“We were kids.” The HorrorDads revisit CARRIE (1976), part 1

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RHS: We’re a year away from the 40th anniversary of the publication of Stephen King’s 1974 novel CARRIE and in light of the new remake of Brian DePalma’s film adaptation it’s as good a time as any to reunite the HorrorDads for the sake of a disseminating, peregrinating, pontificating roundtable discussion. But where to begin? We’ve got the novel, the 1976 film adaptation, the 1999 sequel, the 2002 TV miniseries/busted pilot and now Kimberly Peirce’s state of the art reboot… 

Assembled: Jeff Allard, Dennis Cozzalio, Paul Gaita, Greg Ferrara, Nicholas McCarthy and myself.

Let’s go old school. Which came first for all of us, the novel or the movie?

Carrie 1st edition paperbackPAUL GAITA: I saw the movie first, in what was undoubtedly the second best viewing format: on the late movie, probably around 1979-1980. I tuned in during the final third and had no idea what I was watching but was riveted by both the violence and DePalma’s aggressive technique – I don’t think I’d ever seen any split screen images used in a movie (maybe in the opening credits of a TV show) before this. I think I turned it off at one point and then turned back out of pure curiosity – exactly at the moment when Carrie’s dead hand burst out of the ground. I was sleeping over at a friend’s house when I saw it, and said friend was out cold when this moment occurred, so I saw it essentially alone, in the dead of night. I have not forgotten it, and probably never will.

RHS: I read the novel first and it really resonated with me. I had been bullied pretty steadily through fifth grade, had a break in sixth, and then it started all over again in junior high school, so obviously I was made to identify with Carrie White. But the real allure of the book was its documentary style, and the way King would sort of break the fourth wall to divulge that a particular character would die before the end. It reminded me of Roger Corman’s THE ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE (1967) and that great Paul Frees narration that would introduce or re-introduce a character by saying “Peter Gusenberg, on the last day of his life…”

DENNIS COZZALIO: For me, the novel definitely came first, after about a year of seeing everyone in my high school carrying it around. I loved the mixture of straightforward narrative with excerpts from all the testimony and books written about the case in the aftermath– but I remember feeling a bit letdown by the ending, by what I felt was overkill and the resolution of Carrie’s relationship with Margaret. I didn’t see the movie until sometime in the spring of 1977.

RHS: Dennis, we were the perfect age then – when the movie came out, I was just entering high school. And of course, with the release of HALLOWEEN (1978), I was pointed toward my senior year. And for FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980), I was just the age to have been a camp counselor. There was a time then where horror movies seemed to be tailored specifically to me.

DC: Yeah, it really was a great time to be growing up as a horror fan., even when I had a hell of a time getting in to see them. THE EXORCIST (1973) and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) inspired nightmares long before I ever actually had a chance to experience them for myself. CARRIE never even played in my hometown until I was off to college, so I had to make a 200-mile round trip to see it just before I graduated my senior year of high school.

Carrie Film CommentPG: At nine or ten, when I saw CARRIE, modern horror movies were definitely not tailored for me. I was just figuring out that movies like FRIDAY THE 13TH existed, and delivered much more (for better or worse) than the weekly fare on CREATURE DOUBLE FEATURE. High school life was equally as mysterious as these new movies, and CARRIE depicted it as a particularly unpleasant place – one where you could get killed, quite frankly. A few years later, I learned that while it was a pretty awful place in some ways, it certainly wasn’t the non-stop gulag of the DePalma movie. As for getting killed in high school, sadly, that was a reality long after I left.

DC: I had my run-ins with bullies too but what resonated even more with me was the conflict between intense religious belief and the desire to be engaged in the world, and the idea that one somehow precluded the other. I grew up around a lot of casual Catholic believers and much more convicted Protestant-based Christians. I was raised Catholic myself and while I tried to make my way through the worlds of Sunday masses, Catholicism never really connected with me and I could see how it was largely an empty ritual, a tradition, for so many of the others who attended mass as well. Many of my friends were much more oriented toward the sort of Pentecostal fervor that embodies Margaret White, either in their family backgrounds or their own religious convictions. So to show enthusiasm for CARRIE among my friends was to invite a religious debate, and of course anything that presents the strange sort of commingling of Catholic iconography and speaking-in-tongues passion that DePalma sets up in the movie was not looked upon too kindly by some of my pals.

RHS: I grew up in Catholic country but I don’t remember CARRIE inspiring the same sort of backlash that THE EXORCIST did. THE EXORCIST was a taboo subject in fifth grade, it was off the table, but I don’t recall any such censure regarding CARRIE three, four years later.

DC: Paul, your point about high school still being mysterious speaks to a point that came up when Patty and I talked about whether or not our daughter Emma should see the movie with me. I was for it, and she was not, and much of the reason why was that she felt that Emma wasn’t ready yet to have her vision of high school manipulated in such an effective way. I finally agreed– she is, after all, still only 13 and in eighth grade. But your experience is interesting to me because the shift from the horror movies you were familiar with to stuff like CARRIE and FRIDAY THE 13TH was so extreme. To be introduced to CARRIE the way you were must have been mortifying! I could barely stand the shroud of fear that descended upon me whenever I stayed up late to watch a Hammer movie on late night TV by myself, let alone something like that.

PG: I feel like everyone’s experience with horror went along similar paths: you stumbled into something that was a lot stronger than what you’d experienced before, and it either attracted or repelled you… or both, and then you were swept along from there. I think that the kids’ matinees that saw NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), thinking it no more powerful than, say, THE DUNWICH HORROR (1970), or whatever else played the previous week, probably felt the same way. I agree that it’s not the ideal way to experience a horror movie, but then again, what is? I think to myself: how will I show my daughter, Tess, a scary movie? The chances are, I will have only a moderate amount of influence on it. She will, like me, probably see something very scary out of my sphere of influence, and it will affect her in one way or another. Hopefully, she’ll be well armed prior to that to understand that it’s a machine designed to provoke a reaction, and not a reflection of the gospel truth.

Carrie on VHSJEFF ALLARD: It was the movie first for me. I wish I had a good story to share about my first viewing but I can’t recall the circumstances. I’m guessing it was on VHS in the ’80s because I’m pretty sure I never watched it on broadcast TV. Once my family got a VCR I started renting as many 70s horror classics as I could and CARRIE was on that short list of big titles that included THE EXORCIST, TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, HALLOWEEN and DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978). I have to say the movie didn’t click that strongly with me then. Why, I’m not sure, as I was definitely an outsider in school — not as horribly ostracized as Carrie was but still an outsider. Maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t scary in the way that something like THE EXORCIST was. CARRIE wasn’t that kind of endurance test, which is what I was most looking to see in horror movies as a teen. I liked it, but it just didn’t grab me, and while I eventually owned the novel I never read it (probably because I was so lukewarm for the movie). However, I just rewatched the movie for the first time in full since the 80s in preparation for this roundtable and it was like seeing it for the first time. The humor and DePalma’s stylization hit me in a way they hadn’t previously.

NICHOLAS MCCARTHY: Like Paul I encountered the movie of CARRIE first, via broadcast TV, when I was about 9 or 10. I also don’t think I saw all of it, but many of the images in it struck me pretty hard. In particular, that potato peeler impaling Carrie’s mother in her heart — that was truly strange and frightening, like a bad dream. When I read the book a few years later, I was in the midst of reading all of King’s books and CARRIE didn’t do much for me, likely because so much of it had already been so powerfully visualized in the DePalma film. I feel differently now after reading the novel again. Whatever its shortcomings, it’s an amazing and imaginative horror novel with an unforgettable story.

RHS: I never watched CARRIE on VHS. The Academy ratio must have done a number on those split diopter shots which are crucial to the DePalma universe, which is split so crazily between an almost hysterical lust for life and scorched earth catastrophe. Revisiting the movie this week, I was struck by how vibrant and alive the movie is. I hate to pre-call but I seriously doubt the new CARRIE makes high school look, aside from the terrible things that can happen there, so fun.

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DC: Those split diopter shots are really interesting– I used to think of them as a form of showboating, and I suppose on some level they are. But I know people who complain about films shot in 2.35:1 Panavision ratio that moan when a figure in the foreground is in focus and everything behind is not, or worse, when the dreaded rack focus takes over. DePalma uses the split diopter as a sort of fudge on deep focus, but the effect is much like the way our eye processes what we see, or maybe more accurately how our brain interprets and tells us that we’re seeing two object in focus when it’s not actually possible. There’s something about the way DePalma uses them that has the effect of heightening rather than distracting from the emotional impact of the story, and it has a lot to do with what Richard suggests is his way of seeing the dichotomy of experience– the glorious and cruel possibilities contained within a single moment.

RHS: There was something almost Cubist about DePalma’s films and his way of wanting to show you something in multiple planes, sometimes complementary, sometimes contradictory. And I think that perspective is especially relevant to CARRIE.

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DC: The 2013 is very weak tea, a witless and lousy photocopy of the DePalma movie with an inadequate performance by Chloe Grace Moretz and graceless direction by Kimberly Peirce.

RHS: How is its depiction of high school? My fear is that it is too baldly post-Columbine, too deterministic, and shot in the same denatured tones that every genre film seems to be shot in these days.

DC: It barely seems to acknowledge Columbine, in any real way, certainly.

RHS: Not that it has to reference Columbine–

DC: For all the talk of Peirce potentially bringing a feminine/feminist perspective on the tale, whatever attempt at that she might have made has been rinsed right out of the movie. And for what its worth, for as many accusations as DePalma has endured about being a misogynist, he’s never put anything on screen as ugly as Chris Hargensen’s face being lacerated and pushed through a windshield as depicted here. And Chloe Moretz is not only, I think, miscast, but also unable to project the kind of despair that was at the heart of Spacek’s performance. And strangely, Peirce chooses camera angles in Carrie’s early scenes with Margaret that emphasize Carrie’s power in the dynamic, not Margaret’s, none of which does Moretz’s effectiveness in the role any favors.

RHS: Well, that’s interesting, because in the King novel, Carrie asserts her powers much earlier and even has some fun with them — raising and lowering her dresser and her bed — long before those powers get out of control. She is, as written, more empowered than I remembered. Or as played by Sissy Spacek.

DC: In the remake she does too, and it’s an idea that I think works better in the book than in the 2013 version. Maybe the reason is that in the movie she’s not only testing them out and having a bit of fun, but she uses them early on to intimidate Margaret, who seems less empowered to fight the devil’s power than cowed by it. The knowledge that both Carrie *and* Margaret know that Carrie could just throw her mother across the room, as she does more than once earlier, makes their final scene together, Margaret brandishing the butcher knife, kind of absurd. And no one pulls off a death-throes orgasm like Piper Laurie.

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JA: Nancy Allen is really fun to watch in CARRIE. There’s something so pure and yet so childish about Chris Hargensen’s brand of cruelty. She pouts when forced to face her well-deserved punishment from Betty Buckley’s Miss Collins but her retaliation against Carrie for this is so above and beyond what she herself suffered that it takes the character to a whole other level of crazy.

RHS: There is actual joy in Nancy Allen’s cruelty in CARRIE. It’s like high school bullies tweeked on oxygen.

DC: There’s nothing in the new movie to equal that weird sort of giddy queasiness that DePalma gets in that soundless reaction shot of PJ Soles, eyes popping with glee, laughing maniacally at the sight of Carrie wearing her bloody new crown.

RHS: That moment of PJ Soles laughing MOS made the movie seem like an old silent and I wondered if DePalma was going that way, because when he cuts to Carrie, eyes apoppin, she looks like Max Schrek in NOSFERATU.

JA: Watching the movie again, I had forgotten the reactions from the people around PJ Soles after the blood falls on Carrie. I remembered Soles laughing, of course, but had forgotten how disgusted everyone around her looks. She’s howling but everyone else is clearly appalled.

DC: PJ slams the girl standing next to her– the one who was friendly to Carrie when she arrived at the prom– as if she expected the same reaction, and is completely oblivious to her when she looks horrified and disgusted instead.

GREG FERRARA: I watched CARRIE with our daughter, Elle, who is almost thirteen and into sci-fi and horror pretty deep by now. She’s an eccentric and hangs out with the kids into DOCTOR WHO and SUPERNATURAL. She isn’t into athletics at all, so she really couldn’t identify with the popular kids in the movie. And she liked it. Afterwards, when my wife, Laura, asked her if she got scared, she said, “Oh, God no.”

DC: “Oh, God no.”

GF: Worst part of the whole thing? The opening. She turned her head away and said, “Awkward.” Then Carrie’s period starts and she said, “Okay, didn’t need to see that.” Neither of us really looked directly at the screen for the first few minutes because… you know. Like she said, awkward.

DC: That’s the challenge: to try to remember, through the parental shuffling and muttering and wishing this’d just get over with already, what you were already aware of by the time you were 13. That’s why I had a strong suspicion that Emma would be open to the movie, more ready for it than Patty thought she would be. We had some words over it, but I capitulated. Patty felt (and I can’t entirely disagree) that she’ll learn of high school horrors, real and imagined, soon enough. I wish we *could* have seen it together, but that day will come, I’m sure.

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NM: The story of CARRIE is unique in how at its center we have this character with a genuinely extreme emotional existence, while the characters we are asked to identify with, Miss Collins and Sue Snell, are trying to correct their gut reactions to hurt her. This is a story of people trying to do good, and they fail. At the end of the day Carrie mistakes Collins’ presence at the dance as her being in on the plan to humiliate her and brutally crushes her. It’s one of the wonderful things about the material — Carrie is our heroine, but it’s not so black and white as Bully=Bad, Carrie=Angel of goodness. And at the end of the day Carrie doesn’t change or learn anything. She believes — wrongly as it turns out — that everyone hates her, even when we see Tommy and Sue and others try to make the night special for her and change her world. Carrie kills them all and retreats back to the thing that was really making her life a living hell — her mother. Besides the spectacular car crash she engineers to kill Chris and Billy, I don’t feel some sense of justice. And what has Sue Snell learned at the end of our story? In both the book and the movie, she’s simply left half-mad, tormented by what has happened. This is dark stuff.

GF: There’s definitely no sense of justice in the story and that’s what makes it so good. It isn’t some simple-minded revenge fantasy movie. Sue Snell is absolutely the heroine of the movie, the one we like and root for. The one who wants to make things better for Carrie. And her reward for all of this? Nothing. Pretty much just a big pile of nothing, with psychic scars ladled on top.

DC: One of the things the remake completely misunderstands is that, for all the humiliations that we empathize with, Carrie isn’t the one we identify with– that’s Sue and Tommy and Miss Collins, the ones who try to do the right thing and are completely victimized as a result. The remake tacks on a soppy little anti-bullying message in which one of the characters actually says that Carrie White was no different than you or me– anyone would break when they’re pushed too far. That’s about as self-serving a misread as I can imagine. At the end, Carrie can’t even count on the comfort of home, which is the very least we could hope for ourselves in such a god-awful situation.

Rage Carrie 2 1999 movie posterRHS: You can imagine, though, how the execs in development got all fired up thinking of a CARRIE remake. The elements are all there, plot points from the King novel practically torn from today’s headlines. The bullying angle, the school massacre angle, “and we can add social networking into the mix!” They must have peed themselves imagining that the remake was so right on for our times. Now I can’t say whether it is or isn’t, I haven’t seen it, but this brings up the subject of CARRIE‘s forgotten sequel, THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 (1999), which dispenses with the original Carrie trauma and substitutes slut shaming and jock rape.

DC: The relevance of the bullying angle to modern teen audiences is something MGM is clearly banking on to sell the CARRIE remake. But the message is so superfluous, it practically hangs off the end of the movie like a dead limb. What clod couldn’t get a clearer, more intelligent message than “Carrie White was just like you and me” from just appreciating the original, which doesn’t wield a message like a caveman’s club?

GF: One thing I’ve always liked about CARRIE over other King works is its simplicity. THE SHINING involves ghosts from long past (both in the Torrance psyche and the hotel) and a complex story of them coming together, THE STAND covers multiple story threads, good and evil and the end of civilization, FIRESTARTER has government conspiracies, THE DEAD ZONE a long period arc leading to a far-reaching evil that must be stopped and so on. But CARRIE is simple: Awkward girl wants to fit in but can’t. Disaster ensues. I like that. I like the simplicity of CARRIE. I like that she has bullies at school and a crazy mother at home so there’s no relief anywhere. And, as we said earlier, the girl who tries to help gets nothing for her trouble against psychological trauma. It’s a great comment on a lot of problems in our day to day existence without being a Comment with a capital C. It’s a small c but one that resonates even more because of that.

JA: In regards to that simplicity, one thing that struck me in watching CARRIE again was how it didn’t go to any pains to explain Carrie’s powers. So much of genre entertainment today, in movies, books, and TV, is all about building complex, convoluted mythologies that can be endlessly speculated on by fans and CARRIE is the absolute opposite of that. Neither we nor Carrie know why she has these powers and the only “investigation” she does into it is looking through books at the school library – and, really, all that does is offer a handy definition for telekinesis. King, and then DePalma, were wise enough to not let any clutter get in the way of a very pure story.

PG: I went back and re-read King’s own thoughts on the movie in DANSE MACABRE. It’s a little difficult to get his exact feeling about the picture – at one point, he says he’s satisfied with it, but at another, agrees (more or less) with Pauline Kael’s assessment that it’s an “unassuming potboiler.” What he does approve of, it seems, is De Palma’s streamlining of the characters and his storyline, which he describes as something of a struggle to reach its conclusion. De Palma keeps things moving at an even clip by funneling everything towards that conclusion, reducing characters (Billy Nolan) and their intentions (Tommy’s reasons for taking Carrie to the prom: “Because you liked my poem.”) and removing much of the ambiguities about the high school environment: it’s hell, presided over by a cabal of female harpies, and well, they gotta go in the end. I think that honing and focusing lends a lot of impact to the final conflagration and the emotional payoff it delivers to, as King says, “anyone who’s had their glasses thumb-rubbed.” Which, for the record, I’ve never had done by anyone, but I imagine it’s unpleasant.

DC: I’ve always thought that De Palma’s movie, much more so even than King’s book, was a great work of empathy, and we’ve already touched on a lot of the reasons why– particularly that we feel for Carrie and how she has nowhere to turn, because we’ve all to one extent or the other been on the receiving end of some sort of abuse, even though we still view Carrie as outside of us– we’re Sue and Tommy and Miss Collins. But I think that empathy is so beautifully encapsulated in Carrie’s and Tommy’s dizzying dance. There’s at least three levels of circular movement in the shot– the dancers circle, and they seem to be on a platform that slowly accelerates their turns, and then there’s the camera swooping around them, all to thee strain of that beautifully sappy ballad “I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me.” And that’s followed by that long, agonizingly extended walk up to the stage. As a friend suggested to me a few days ago, it’s an elaborate and sadistic joke, yes, but it’s not *just* a joke. DePalma proves his own empathy (and provides more defense against the old misogyny charges) in this amazing sequence, which allows Carrie both the exhilaration and moment of happiness she so hopes for, and incites the audience to squirm and desperately hope that somehow the inevitable won’t happen.

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RHS: It almost seems as though DePalma made a movie that is to be rewatched or chewed over the way that characters in the book, the ones who survive, go back and relive the events leading up to the Maine holocaust. Which makes that slow walk up to the prom stage a cherished moment, bracketed though it may be by terrible things. But don’t we remember things that way, piecemeal, out of context? Can’t we remember departed friends with a laugh at the memory of some shared event or minor calamity, even though they are dead and buried, even if they died prematurely or even by violence? I often find myself flashing back and slowing down like that, savoring the recollection of a moment that passed in the blink of an eye in realtime but which remains on a loop in my memory.

DC: CARRIE didn’t need to be turned into an anti-bullying tract because the sentiments and understanding were already perfectly woven into the keen social observation of the story as it is. Same goes for its points of view on high school (yes, it’s a cruel microcosm of society at large) and religion (it can be a source of great comfort and great destruction)– we can absorb all this without someone marching around with everything written out on a placard. It’s the storyteller’s trust in his/her audience.

NM: I do agree with Jeff that a real power to the movie is that it’s not concerned with offering an explanation of Carrie’s powers. The moment where she looks up the definition of telekinesis (that’s a real book by the way, I own it) is a terrific piece of screenwriting since it provides us with just a little bit of creepy “real world” science that’s being dramatized by Carrie’s curiosity about herself. The novel on the other hand is actually concerned with mapping out a mythology for what “TK” (King’s expression) is. I think it works in the book because, well, it’s a book. And in literature we are able to spend time speculating on the mythology without it feeling like we are digressing. The book ends with the appearance of another telekinetic being born, but DePalma and his team kept the story about Carrie, her mom, and Sue. It’s hard to imagine that being considered acceptable now.

RHS: Horror is often rooted in finality. Horror used to say “this is how it ends!” Now it seems to be saying “this never ends!”

NM: Last night someone I know who read King’s THE SHINING sequel was complaining it’s got multiple characters, locations, supernatural powers and threats, all attempts to bring together King’s “universe.” While this might be fun for some fans, my first reaction was – aren’t we in this to be told a scary story? Which is what the film adaptation of CARRIE does so well.

To be continued…

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