Wednesday, February 22, 2017


A woman bleeds while taking a shower. Butcher knives are plunged violently into female flesh to the accompaniment of shrieking violins. There's a crazy "mother" and a building with the name "Bates" on it. One of the characters is named "Norma".  Yep, this is Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) sure enough.

Except it isn't.

When I first saw Brian De Palma's CARRIE on first release in 1976 (at the old Americana Theater), I wasn't yet well versed enough in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock to recognize all of the many homages to the Master of Suspense that the film contains. Homages? Some might call them swipes or out-right thefts, a cinematic act of grave robbing in which a young tyro appropriated several tricks from the bag of a genius in order to add some style and substance to what was otherwise a fairly routine teen exploitation flick.

CARRIE wasn't De Palma's first film but it was certainly the one that put him on the map. De Palma's first film was MURDER A LA MOD in 1968. He had been working steadily since then but it wasn't until his first Hitchcock inspired thriller, SISTERS (1973), that critics and audiences began to take notice. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974),  a rock and roll version of The Phantom of the Opera never quite achieved the rarefied cult status of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), while OBSESSION (1976) was a vaguely disguised riff on Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1968). Following CARRIE, De Palma produced two other Hitchcock infused thrillers, DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and BODY DOUBLE (1984).

CARRIE was, however, the first film to be based on the works of horror writer Stephen King. CARRIE was King's first novel and while it had sold reasonably well, in 1976 King was certainly not the household name that he would later become. Combine two, young, up-and-coming and extremely talented artists and the result is a minor horror classic, one of the best of the 1970s.

CARRIE is the story of outsider Carrie White (Sissy Spacek in an Oscar nominated performance), who is constantly tormented by the worst bullies at Bates High School: the other girls in her gym class. The tormentors include Chris (Nancy Allen) and Norma (P.J. Stoles), while Sue (Amy Irving), is sympathetic towards Carrie's plight. When Carrie first menstruates in the shower in the title sequence of the film, it triggers horror and revulsion within the naive, innocent girl and something else. Her latent telekinetic powers come to the fore, powers that will ultimately spell doom for most of the faculty and students of Bates High.

Carrie is dominated at home by her overbearing mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie, in another Oscar nominated performance). Margaret, full to bursting with that old time religion, hates men and is determined to beat (literally) into Carrie's head the notion that sexuality of any kind equals the blackest sin imaginable.

At school, Sue and her boyfriend Tommy (Robert Redford look-alike William Katt), try to help Carrie out by having Tommy invite Carrie to the prom, a date which she eventually, reluctantly accepts. But Chris and her doofus boyfriend Billy (John Travolta), plot a plan to humiliate Carrie at the prom by fixing the voting for prom king and queen, insuring that Carrie and Tommy win and will stand underneath a precariously balanced bucket of fresh hog's blood, just waiting to drop upon poor Carrie. Drop it does, an event which triggers the maelstrom of terror that comprises the film's third act.

De Palma orchestrates the action with style to spare. His camera is constantly moving, prowling around library stacks and high school locker rooms, spinning around Tommy and Carrie as they dance at the prom. Several tracking shots start high and then slowly move into the desired objec of attention (similar to the magnificent crane shot in Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946)). Cinematographer Mario Tosi shoots everything in a slightly hazy, gauzy, soft focus and Pino Donaggio's score is rife with references to the great Bernard Herrmann.

It's tempting to draw a parallel between Carrie and Jean Grey, the long-suffering super heroine Marvel Girl (at least, in her first iteration) in Marvel Comics' THE X-MEN. Both are red-headed teenagers with telekinetic powers. Both are feared by the "real" world. But Jean was fortunate enough to have the guidance and mentor ship provided by Professor Charles Xavier, allowing her to find a home among other misunderstood teen-age mutants. Carrie, on the other hand, had no guidance. Her mother was a monster consumed with hatred and fear, emotions that lead to the ultimate destruction of both women.

CARRIE was one of the few American horror films to receive Academy Award nominations for acting. Neither Spacek nor Laurie won but they both do superlative work here. A sequel THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 was released in 1999 while a television version of CARRIE was produced in 2002. In 2013, another cinematic version of CARRIE was released while CARRIE, the play, debuted Off-Broadway in 2006.

Forget 'em all and stick with the original, the first and best version of the material. The shock ending still packs a jolt and the rest of the film is skillfully and earnestly produced. Recommended.

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