The first and last impression I got from Carrie was an awkward sense that the camera was leering at teenage girls. It was all too happy to look away from their faces and down at their bodies. Several scenes could have been filmed differently in order to avoid this. At least two scenes probably could have been removed altogether. But director Brian De Palma shot them this way and kept it all in. It makes you feel weird, as an audience member. It unnerves and it makes you feel a little sick and disgusted. I’m not necessarily sure that justifies this perverted cinematography, but it does achieve the desired effect. At least, I hope that’s the desired effect and not me reading into it.
In fact, it’s from the first scene that you feel this, which opens in a girls’ high school locker room. After panning from left to right, it focuses on one girl in the shower, Carrie (Sissy Spacek), who soon experiences her first period. She freaks out and is taunted by the rest of the girls — a common occurrence, we learn — before being rescued by the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley).
That sets the stage both with tone and the direction the film will take. We learn that Carrie lives at home with an abusive fundamentalist Christian mother (Piper Laurie), and has little knowledge of, well, anything of the outside world. She goes to school, hair draped over her face, not saying a word to anyone, and then she returns home for prayer and whatever other abuse her mother decides the Lord wants her to inflict upon her daughter.
Couple that with what Carrie goes through at school, and you can see how negativity and anger could boil up inside of her. Add in a discovery that she has telekinesis — whether it be because Satan gave them to her or other reasons — and you can pretty much start counting down the time before she violently explodes. What we want to see is what event directly causes this, and what type of carnage she’ll level when the ticking time bomb goes off. The final 20 minutes, a prank, and a lot. That’s what you need to know.
Carrie eventually becomes a horror film, although it does have an eerie, creepy atmosphere from beginning to end. It’s only in the final twenty minutes when the payoff occurs, and what a payoff it is. Part of the reason it’s successful is because its mayhem is motivated; the events early in the film relay a direct cause-and-effect chain for what we see later. It provides a sympathetic protagonist, some social satire, and scenes of parallelism and irony which makes it somewhat of a black comedy for those who notice them.
It all leads up to a prom, which is probably one of the best prom scenes in the history of the movies, if not the best. By the time it ends, you almost want to see it again just to marvel at how perfectly it has been constructed. From the lack of dialogue, the (finally free of perversion) camera, the special effects, the use of slow motion — it all adds up to a spectacle that you owe it to yourself to see. Carrie is a good film before this point, and a great one afterward.
That’s not to say that Carrie is without problems — how the lead goes from a shy, repressed outcast to someone worthy of the title “prom queen” (rigged vote or not, you know she looks and acts the part) in about two scenes is one of them — but it does such a good job where it counts that any small gripes are rendered largely unimportant. The villains are vile, the protagonist is vulnerable, and the atmosphere is fantastic. And when it all goes to hell, it’s as effective as anything you can see at the movies.
It does go a bit over-the-top at times of its treatment of Carrie. I mean, it stretches credibility when all of the other girls — save for one, whose motivation purposefully remains ambiguous for the majority of the film — are so mean that you wonder how they even manage to function in society. Or how Carrie’s mother has managed to live in that lifestyle for as long as she has. It’s all just a little too one-sided, if you get my drift. It works, but a bit of balance might have helped matters.
Carrie also ends with a fantastic jump scare. I mention this, and you might think I’ve ruined it. I haven’t. You will jump. Some of you might scream. You don’t know exactly when it’s coming. You have an idea that something’s not quite right, but you’re not sure what. And then, bam! It happens, and you applaud the film for getting you. That’s the single jump scare that Carrie possesses and the film exemplifies how effective the technique can be if used sparingly.
Carrie is a successful film. It’s not a pure horror movie, in that it’s not attempting to scare you at every second, but it does build up to a fantastic conclusion that works because of strong characterization and a great sense of atmosphere. It’s a far deeper film than one might think at first glance, and it really deserves its spot as one of the top horror films ever. Most problems it has are superficial at best and largely unimportant in the grand scheme of things, as long as you accept that its leering camera is not just so that its director could stare at the bodies of twentysomething females. It works from start to finish, and I can’t recommend it enough.