Brian De Palma loves making us feel like perverts. The director’s signature voyeuristic style puts the audience in salacious situations at times, creating discomfort and unease, and this is no more pronounced than in the opening scene of his breakout 1976 masterwork, Carrie. Here we are, in a high school girl’s locker room. Only it isn’t a real locker room, this is the fantasized notion of frolicking teens interpreted through the male gaze. Girls are topless, popping each other with towels, doing everything short of soaping up each other in the shower. As the softcore lighting and synth strings lure us in, De Palma’s camera drifts past the girls into the steam, where we see young Carie White (Sissy Spacek) showering. It’s even more salacious in its voyeurism, until everything goes horribly wrong.
Carrie’s first period comes while she’s showering, upending this serene, boyish fantasy with the most horrifying thing that could ever happen to a young girl who has no idea what’s wrong with her. Carrie is mocked, ridiculed, pelted with pads and tampons as the softly-lit locker room transforms into a sharply-lit, waking nightmare.
This opening scene sets the stage for a film that thrives on a false sense of security. Carrie takes us on a journey to the top of a beautiful mountain, then repeatedly pushes us off the cliff into horror. Once the opening scene ends – mercifully so – De Palma once again settles into a certain gentleness. Young Carrie is an outcast, a shy, beautiful girl who hides behind her blonde hair and lives in her troubled mind more than in the classroom or among her peers. She is bullied by the popular girls, led by Nancy Allen’s Chris Hargensen – the true monster of the film – but she finds an ally in Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), the gym teacher. The scenes following the opening lure us in once again, and they make us feel safe. That is until we meet Carrie’s mother, Margaret.
Piper Laurie’s Margaret is a horrifying creation. No doubt wounded by men in her past, obsessively religious, Margaret forces Carrie into a closet to pray when she discovers Carrie got her period at school. “First comes the blood,” she says, “and then the men.” The statue of Jesus in the closet, bloodied, broken, it’s gaze fixed through cold-dead white eyes, is deeply unsettling. And once again the gentleness of the picture is flipped, we are in the throes of true horror once again.
The central story here involves Tommy Ross, implored by his girlfriend Sue (Amy Irving) to ask Carrie to the prom. Not for malicious purposes, but out of pity. Only Tommy doesn’t see it that way; Tommy may genuinely like Carrie, and after some prodding she agrees to go with him. The invite sets the stage for the final bloodletting at prom, but as it happens everything once again feels okay. Carrie is beaming, happy, standing up to her insane mother, blossoming. Her hair no longer hides her face, she is confident for the first time in her life. But of course this cannot last.
A parallel storyline focuses on Chris and her dolt of a boyfriend, Billy, played by John Travolta. Billy and Chris hatch a plan, one we don’t quite understand until the end, but one that involves pig’s blood. This gets us to one of the more ghastly scenes in the film. Chris, Billy, and their hoodlum friends go to a pig farm one night to get their blood. Only nobody wants to kill the pig. Because it’s fucked up, the senseless murder of a pig for its blood to pull off a nasty prank. Once again, we are put ever-so-slightly at ease as it appears the pig murder won’t happen. But then, inexplicably, Billy hops the fence and brutally massacres a pig with an axe. It not only delivers the necessary shock, but it heightens the villainy of the picture. These kids are no longer kids, but real monsters, dedicated to exacting their revenge against Carrie, who never did anything to them in the first place.
The prom scene is the sequence where De Palma’s stylistic mastery is on full display. It’s the playbook for De Palma. The camera sweeps and spins, the lighting is soft and inviting, Carrie has transformed form misunderstood telekinetic freak into the belle of the ball. Literally. She and Tommy appear to really form some sort of bond. There is no sexual tension per se, because Tommy does still care for and want to be with Sue. But it’s an honest friendship, and it once again eases the audience into something pleasant. Carrie is reluctant to dance, but she does eventually, and she enjoys herself. And then she and Tommy inevitably win prom king and queen, albeit through a little manipulation. You can feel the tension build, almost physically as the camera slows and the dreamlike camerawork pulls us deeper into Carrie’s renaissance.
And then, through some genius cuts and a steadily growing apprehension, everything is once again completely upended. The pig’s blood spills from the rafters and douses poor Carrie. It is a horrific moment, maybe even more unsettling that Carrie’s vengeance. Spacek’s face, the way the soft prom lighting transforms from easy and welcoming to garish, red, and vile, all sharpens. It’s everything wonderful spinning down and concentrating into the base of a funnel of horror. The revenge is welcome for the audience, but no less horrific in the fact that Carrie’s biggest advocate, Miss Collins, is collateral damage. For all the delicacy De Palma employed in his camera leading up to this finale, his ability to flip the coin so drastically is what makes Carrie a horror masterpiece.
Brian De Palma has always been marginalized for his perversions, his tendency to employ the Hitchcockian method of exploiting females in his films. He does it in the name of style, and he does it for specific reasons. But Carrie is nothing of the kind. Here, De Palma’s watchful camera pushes the onus on the audience, making them feel the guilt and shame of this young girl whose life is ruined. The horror almost seems secondary to the nature of bullying and how nothing is as safe as it seems.