Doodad Kind of Town

Reelin’ in the Years: "Carrie" Revisited
November 7, 2007, 12:34 am
Filed under: 70s Films Revisited

In the seventies, I was a movie-crazy teenager who dreamed of growing up and becoming Pauline Kael. Lately, I’ve found it interesting to go back and watch some of the movies I loved as teen – many of which I haven’t seen since then – and see whether they’ve held up to my fond memories.

As mentioned in my post on Saturday, I spent Halloween night watching “Carrie” for the first time since seeing it at the theatre in the fall of 1976 when I was a high school senior. At that time, I had only recently read the Stephen King novel on which it was based. (I spent a lot of my teen years reading thrillers about demonic possession, reincarnation, and various occult phenomena, so “Carrie” was right up my alley.) I was just about dying for the movie version of “Carrie” to be released, and when I finally saw it, I thought it was the perfect realization of King’s novel, maybe even better.

Well, that’s what I thought at 16.

At 47, of course, the movie looks a bit different. From my infinitely more jaded, middle-aged perspective, I can see that director Brian De Palma created some movie magic out of King’s middling popular fiction, but the magic isn’t universally distributed throughout the film. Some scenes are just clunky or silly. And some surprised me for reasons having more to do with the changes in popular culture over the last 30 years than with the film itself. To wit:

* That locker room shower sequence that plays over the opening credits? Ewwwwwww!!! It’s just creepy! In what twisted male fantasy world does a shy, socially awkward teenager stand in a communal gym shower, soaping herself up like a porn star? In slow motion yet? A girl like Carrie would be profoundly uncomfortable being naked anywhere in the vicinity of other people. I’m pretty sure that DePalma deliberately created this initial, soft-core feeling so we’d be completely caught off guard when Carrie discovers she’s menstruating, and the infamous “Plug it up!” scene follows. But to a grown woman like me, that transition plays like a sick, snarky adolescent joke.

* I got quite a jolt a couple of scenes later when Betty Buckley, the kindly gym teacher, was shown in the principal’s office smoking a cigarette. And the principal even had an ashtray on his desk. Sometimes it takes a 30-year-old movie to remind me how pervasive and accepted smoking used to be.

* All the stuff with Carrie’s religious fanatic mother is so campy and over-the-top. I think we could get that Carrie’s mom is abusive and crazy without quite so much crucifixion-themed set dressing, but I guess that’d take some of the fun out of it. Piper Laurie, all angel-faced and frizzy-maned, seems to be in her own little, twisted world. I appreciate the logic of playing Carrie’s mom as if you were listening to voices inside your head rather than listening to your daughter, but Laurie simply isn’t a strong enough actress to pull off the effect. She got an Oscar nomination, though, so someone must have been impressed.

* I had completely forgotten that John Travolta was in this movie. This was all before “Saturday Night Fever,” of course, so he basically has about five minutes of screen time playing a variation on Vinnie Barbarino. Quite a shock, too, when, in the scene where he and Nancy Allen slaughter the pig, he starts growling “Git ‘er done! Git ‘er done!” And we thought Larry the Cable Guy made that up all by himself.

*”Carrie” only really becomes a good movie when Carrie gets to the prom. That’s where DePalma’s style and technique become most assured. Spacek’s first slow dance with William Katt is still every bit as dizzying and romantic as I remembered it, with the camera whirling around the couple in every more ecstatic spirals, mirroring Carrie being swept away by Katt’s attention and affection. The slow motion build-up to the dumping of the pig blood is an almost unbearable masterpiece of mounting tension. And – oh boy! – De Palma’s famous split-screen technique still works like gangbusters when Carrie unleashes her wrath. You get Spacek’s wide-eyed, haunted, blood drenched face on one side of the screen, and horrific endings for the other characters on the other side. Given the “torture porn” mentality of 21st century horror flicks, it’s a real testament to “Carrie’s” durability that the relatively very mild violence in these scenes seems just as brutal and shocking now as it did 31 years ago.

* Then there’s that final “surprise” scene with Amy Irving bringing flowers to Carrie’s grave. In 1976, I screamed and jumped out of my seat (and so did everyone else.) This time, I only shuddered a little and smiled to myself. A scene like that only works once.

Tomorrow, I’ll look back at a foreign classic I first saw in my freshman year of college.
(photo from

5 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Hi P-I do not think I have watched this movie all the way through as I was a young when it was popular, plus I like my Spacek with a side of Coalminer’s Daughter. I am not really into horror flicks.I find it odd that some of the reviews for The Sparrow are comparing it to Carrie, and Mean Girls, and Heathers. I did not think anyone in the movie was mean. Whatever. The writers I know loathed it. Again, whatever.Oh and your Larry The Cable Guy nod–priceless!How is the baby?

Comment by Parisjasmal

I mean I did not think anyone is the PLAY was mean. Sorry.

Comment by Parisjasmal

Oh I forgot to tell you—and because I want to leave you 37 comments today:Guess what came in the mail for me today from BURTS BEES LETTUCE SOAP! I cannot wait to give it a whirl.I bought it based on your review.

Comment by Parisjasmal

Not too long ago my brother and I watched “Spencers Mountain”, the movie on which the Walton’s was based. Thirty years ago it was a terrific movie. This time we found it commical, laughing at dramatic scenes like the one where the little brother tipped over in his high chair and John Boy ran to the doctor’s office and wrote “Donnie broke his neck” on the chalkboard. Turns out the baby just had the wind knocked out of him.

Comment by dwelton

Hi Jen! I hope you like the Burt’s Bees Soap. I can see parallels between “The Sparrow” and “Carrie,” but not those other movies. I don’t know why your writer friends would not like it.Dwelton -So good to hear from you! I never saw “Spencer’s Mountain,” but I know what you mean about scenes that seemed so dramatic when we were kids, and now we can’t take them seriously.

Comment by Pat

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