Hello! Welcome back to a brand-new installment of... what? Why are you looking at me like that? Oh, I see. You’re judging me, aren’t you? You’re questioning how a supposed lifelong horror fan who’s been writing about the genre for nigh on five years can have never seen one of the cornerstones of ’70s horror.
Look, I get it, but just back off. We all have at least one or two of those shameful blind spots, and this month I finally get to tick this one off the checklist thanks to Valeska Griffiths, who you might know as the Executive Editor of the horror journal Grim, Founder and Editor at Anatomy of a Scream, and a co-host of the Riverdale-centric Milkshakes and Mimosas podcast. Rest assured, Griffiths was just as surprised as you when she found out I’d not seen Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s very first novel, and she made short work of correcting this oversight.
Even those few of us who hadn’t seen it likely know the premise, but just in case, here’s a brief primer. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is a naive teenager who we meet being regularly abused by both her classmates and her religious zealot of a mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie). But when classmate Sue (Amy Irving) feels remorse for a particularly cruel incident involving Carrie’s first menstruation, she asks her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask Carrie to prom. At first skeptical of Tommy’s intentions, Carrie soon starts coming out of her shell, gaining confidence due in no small part to the blossoming telekinetic abilities she’s discovered.
We of course will dive into how these abilities, combined with a cruel prank from uber mean girl Chris (Nancy Allen), will come together to make for maybe the worst prom ever (as usual, SPOILER ALERT for major plot points in this discussion), but first, Valeska, I wanted to know about the context for the first time you watched Carrie.
I couldn’t pinpoint an exact age, but I can almost guarantee that I was too young to see it during my first viewing. Horror is my mother’s favorite genre, hands down, and I spent much of my childhood either peering around doorways trying to catch a glimpse of something ghostly or covering my eyes to avoid looking at lurid VHS artwork—the Hellraiser VHS cover was one of my earliest fears.
My mother was also an enormous Stephen King fan, but for some reason never owned a copy of Carrie. So, although I’d voraciously read Needful Things, IT, Cujo, and countless other novels by King by the age of 14, I don’t think I read Carrie until I was in my twenties.
Full disclosure: I hadn’t actually seen the film in many years when I proposed we cover it for this column, and I’d forgotten just how GOOD it is. Obviously, I remembered the prom climax, the “dirty pillows,” and that raw opening shower scene, but I found the film as a whole far more emotionally resonant watching it now, and I discovered a new appreciation for many of its quieter moments. I’m quite happy that I was given a reason to revisit it, so thank you for not having seen it!
Well, if I’m good for anything, it’s not seeing movies so that people have a chance to introduce me to them. And like you, my mother was a rabid horror fan and was also my entryway into the genre. I got into the Stephen King game late in life, however, and didn’t start reading his books until well into my thirties. Carrie was one of the original novels I read of his, which I figured was fitting given that it was the first one he had published, and I really loved his approach of looking at the story through a series of fictional news stories, essays, and interviews about the events that led to the “prom incident.”
While I do have some issues with some of De Palma’s stylistic choices (we’ll get to those a bit later), I was surprised by how well King’s original story, and to a certain extent De Palma’s adaptation, portrayed the various ways that misogyny has a rippling effect in how it wreaks havoc on women’s lives, such as Margaret projecting her guilt about her own sexual behavior onto Carrie. Given, of course, that I’m approaching this interpretation as a cis man, I’m interested to find out if you had the same reaction. If so, how do you think a movie by a man based on a book written by a man pulled off that level of accuracy?
One of my favorite things about the film is the wealth of interesting female characters and the fact that the men just do what they’re told. But seriously, I’m glad that you brought up Margaret because I find her so fascinating. Writer Savanna Teague contributed a Margaret White character study to the latest issue of Grim, wherein she says that “Neither Carrie nor Margaret are pure evil; they are products of the same environment, an ouroboros of suppressed anger that could only lead to its own destruction.” The novel goes into her backstory a bit more, but the film does illustrate that Margaret’s abuse of Carrie is borne of her own traumatic experiences.
Margaret’s fanatic adherence to a faith which demonizes sexuality (specifically, female sexuality) is the driving force behind, well, everything she does. But this is compounded by her guilt and shame regarding her own sexual desires and urges. It’s a vicious and unforgiving trap—to make up for her so-called transgressions, she must become more devout, which makes her human nature seem all the more monstrous to her.
The intense and ultimately destructive emphasis on purity displayed by Margaret White may have its origin in Christian teachings, but it’s baked into our wider culture in ways that are inescapable, even today. It’s there in the way that women are slut-shamed for singing about their sexuality in frank and shameless terms (see: Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion), and in the way that men debate how many former partners are acceptable for the women they choose to date and declare that a too-high number negates their “sexual market value”, while boasting about their own “n-count.” And it’s there in the palpable tension between Madonna and whore, prude and slut.
I’ve written at length about how this double standard and demonization of female sexuality has deep and long-lasting consequences in terms of women’s emotional health—another bleak example is Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, which I covered extensively in my chapter “From the Stake to the Sanitarium: Taming the Disruptive Feminine in Häxan (1922) and Antichrist (2009)” in Scared Sacred: Idolatry, Religion and Worship in the Horror Film. Antichrist also traces the connections between our modern policing of female sexuality, strong internalized guilt, and earlier Christian teachings, and, like Carrie, it ends in a violent and shocking climax. But where Antichrist offers a more intimate tour of the psychic wounds caused by patriarchal bullshit through a narrative journey and cinematography focused on aligning us with the guilt-stricken female protagonist, Carrie instead overtly illustrates the immediate generational trauma associated with these beliefs—our protagonist isn’t the woman struggling with her feelings about her own sexual behavior, but the one being punished for another’s.
Rather than take a deep and direct dive into Margaret White’s psyche, the film’s primary concern is the damage that she causes her daughter through her misogynistic praxis. Carrie doesn’t share her mother’s distorted beliefs about sexuality; we see this when she gently corrects her mother about her “dirty pillows” and the intentions of prom date Tommy. Yet despite her surprisingly healthy approach to sexuality, Carrie is still very much a casualty of her mother’s war on sex, demonstrating the power of these longstanding discourses and their still-potent ability to hurt us, even if we don’t personally buy into them!
To answer your question, I think that the film did pull it off, but I do wonder how many people walked out of it not really connecting those specific dots. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, so I can’t speak to that.
We could discuss Carrie as a male fantasy about the inherently destructive nature of female power (something that King has spoken about himself in his book Danse Macabre), but I feel like I should give you a chance to speak. Sorry, I get fired up about this stuff (but you knew what you were signing up for when you asked me, haha)!
No one, including me, is really interested in these interviews to get my take on the movie, so please don’t be shy. It’s interesting that you note that people may not be able to connect the dots in the movie, because I wonder if something about the story’s tragedy is lost in De Palma’s style.
On one hand, De Palma has a knack for melodrama, which I think does fit the story’s deeply emotional tone. This, after all, is a tale about built-up trauma and repressed anger exploding in violence. But while those story beats are there, I feel like they clash with De Palma’s approach. Take, for instance, the film’s opening scene where Carrie gets her first period in the gym shower. While the scene is certainly integral to the story, there’s a leering quality to the initial montage in a way that feels weird and unnecessary. Add to that De Palma’s need to pay random homages to Hitchcock and there’s a disconnect I think may get some of the more important narrative elements lost in translation. Was this something you observed at all?
Speaking of weird and off-putting choices, I’m surprised that you didn’t also mention that bizarre, sped-up sequence in the tuxedo rental shop where the high school boys joke around with each other in high-pitched chipmunk voices. I’ll never understand the reasoning that led to that directorial decision!
And I totally agree with you about that slow-motion opening scene. It just never sat well with me. I don’t have an issue with nudity per se, but the sequence feels like softcore pornography in a way that makes me VERY uncomfortable—especially since it takes place in a high school locker room where at least some of the characters are ostensibly underage! De Palma’s intentions just feel really gross here, which is a shame, because I think the story that he’s trying to tell in this scene is a powerful one that effectively tells us, with very little dialogue on her part, a few important things that we need to know about Carrie: 1) she’s ostracized at school and therefore very lonely and 2) she’s incredibly naïve when it comes to critical knowledge about her own body, which means that she has a neglectful parent.
De Palma continues to err on the side of style over substance at a number of points in the film, particularly leaning into almost grotesque levels of spectacle during the protracted climax in which Carrie annihilates her classmates and crucifies her mother (not to mention that ridiculous little graveside scene with Sue Snell at the very end).
As I mentioned at the beginning of our chat, the emotionally resonant and ultimately more satisfying aspects of the film had almost totally faded from my memory before I screened it again for this piece, having been overshadowed by the over-the-top, garish set pieces. I do agree that De Palma does the story a disservice by relying so heavily on luridness. Pity.
I literally rewound the sped-up tuxedo scene because I thought it was a glitch in the streaming service. So yeah, De Palma makes one too many stylistic choices for his own good. What I will give him credit for, however, is almost flawless casting. Sissy Spacek is perfect as the timid, naive girl coming into her own before the floor drops out at the prom. William Katt is so damn charming with that dopey-but-well-meaning vibe, and even Nancy Allen allows for some sympathy sprinkled in with copious amounts of being awful. My question for you, however, is what the hell was John Travolta doing in this movie? Did he forget that he wasn’t playing Vinnie Barbarino?
Hahahaha, agreed on all counts! I adore Spacek, Allen, and Katt in this film. But Travolta literally cannot help himself. I mean, it kind of works, though? (Unpopular opinion, maybe, but I do think that Piper Laurie could have dialed it back just a notch. Don’t revoke my horror card, please.)
No revocation necessary, and I agree that Laurie could have reined it in a tad. But I do have to say that perhaps the creepiest shot of the movie is Margaret’s maniacal smile as she advances on poor Carrie with a knife in the final act. That said, I’ve heard Julianne Moore’s performance in the 2013 remake is a lot more nuanced.
Speaking of which, there have been a total of four films related to Carrie, including a sequel, a made-for-TV remake, and the aforementioned 2013 version with Chloë Grace Moretz. Have you seen any of these updated entries and, if so, do you think they get anything right that De Palma’s didn’t? Ultimately, what legacy does Carrie leave in the horror genre?
Oh my god, yes. I ADORE that creepy, knife-wielding advance. Iconic. Unforgettable. (And kind of reminiscent of Stefania Casini’s zombie stroll toward Jessica Harper during the climax of Suspiria? Is that too much of a stretch?)
I must admit that I’ve not seen any of the other filmic adaptations, though I’m heartened to hear that Moore does a good job in the role of Margaret. Love her. After this discussion, I’m actually kind of interested in checking it out. And, for the record, there has also been a Carrie musical (first staged on Broadway in 1988, then revived off-Broadway in 2012) and a musical episode of Riverdale featuring cast covers of the original songs—that, I HAVE seen! Though the 1988 Broadway production was ravaged by critics, I highly recommend listening to the musical number ‘The World According to Chris’ because it is a BANGER. I’m partial to the Camila Mendes version. You can find it on Spotify. Thank me later.
As for Carrie’s legacy... that’s a great question. In terms of the overall story, rather than De Palma’s specific vision, I find Carrie herself to be such a compelling archetype—the girl denied and neglected, rather than the woman scorned. Her decision to ultimately embrace her frightening abilities is so powerful, even if it ends in tragedy. Even aside from the numerous adaptations, I think we can find a little bit of Carrie in many horror protagonists, adolescent or otherwise.
[Photo Credit: Above photo of Valeska Griffiths courtesy of Ryan Couldrey.]