One of my earliest movie-related memories was playing in my grandfather’s yard in Schenectady, N.Y. with a bunch of my cousins, one of whom had just seen Brian De Palma’s Carrie for the first time on cable when he was far too young to watch it, unbeknownst to his devoutly Catholic mother who wouldn’t even let us kids tune into Three’s Company. (“That show’s bad for your morals,” she told me. I didn’t know yet what that meant, so was later cajoled into repeating quite often at the amused urgings of my elders how the adventures of Jack Tripper and his jiggly roommates were “bad for my marbles.”) In any case, still seared into my subconscious some 40 years later is my cousin’s breathless backyard recounting of everything that happens in Carrie, step by step and scene for scene, beginning with the full frontal shower sequence and ending with his delighted description of the character’s bloody hand reaching out and grabbing Sue Snell’s ankle from beyond the grave.
It was many more years before I finally saw the movie myself, in a rare case of a film actually surpassing the lurid legend I’d built up around it in my head. De Palma’s 1976 masterpiece – now streaming on Amazon Prime – is positively drunk on the possibilities of the medium, a perversely thrilling dazzlement of pure cinematic technique. Adapted from Stephen King’s first published novel (he was paid the princely sum of $2,500 for the movie rights, such an unknown at the time his name was spelled “Steven” in the trailer) the screenplay scraps the author’s epistolary structure and gets right down to business with a gauzy, slow-motion girls’ locker room scene of self-parodic, soft-core proportions, the lush display of nubile young flesh abruptly interrupted by a torrent of menstrual blood, bullying and shrieking strings. Bad for your marbles, indeed.
The half-kidding, half-horrific nature of Carrie’s opening is emblematic of De Palma’s overripe, sensuous sensibility, a naughty boy’s luscious leering with just enough self-awareness to have his cake and eat it, too. Unlike so many other, less cinematically savvy exploitation filmmakers, De Palma was smart about being sleazy, always up for using gratuitous nudity as self-aware commentary on female objectification and the male gaze, while at the same time reveling in the trashy pleasures therein. (This is probably why he still makes so many critics crazy. There’s a playfulness to De Palma’s perversity that sends pearl-clutching Puritans straight up a wall.)
An extended break during Carrie’s pre-production period allowed enough time for the director to diagram every shot in the picture before the cameras ever rolled. It’s one of his most extensively worked-out movies, a mathematical marvel of doubles, reflections and thematic rhymes. From the dueling authority figures of Carrie’s scary mom (Piper Laurie) and gentle gym teacher (Betty Buckley) to the good girl and her kindhearted boyfriend (Amy Irving and William Katt) using the prom to try and make amends contrasted with Nancy Allen’s bad girl and her abusive boyfriend (a Barbarino-era John Travolta) turning the same event into a literal bloodbath, with the first scene’s rivulets of menses made to match the splash of pig’s blood on star Sissy Spacek’s alabaster skin. It’s all almost academic. Or at least it would be, if it weren’t so much fun to watch.
I never got mad about my cousin spelling out the entire movie for me from start to finish because the delight of Carrie is in the anticipation. It’s one of those films that even if you’ve never seen it you probably already know what happens thanks to cultural osmosis. (Heck, even the movie’s original poster was a giant, honking spoiler.) We start watching the movie already anxious about the prom sequence — such a prolonged derangement of expectation and release it feels almost pornographic. (Even the film itself feels in a hurry to get on with it, literally fast-forwarding through the dialogue when Katt’s Tommy Ross and his buddies go tuxedo shopping.)
It’s the first of De Palma’s classic cinematic set-pieces, easily on par with the Odessa Steps in The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible’s Langley break-in or the museum seduction in Dressed To Kill. (There’s also the Cannes heist in Femme Fatale, Scarface’s chainsaw massacre, the pool hall in Carlito’s Way and so many others I could go on all day.) From Carrie and Tommy’s slow-dance upon a spinning turntable with the camera swirling around them in the opposite direction to the famous figure-eight dolly that took an entire day to shoot, every movement is a masterstroke on De Palma’s part, designed to drive us crazy in anticipation. He even provides a vicarious audience surrogate in Amy Irving’s Sue Snell, slowly putting everything together via POV shots just a few seconds too late. A stray piece of crepe paper gently falls from the rafters, tracing the arc of what’s to come right before all hell breaks loose.
“Carrie” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.