“We were kids.” The HorrorDads revisit CARRIE (1976), pt. 2

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Our CARRIE roundtable continues and concludes today. Please rejoin Jeff Allard, Dennis Cozzalio, Greg Ferrara, Paul Gaita, Nicholas McCarthy, and yours truly, as we speculate (and flail) wildly as to Carrie’s inspirations and influences… 

RHS: I want to talk a bit about Carrie White’s extended family tree,  movie characters who anticipate her particular quirks of character. One movie that jumps out at me, still relatively obscure, is HORROR HIGH from 1974, or TWISTED BRAIN, as it’s also known. The logline will sound awfully familiar – a nerdy high school student, excellent at science but socially inept, receives too many smackdowns and humiliations and becomes a monster. The skeleton of the plot is straight out of Robert Louis Stevenson but, in retrospect, it’s hard not to see CARRIE in all this.

Teenage_werewolfPAUL GAITA: I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF (1957) immediately leaps to mind – outsider student gets his revenge on classmates who reject him through new-found powers rooted in his own latent sexuality – but also Roald Dahl’s Matilda, with its telekinetic heroine and sympathetic teacher. Carrie might have benefited from Miss Honey’s attentions. Amusingly, Matilda translated to a successful stage play, but CARRIE… well, we know the story there.

DENNIS COZZALIO: The one that most immediately strikes me are  the echoes of the Cinderella story in CARRIE. She has a wicked stepmother in the personage of her delusional religious fanatic mother who tries to repress her natural beauty/natural abilities. Both Carrie and Cinderella sew their own gowns for the big ball/prom. And there’s the countdown to midnight/the announcement of the prom king and queen to add suspense. DePalma and King both wisely decided to depart from the Disney model though and opted not to add in singing mice to keep Carrie company in her attic room.

RHS: Dennis, it’s interesting that you take it back to fairy tales, as so many horror movies seem to dip into the Sleeping Beauty myth. I see in any horror movie in which men slaver over the prostrate form of a young woman an echo of Sleeping Beauty – THE VIY (1967), THE EXORCIST (1973), THE EVIL DEAD (1981). Come to think of it, there’s a quasi-CARRIE vibe to the (fake) mother/daughter relationship in TANGLED (2010). Mother Gothel and Rapunzel even look a bit like Margaret and Carrie White.

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DC: I wish I’d thought to watch CARRIE and TANGLED back to back instead of wasting my time with THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 (1999). The direction my mind seems to be going is not so much in the way of brutalized children exacting revenge but instead toward wicked mothers, step or otherwise, and I keep coming back to Angela Lansbury in THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962), who is every bit as convicted as Margaret White in her twisted beliefs, but in that movie she gains and sustains the upper hand in ruling and manipulating her child’s behavior. Lansbury doesn’t get as ornate an exit as Piper Laurie did, but then few great movie characters ever have.

WillardJEFF ALLARD:  A movie I always thought of as a spiritual precursor of CARRIE was WILLARD (1970), another movie about a social misfit burdened with a domineering mother who taps into a source of empowerment but who ends up dead rather than triumphant. I haven’t seen it in years but it was a regular staple on the 4 O’clock Movie during my days as a latchkey kid.

DC: WILLARD also operates on that level– which the King book did and the movie did not so much– of asking the audience how far they’re willing to go in their sympathies for the outcast protagonist. In King’s book there’s more of a sense of loss for the potentially innocent who get caught up in Carrie’s fury as it spreads from the gym to the town. The 1976 movie, in scaling down the storm and essentially keeping the destruction inside the gym, where Carrie’s sense of victimization (and her delusions about it) can run wild, doesn’t draw the same kind of sympathy, even though we see Miss Collins, whose intentions were good, go down with all the bitches and bastards. I think we can essentially see the fates of Willard and Carrie as inevitable, given their actions– or reactions– but in DePalma’s movie our ultimate sympathies still lie with Carrie. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen it, but I can’t remember how I felt about Willard in the end. I liked WILLARD a lot though. The remake too.

RHS:  THE UNINVITED (1944) just came out on DVD, via the Criterion Collection. It’s a movie I’ve seen a dozen times, I’ve owned the VHS tape and the British PAL disc and I watch it whenever it pops up on Turner Classic Movies. But only this week, with CARRIE on the brain, did I notice the significance of Donald Crisp’s protective grandfather character telling Gail Russell’s haunted young woman “Go to your room” when she defies him on accepting invitations from outsiders. But the literary/cinematic progenitor I was thinking of for Carrie White when I first asked this question is Eleanor Vance from Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Robert Wise’s THE HAUNTING (1963). That same country mouse lack of self-esteem, that same stepping into the light of new-found powers… and there was a shower of stones incident in her backstory, if I remember correctly.

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JA: Eleanor occurred to me too in regards to her wallflower demeanor but it’s been so long since I’ve watched THE HAUNTING I couldn’t remember how psychic instances figured into her backstory. But she and Carrie are definitely cut from the same cloth.

RHS:  You might even put Bette Davis’ Charlotte Vale from NOW, VOYAGER (1942) in that company. She is another ugly duckling who grows beautiful in the company of a man who is united (but out of sympathy) with another woman and she has mother issues, ultimately breaking her mother’s grip on her to emerge as her own person. The transformation kills the mother in NOW, VOYAGER. Gladys Cooper played the Mom in that and though her death was by heart attack in NOW, VOYAGER, in Universal’s 1941 THE BLACK CAT she catches on fire and runs screaming and burning into the night, which is a death that would fit right into CARRIE.

UncannyXMen101JA: It’s interesting that the characters that we’ve mentioned as precursors to Carrie have, I think save for Paul’s mention of I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, been emotionally stunted adults rather than teenagers. Eleanor is in her early thirties in THE HAUNTING and Willard is celebrating his 27th birthday as WILLARD begins. I’m stumped in thinking of actual teen protagonists in films or TV pre-Carrie who fit her particular mold. Whenever a kid was a threat to the status quo prior to CARRIE it seemed like they were either actual kids, as in VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (1960) and CHILDREN OF THE DAMNED (1964) or in the “It’s A Good Life” episode of TWILIGHT ZONE who were unnatural and otherworldly to begin with or, if they were teens, they were hostile delinquents – like Michael Landon’s character in TEENAGE WEREWOLF. But for sensitive teens like Carrie, prior to King’s novel I can only think of the alienated protagonists of Marvel Comics – specifically the teen heroes of The Uncanny X-Men, which included the telekinetic heroine Jean Gray. I imagine King must’ve had that somewhere in the back of his mind when conceiving Carrie.

RHS: To return to the 2013 remake of CARRIE, I’ve read that director Kimberly Peirce considered the reboot the chance to make a superhero-origin story.

JA: All the ingredients are there. Even in the novel, King ends it with the hint of others like Carrie out there. If Carrie were to survive the destruction of her house and go out in search of other kids with similar special gifts, you’ve got a whole film series or, better yet, a TV show. If CW didn’t already have a show with the same title, you could call it THE CARRIE DIARIES.

RHS: And of course the 2002 TV miniseries reboot was a pilot for a prospective series, albeit a failed one. But what would have been the format? Carrie as Hulk, traveling from town to town, barrel rolling Klansmen and helping battered wives by pincushioning their husbands. Actually, I’d watch that show.

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GREG FERRARA: If they include a closing shot each week of her thumbing for a ride while carrying a duffle bag, I’m in too!

RHS: In the bloodied prom dress, though. Every week.

DC: That’s the superhero costume. No one recognizes her when she dresses like a dowdy high school girl. She could eventually hook up with Dolores Claiborne and the two of them would lay the bastards of the Eastern Seaboard flat as flourless pancakes.

NICHOLAS MCCARTHY: It’s surprising how difficult it is to think of a forebear to Carrie White. Part of it is I’m simply not as schooled in horror literature as film and perhaps that’s where King was chiefly drawing from. But beyond that I think it’s because King’s amazing gift was the way he created horror characters influenced from disparate, sometimes obscure genre movies and books and set them firmly in our world. When he wrote Carrie, he was starting his own tradition — the Stephen King story.

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GF: I also have a hard time thinking of something leading up to Carrie. The monster tradition, like Frankenstein, seems suitable since he, and King Kong for that matter, are so misunderstood. But their demises aren’t nearly as sad. In all of horror, Carrie’s death has to be one of the saddest  of any lead character ever. Carrie goes to her death believing everyone, even the gym teacher, laughed at her and found her ridiculous. She walked away feeling as mocked and bullied and humiliated as humanly possible. Then she went home and her own mother attacked her. After being forced to kill her own mother, she retreats to her closet, convinced that everyone in the whole world is against her or hates her. She dies completely alone and heartbroken. Really, it’s unfathomably sad.

NM: After I read Stephen King’s On Writing I went back and read some of the stories in Night Shift, now that I understood the context in which they were written (at the very beginning of his career). I could now see how his story “I Am the Doorway” was a riff on the 1958 drive-in picture NIGHT OF THE BLOOD BEAST. But the characters he created and their point of view, not to mention the way he played with the central idea of being infected with an alien presence made the thing entirely unique. I’m used to being able to trace influences inside films directly, but with King’s writing it’s a bit harder, even though he is so obviously a “monster kid” like the rest of us.

RHS: I’d rate Carrie’s death right up there with Teresa Delgado in THE LEOPARD MAN (1943), who also has a domineering mother and dies desperately banging on the door of her home (the way Carrie White would bang on the inside door of her atonement closet), begging to be let in, and not being let in… and her last words are “If you love me, let me in!” Though her mother ultimately hustles over to do just that, she is too late, and Teresa dies thinking she is unloved. So, yeah, it’s heartbreaking.

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NM:  The first cinematic ancestor to Carrie White I thought of was Irena in CAT PEOPLE (1942). A young woman tortured by a special gift who feels like she’ll never fit in. In the end it destroys her, despite her just needing understanding and love.

DC:  It’s that profound sadness that CARRIE‘s  1999 sequel, and even the remake– which is in its own misguided way “faithful” to the book and the first movie– both miss. The sort of market-driven proliferation of the idea of a wronged girl wreaking revenge (again, and again, and again) dilutes the real power of what King’s book, and even more so for me the movie, leaves us with– a truly unsettling picture of despair, of how the comfort of belief, society, even the trust we have in ourselves to see things how they really are, can suddenly seem like the harshest, coldest, most cutting of winds. The final image of Carrie dragging Margaret’s corpse into that prayer closet, back into a most unforgiving womb, as she brings the house down upon the two of them (doesn’t it seem like at this point, based on the look of terror in Spacek’s eyes, that Carrie has lost control of her own powers?), is almost unfathomably hellish.

GF: Any take on Carrie that views the climax with any kind of idea that it’s a revenge plot playing itself out has entirely missed the point. In CARRIE 2, that’s exactly how it’s played. I don’t think we’ll see something this heartbreaking in horror for a long time. I think CARRIE stands out, among King’s work and other horror, in this respect. It’s a very personal horror story that forces the reader/viewer to stare right into the despair.

DC: It’s hard for me to think of a movie that combines this sort of rich emotion, humor, satire and certainly empathy in quite the way CARRIE does. It’s a work of great confidence and visual construction that manages to make room for the sort of tossed-off spirit of abandon that marks the experience of high school (or at least the way memory– mine anyway– tells us it was, or should have been). No wonder we’re still talking about it.

RHS: We’re about done here, gents. Final thoughts?

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NM: The way Margaret White dies in DePalma’s CARRIE  is incredibly powerful, some of the strongest horror imagery ever put up on screen. DePalma stages her death throes as an orgasm, which is just so audacious. The shots of Carrie watching her mother die are of the most powerful moments in Sissy Spacek’s performance, curled up like a little child, watching her mother with one eye. Did anyone notice those shots of the flying kitchen implements look exactly like the kind of thing would later become Sam Raimi’s signature style?

JA: During Margaret’s death scene, watching Carrie cower and hide her eyes and cover her head, it occurred to me that part of Carrie’s reaction wasn’t just due to wanting to avert her eyes from the hideousness of seeing her mother impaled but on another level it’s a reaction to seeing her mother express an almost sexual ecstasy. As Nick says, DePalma stages Margaret’s death throes as orgasmic and Carrie’s reaction, I think, is as much towards that aspect – it’s so unnatural for a child to see a parent in that state, especially Carrie to see her pathologically repressed mother like that – as towards the rest of it.

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DC: I completely agree, Nick. De Palma stages the death orgasm, and Piper Laurie completely throws herself into it, as she does with everything about her characterization of Margaret. We hear a lot of about fearless performances, and if hers doesn’t qualify, I’m not quite sure what would. She carries the groaning over into perverted ecstasy and then just keeps it going, one last grunt to extend the pleasure of being taken away, in a manner befitting one filled with such overwhelming self-hatred. Everything she does is memorable and just about right– she uses the range of her voice beautifully in suggesting the very familiar, slightly patronizing tone of the professional witness when she visits Sue’s mom, which becomes stern wood when wielding her power and barking scripture over Carrie, then thin and desperate when pleading with Carrie not to go to the prom (Is this the only significant instance of Margaret showing Carrie anything like genuine love or concern?), and then drops down into a well when she begins confessing the concession to lust that led to Carrie’s birth (“I could smell the stink of roadhouse whiskey on his breath… and I liked it. I liked it!”) Every time I see Piper Laurie in this role I think about what a major performance it is, somewhat miraculous in its own way, and I think that she never gets enough credit for just how spectacular she is here.

GF: I love how Carrie yanks her mom’s hand off the wall, tearing the knife out.

F13 New BloodJA: But, Nick, nice call on the Raimi-esque flying instruments!

RHS: I think Raimi’s inspiration was less CARRIE than Looney Tunes, where it wasn’t uncommon for a character to be on the run from a rain of butcher knives or meat cleavers. But then I think most contemporary horror movie tropes come directly from Warner Brothers cartoons.

JA: Something else that scene made me think of was how this was the second swipe by FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) from CARRIE. It’s always been mentioned that Jason’s jump from the lake is a steal from CARRIE’s shock ending but it had never occurred to me until this time around that Margaret’s death and the ghastly statue of St. Sebastian that it mirrors also anticipates Bill’s arrow-riddled demise in FRIDAY THE 13TH. Coincidence? Probably, but a neat coincidence just the same.

RHS: And of course, the FRIDAY THE 13th series came up with their own Carrie-like character for FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VII: THE NEW BLOOD (1988).

PG: Though it’s not necessary, we didn’t mention the spawn of CARRIE – the deadly psychic child subgenre as embodied by DePalma’s own THE FURY (1978), by RUBY, (1977), JENNIFER (1978), CATHY’S CURSE (1977). I guess these all owe a debt to VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED as well, but they generally hew along the lines of “outsider wreaks terrible revenge on her tormentors.”

RHS: Telekinesis leached into the adult world, too. TOURIST TRAP (1979) and a non-horror TV pilot, THE MAN WITH THE POWER (1977), which went unsold.

NM: Here’s one final question about CARRIE. I have to ask you guys this because it’s nagged me for years. The last few times I’ve watched the DePalma movie, one moment always bothers me: Carrie’s house crumpling into the ground. This is unique to the film version. It doesn’t appear that Carrie is destroying the house — she looks up in fearful surprise at the first creak, then drags the body of her mother into the closet for shelter as the house comes apart. What doesn’t make sense to me is that this is played as a literal act of God. Isn’t the position of King’s story – and I’m going by implication here – that God and the Devil don’t exist in this world, since those are the beliefs of Carrie’s mom? Put in another way, isn’t this the story of someone trying to break free of backwards religious beliefs? So why does God enter into our story here, a God that seems to give credence to Margaret White’s mania?

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DC: I never took it as divine intervention. It seemed to me, Carrie being reduced to the emotional state of early childhood similar to the one she was in when the rain of stones happened in the book, has lost control of her powers. They’ve almost taken on a life of their own, her rage operating outside of its source to enact the inevitable destruction. It’s why I think she has that look of horror and confusion on her face at it all starts happening– I think she can’t reconcile that it’s still coming from her, that causing the death of her mother has made her essentially turn against herself.

NM: Dennis, I think that is a solid take on it. Maybe it’s just me, but if the scene had been staged so we could draw just one parallel between her mind and what is happening to the house, it wouldn’t jump out at me so much. Then again, it is this kind of wish fulfillment on Carrie’s part – she’s gone crawling back into her mom’s arms and is damning herself. She kind of invents this awful, stupid act of God. It makes the ending even sadder!

RHS: Isn’t it just the House of Usher revisited? The House of Usher doesn’t fall because the Ushers offended God, but rather it collapses under the collective weight of their madness.

NM: Richard, that is a great reference. Ironically, a literary reference and not cinematic, and I’m describing a moment not in the book.

JA: I’ll go with what Richard and Dennis have said. I don’t see God’s hand at the end of CARRIE. Then again, I don’t see God’s hand anywhere so there’s that.

RHS: The destruction of the locus of horror is a solid horror trope, so it’s neat that DePalma utilized it in a surprising yet reverent way – I don’t think any of us in 1976, or whenever we caught up with the film, saw that particular development coming. And doubly effective for us back then was that it came at a time in movie history in which special effects were the icing on the cake, not the cake itself. Even coming after the prom holocaust setpiece and the car crash that takes out the villains, the folding in of the house was a shocking, and yet all too terribly appropriate, gotcha. But of course, DePalma was saving the best scare for last, bless his black heart.

 

And the HorrorDads are out on this All Saint’s Day. As you go about your business, light a candle for Carrie White. But don’t waste a prayer on the Ho-Dads because we’re already dead!

4 Responses “We were kids.” The HorrorDads revisit CARRIE (1976), pt. 2
Posted By Marjorie Birch : November 1, 2013 4:04 pm

I have to tell how I first saw “Carrie.” I was in college then and I liked to take the bus into Lancaster, PA to see the early shows — not only were they somewhat less expensive, but I was frequently the only person in the theatre.

Which is why I was completely alone when I saw “Carrie.” (Afterwards, I vowed I would never see that kind of movie unless I had sympathetic male companionship.)

Needless to say, I yelped and nearly jumped backward over the three empty rows behind me when the famous “gotcha” occurred.

Then the weirdness began… I got up, shaking, left the theatre, walked through the lobby, went to the glass doors … AND NONE OF THEM WOULD OPEN.

I went to the ticket taker booth. No one was there. But there was a paper clip floating in mid air.

(Eventually, I saw that it was hanging from a thin black thread. Someone was having fun with the customers, no doubt.)

I eventually got out by a side door.

I think I was thoroughly pranked, thank you!

Posted By Doug : November 1, 2013 8:52 pm

I did the right thing-I saw Carrie, went again the next night with a girl and just at the ‘gotcha’ moment which Marjorie described, I grabbed her hand.
The tux shop scene had me rolling-it was like watching me and my buddies up on the screen.

Posted By Qalice : November 1, 2013 10:16 pm

Thank you, Horror Dads, for reminding me of all the great points of a movie I hadn’t thought about for a long time. Hearing about the new version, I guessed it wouldn’t come up to DePalma’s — but you’ve described in such detail the reasons why! The first time I saw it, I didn’t sleep the entire next night. So of course I had to see it again, and I appreciated it more every time I saw it. You’re right about everything — the performances, the humor, the influence on later horror films. Truly a movie that lives in the mind long after the screen has gone dark.

Posted By terje rypdal : November 1, 2013 11:24 pm

Regarding the first two comments, I recently watched a string of vintage horror trailers — & noticed that more than one enticed girls with a line like “Take your date to see …” such & such “and you’ll find out if he’s a man or a mouse” … Implying thrillingly that if he were indeed the former he’d pretty much be obliged to try something with his hands or arm to comfort the girl he was with — especially if she remembered to scream and squirm at the right moment in the film! …

Yes, it seems like cinema’s worst mothers could well be a topic of its own … Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate is almost unassailable in this category, I’d have to say!! Joining her & Carrie’s mother could be Tippi Hedren’s mother in Marnie!! Those three would certainly have plenty to discuss concerning wholesome mothering and positive attitudes towards menfolk !! …

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