lawrence D. Cohen and Betty Buckley. No clips from the show unfortunately, but it's still interesting for completists. The musical was definitely underrated, although it wasn't so much good as camp of the highest order.
We also get an animated photo gallery backed by some of the music from the film, a lengthy written essay on the differences between the film and the book and the original theatrical trailer. There are 32 chapter stops and some very creepy animated menus. Irritatingly, there are no English subtitles, only French and Spanish.
A great film is presented on a good disc, given some of my reservations about picture quality. MGM have deserved some of the flak thrown at them in recent months, but this is a demonstration of how good their releases could be with a bit more consistent effort put into them.