Brian De Palma’s Carrie may be about high school, but it was perhaps the director’s first completely mature film, at least equaling the nearly concurrent release Obsession in gothic pathos. Based on Stephen King’s first novel, famously written in near-poverty as the future bestselling mogul tried to make ends meet by teaching English to high school kids, Carrie turns a fairly contemptuous source text (in the book, Carrie is nearly as unappealing as her tormentors) into, as Pauline Kael said, a “teasing, lyrical thriller.” It brought both De Palma and King into mainstream visibility, kick-started the careers of nearly everyone involved (or, in Piper Laurie’s case, provided an unexpected return to form playing horror cinema’s ultimate mom from hell), won two acting Oscar nominations, and earned fantastic reviews and word of mouth. Surely this represents De Palma’s first great selling out, right?
Absolutely not. Carrie, a profoundly sad horror comedy about a dumped-on, telekinetic outcast whose late-blooming menstrual cycle and sexual maturation react violently with her fundamentalist mother’s psychological chastity belt, is the film in which De Palma discovered that his destructive sense of humor could be synthesized with his graceful visual sensibilities in a manner that would accentuate both. The linearity of King’s storyline (actually, the linearity of screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen’s version of the novel, which was told via a fussy collage of news articles, testimony, and Reader’s Digest memoirs) has the preordained momentum of Greek mythology; some of the shots of a blood-soaked Carrie standing above her peers at the fateful prom were lifted from the theatrical performance De Palma shot of Dionysus in ’69.
De Palma’s technique, however, reaches a new volatility here. Half Phantom of the Paradise, half Obsession, Carrie is hysterical in every sense of the word. Laurie has said that she took the film to be a satire, claiming it was difficult for her to film Margaret White’s perverse death scene—being pinned to a doorway by flying knives until she resembles the Christ-as-pincushion shrine Margaret keeps in Carrie’s punishment closet—without busting out in laughter. She later admitted to being disappointed that the film wasn’t inherently a comedy, not realizing it was. Maybe the humor isn’t always as broad as Mrs. White heaving and moaning in ecstasy as Carrie gives her the vaguely homo-incestuous gift of martyrdom, but it’s always there, and usually bittersweet.
The scene in which Carrie realizes she likes Tommy Ross (William Katt), for instance. De Palma begins by showing Carrie sitting in class with pencil eagerly poised to transcribe Tommy’s poem as their tweedy teacher reads it aloud to the class. The camera swirls around to show the entire class slacking, yawning, exchanging jocular smirks to indicate they know the poem’s true author was Tommy’s girlfriend, Sue (Amy Irving). Tommy ends up in severe close-up while a split diopter shot puts Carrie in the background behind Tommy’s impressive blond mane. “It’s beautiful,” she murmurs, her hair like bundled hay in front of her face. Even the teacher piles on, sensing the emotional vulnerability as an opportunity to attain camaraderie with his indifferent students. “You suck,” Tommy says, even more covertly than Carrie, before the teacher’s request for a repeat begets the response: “I said ’aw shucks.’” Tommy’s chiseled features melt into a triumphant cackle.
A perfectly realized scene in the midst of a hundred (many of which have little to do with the horror of mind-controlled fire and everything to do with the horror of teenage responsibility), Tommy’s social triumph under the wire stands in mockery of Carrie’s inability to do the same. And when Tommy silently demands “What’s that?!” in slow motion after the bucket tumbles down on Carrie, the fulfillment of that disparity comes to pass and the resulting inferno must be carried out.
Whether intimate or flamboyant, Carrie’s style is insistently sensual: Carrie running her finger along the definition of “telekinesis” in super close-up, Miss Collins’s gym class doing detention calisthenics to the accompaniment of a blaxploitation-esque “Baby Elephant Walk,” Carrie and Tommy swirling in rapture courtesy De Palma’s Tilt-O-Whirl cam, Pino Donaggio’s tempestuous chamber music leading up to the bucket drop, Carrie seeing red in kaleidoscope as her sanity burns. It’s as passionate, erotic, and clumsy as the descriptor “sensual” implies. Maybe because it’s the first De Palma film that it could be said belongs decisively to women. The would-be revealingly titled Sisters may seem a volley between Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, and an insane woman with her can of Lysol, but all three are tamed and controlled by Kidder’s effete creep husband. Carrie, on the other hand, is frighteningly feminine, a slap in the face of those charging De Palma with misogyny as fierce as the one Betty Buckley whales across Nancy Allen’s face.
This isn’t the first time Carrie has seen the 1080p resolution of Blu-ray, so you’d have to hope that for Shout! Factory to come out with a new special edition, it would be for more than just a quick cash-in on the 40-year reunion for Bates High School’s final graduating class. The results are, indeed, valedictory. Whereas a number of previous home-video releases made the film’s elements feel, much like the title character herself, hopelessly sublimated in raggedness, this release sticks to its guns and presents the grainy, hazy, primary color-splattered ’70s appeal fully preserved in all its dog-eared glory. No, Carrie will never be a homecoming queen in any A/V geek’s library, but this HD rescan of the original negative isn’t trying to be in the first place. It’s a faithful recreation of a compromised, heavily processed artifact. For a film edited within an inch of its life, that it even looks as good as it does is a triumph. The uncompressed sound comes in both surround and mono varieties, neither of which will peel the paint off your walls or Margaret White from her heathen neighbors’ doorsteps. But despite the crushing of Pino Donaggio’s Herrmann-esque efforts against occasionally shrill dialogue tracks, it’s a perfect complement to the visuals—all flaws faithfully rendered.
MGM’s 2001 special edition DVD and subsequent Blu-ray port had a formidable slate of extra features, and it’s a relief to report that they’ve all been more or less carried over, just as most of the bonus features from their Dressed to Kill discs made it to the Criterion Collection update. And similarly, Shout! upped the ante about as much as possible without including a commentary track from Brian De Palma himself. And sadly, unlike with Criterion’s efforts, De Palma’s recent interviews regarding Carrie didn’t make the cut here. His thoughts on the film as recorded in 2001 will have to suffice. On the other hand, Shout! kitchen sinked it on fresh new interview footage, adding another two hours’ worth of talking heads to the MGM featurettes’ already generous hour and a half. There’s a little bit of redundancy, especially from the film’s cast members. (Though if the tradeoff is finally hearing venerable sitcom standby Edie McClurg talk about her underrated mean girl Helen, so be it.) And some of the prolix participants could’ve benefitted from a little bit of pruning, sometimes more is more. Also included is a tatted metal dude wandering around the film’s locations today, making a little bit too much like Eric Andre’s "Ranch It Up" bro in Pacific Palisades.
For 40 years now, girls have been telling their real-life Carrie counterparts to plug it up. But at least we know now that Edie McClurg is contrite.