Saturday, 7 May 2022


(More of the series ‘Mutants Are Our Future’. With PLOT SPOILERS, albeit for a 1976 film.)

Does ’Carrie’ (Brian de Palma, 1976) belong in a series about mutants, alongside the X-Men and Tomorrow People? If not commonly seen in their company, that’s because this came out under the heading of a horror film. Rather than mind powers being evolutionary and futuristic, here the suggestion is they’re inherited, a rare witch gene, as in ’The Shining’. What’s more the film needs this, to be based around inheritance and lineage. If her power were to come from, say, a green-glowing meteorite she found it wouldn’t be a trivial modification - everything would be changed.

But if we accept that the root of the thing is puberty manifested as powers, this should be at the head of the queue. As Carrie White’s first period comes in the film’s second scene, we can’t definitely say she didn’t have her powers before. Yet movie logic assumes events are causal. And her first manifestation is almost immediate - she makes a light bulb smash.

A repressed and repressive mother has left her entirely unprepared for this moment. So, just like someone gaining mutant powers, she simply doesn’t know what’s happening and freaks out. She says later she thought she was dying, and in a sense one Carrie does die and gets replaced by another. Carrie White becomes Carrie Red. They’re even separated out into two people on the poster (up top).

(Though we may have happy happenstance to thank for this. The original opening scene, where Carrie’s powers manifested as a child, was shot but then abandoned for technical reasons. And there’s an added reason why we’re better off without it. With the narrative structure we have, we wonder alongside her teachers how a girl of sixteen could be completely ignorant of menstruation. Then run into the mother-sized answer shortly after.)

The scene works, of course, because all the other girls do know what’s happening to her. As we do in the audience. And audience awareness in horror films is always an interesting subject. They often accept we know the tropes and rely on timing their reveal, feigning shocks and throwing jump scares at us like a ghost train ride. With ’Carrie’, at the very least from her outburst in the Principal’s office, we’re let in on what’s going to be happening. Even if you went in not knowing the premise, you’d have guessed by then. But significantly, there’s not a moment where Carrie herself becomes aware. Figuratively, and for quite a long stretch literally, we’re aware there’s a bucket of blood up on a ledge that’s about to tip.

Though this is double-edged. There’s a brief scene which tellingly shows White being the last name in the register, a sign of her place in the pecking order. In such moments our sympathies naturally go to our protagonist. She’s warm-hearted and smart. When her powers manifest she sensibly checks books out of the school library, which will help explain them.

But even as we witness the strangeness of her upbringing, we do more than that - we identify with her. The film may be able to get away with this because the rough-house world of schooling leaves us all convinced that we were our school’s Carrie, the weird outsider kid no-one really liked.

For that reason, while the film suggests others have these powers, Carrie’s the only one we actually see. So the social power of telepathy, such a mainstay of ’The Tomorrow People’, doesn’t show up here. Carrie’s telekinetic. Her powers relate to things, not people.

…which takes us to another often overlooked feature. While it’s ostensibly a horror film (marketed for those with “a taste for terror”) for long stretches it works as an effective High School drama. While Horror films can contain such scenes they’re normally perfunctory, we instinctively understand they’re only there as set-up prior to the chop-up. A ‘normative’ has to be established just so the jump-scares have somewhere to burst into.

Whereas you could be shown whole scenes and think this was something like ‘American Graffiti’. There’s frequent moments of diegetic music, where characters listen to what’s on the radio, and a couple where the background sound just comes from a TV. Which we subliminally associate with ‘real world’. (The string of poorly received attempts at re-makes is probably a testament to how many different and even contradictory elements the film has to juggle.)

One effect of this is that when the mother starts ranting about devils and demons, in a more straightforward horror film we might associate her with the harbinger role, clueing us in what’s a-coming. Here we know straight away she’s deluded.

But another, more important effect comes in the Prom scene. While rightly recognised as a bravura sequence, the most important part of it may be overlooked. We know that bucket of blood is up there on the ledge. But right up to it being tipped, we need to invest in the moment. We need to believe that we’re watching the happy ending to a quite different film, a Cinderella ending where Carrie falls in love and becomes the Prom Queen. Our special power as an audience, knowing what’s coming, was earlier being fed. Now it’s the grain we’re being run against. And the scene being so well played, even before the part everyone remembers, sets us up for this.

Inevitably we come to the famous retribution section. The set-up to this is the step-by-step elimination of direct connection between sound and vision. First we hear only the soundtrack, characters mouthing but their words going unheard. Then only the bucket swinging on the rope. We still see people mouthing. But Carrie’s thinking only about the bucket. Then the laughter starts. We can see most people in the crowd are shocked, not amused. But Carrie can only hear the laughter. Not coming from them, we realise. A projection of her own head.

Next the split screen. This has a long history in cinema, though it was normally used to convey parallel events such as telephone calls. (Though ’Village of the Damned’, 1960, uses it in a similar way to this.) But its effectiveness here is its being restricted to just this scene. I quite vividly remember the moment it first appeared on my first viewing.

And in it’s way it’s as diegetic as the sound. Like a forerunner to the later use of bullet time, with Neo and Quicksilver, it’s a visual correlative of Carrie’s powers. The bucket of blood can only be tipped by an elaborate rope system, lingered over by the means of one character discovering it and tracing it back, in other words a pan shot. While Carrie shuts doors the other side of the room just by thinking about it, a split screen.

But the really horrific thing isn’t what she does, it’s that it’s Carrie who does it. The sweet, innocent lass who we’ve so identified with up to now. Sissy Spacek’s performance underlines this, switching from hopeful girl to vengeful monster, yielding no expression either from her face or rigidly held body, speaking not one word to anyone. Did Carrie White cry when you taunted her? Meet Carrie Red.

We’re all used to the trope of the child being picked on by the school bully, then at the vital moment her powers manifesting to save her. We are, truth be told, pretty bored of that scene by now. ’Carrie’, in its way, stretches that scene out to film length. But with two key differences. Firstly, she doesn’t act in self-defence but in retribution. And when she does, everyone gets it. Even those who took no part in her persecution, even those who looked out for her. Our sympathetic heroine turns mass murderer.

And after all, bullied and demeaned your whole life, which would you be more likely to do? Decide in that moment to don a colourful costume the better to help humankind, or get your own back on the bastards? But crucially our identification with Carrie doesn’t break at that point. We identify with her until it’s too late to bail out. ’Carrie’ essentially rebukes the ’Tomorrow People’ notion of powers advancing in parallel step to goodness. Its message is “with great power comes great bloodshed.” Sometimes it takes horror to tell us the truth.

And this unleashing of her powers seems intrinsic. Carrie the child was virtually the heroine of a girl’s comic, virtuously enduring her life’s travails. But not the post-pubescent Carrie. Every previous iteration of her powers comes about through anger. There’s no moment where she experiments with them or uses them to perform helpful tasks. Just as it’s a power brought on by puberty, it’s triggered by rage.

And this is the theme of the film. When Chris gets punished by Miss Collins for taunting Carrie in the shower, literally being slapped down, she resolves to get revenge. Which Carrie follows with her own revenge. It’s a perpetual cycle of blame and punishment.

Some see this as a “women’s picture”, or even attempt to claim it as feminist. Which would seem unlikely for a de Palma film, even if there wasn’t that paedoish lingering look round the girls’ changing rooms early on. (Yes the actors are all older than the girls they play. Still creepy.) True it’s woman-centred. But it’s more reverse Bechdel, where the male characters (such as they are) act only at the behest of women. And so, by marginalising them, the film marginalises patriarchy. Which only really rears its head in the mother’s crazed babblings about Satan. It more captures the gender apartheid world of High School.

The Prom scene is the centrepiece of the film, inevitably the one which shows up on YouTube. And most likely many would misremember it as the ending. But the payoff and finale is Carrie’s confrontation with the source of her problems, her mother. Who has a phobia of/ obsession with penetration, manifested by the creepy religious statue studded with arrows which she keeps in her ‘prayer closet’. (Presented as though of Jesus, but more likely St. Stephen.) She tells Carrie that she conceived her through marital rape, then says in the next breath that she enjoyed it, suitably twisted logic. Her attempt to kill Carrie, and Carrie’s response, are both stabbings.

The mother is perhaps best understood as Carrie’s phobic side, the part of her still freaked out from that shower scene. The part of her that baulks at going to the Prom, that looks for excuses to get out from it. In short, the part of her that has to die so she can grow up. The house, with its Gothic moodiness, endless candles and creepy icons, seems an extension of the mother. And the collapsing house is a Jungian symbol for the death of the old self, like a forest fire allowing for new growth.

But in the film’s bleakest twist Carrie doesn’t make it out alive either. In truth, it’s a little hard to work out what happens here. Does she kill her mother but then die from being stabbed herself? Does she, knowing she’s about to die, cause the house to collapse? But every previous instance of her powers are demonstrated through a close-up of her concentrating, then the result. Whereas the house starting to break apart seems, if anything, to take her by surprise. To make it work we might need some combination of these readings, stuck together with fuzzy logic.

The film works so well as a film, as an effective sequence of visual events, it’s tempting to not look under the hood. Particularly when you realise how messed up things are under there. As mentioned, it’s punishment which leads Chris to want to prank Carrie with the bucket of blood. But her classmate (and, it’s suggested, former cohort) Sue responds differently, persuading her own boyfriend Tommy to invite Carrie to the Prom, even rigging the vote so they become the winning couple. (Proms have to have a winner, it seems.)

This may be because the film needs to introduce this bit of grit in the works. With so much made inevitable, we need some element of mystery to focus on. Which is provided by Sue’s motivations. Innocent but not a fool, Carrie’s immediately suspicious. (“They’re just trying to trick me again”.)

As it turns out, Sue intends all this positively. But the manipulative element of it is raised only to get buried. For the Prom sequence to work, Tommy has to go along with it but then fall for Carrie. But then what of Sue? She just gives up her boyfriend? Plus there’s a more functional problem. Carrie can only get bucketed by going on stage. But there’s no sign Chris knows anything of Sue’s plans, any more than Sue knows of hers. How would she know to do this? We may be better off not looking under the hood after all.

Coming soon! The thrilling conclusion to Mutants Are Our Future…

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