Tag Archive: Sissy Spacek


Carrie (1976): Grade: A+

Carrie-1976-Movie-Poster

Is this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime? Carrie is available for rent via Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Lawrence D. Cohen

Starring: Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, Sydney Lassick

“They’re all going to laugh at you.”

The 1970’s is considered to be one of cinema’s golden ages and, according to film purists, the last decade where art dominated the business end of movie-making. Unlike today, the 70’s marked a time when studio executives respected and trusted the filmmaker’s vision to guide the final product that audiences would see. The decade also witnessed the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers that was film school-educated, counterculture-bred, and young. They were dubbed the New Hollywood and some of the most prominent names in film history belonged to this class: Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, Sam Peckinpah, Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, the director of Carrie.

Carrie marked a first in a couple of ways. For one, the film was an adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel (published in 1974), which is still considered among his very best, even by the author himself. The film also marked Brian De Palma’s first big commercial success after he made a series of respected Hitchcock-influenced films (Obsession, Sisters). The unexpected success of Carrie further spawned an endless cascade of Stephen King adaptations to the screen (Tobe Hooper’s Salem’s Lot, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, John Carpenter’s Christine, and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me and Misery). Film adaptations of King’s novels continue to this day as we are about to endure Kimberly Pierce’s needless and recent remake of Carrie.

Carrie is Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a lonely high school adolescent who endures daily ridicule and cruelty at the hands of her high school classmates. However, Carrie is special – she possesses powerful telekinetic powers. Unfortunately, her power is viewed as a sign of the devil by her crazy, religious nut of a mother (Piper Laurie), who makes Carrie sit in a closet for hours praying for forgiveness for her sins. After one particularly horrible incident, Carrie’s tormentors are placed under suspension by their P.E. teacher (and Carrie’s protector), Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). One of the girls, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), feels horrible about what she did to Carrie so she convinces her boyfriend, the popular Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom instead of her. However, another one of the girls, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), is pissed that she has been suspended because of Carrie so she, along with her nimwit boyfriend (John Travolta), plots revenge against Carrie on the night of the prom.

Stephen King’s novel was perfectly matched with Brian De Palma’s bold visual sense. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert wrote of De Palma: “De Palma’s Carrie is an absolutely spellbinding horror movie, with a shock at the end that’s the best thing along those lines since the shark leaped aboard in Jaws. It’s also (and this is what makes it so good) an observant human portrait. This girl Carrie isn’t another stereotyped product of the horror production line; she’s a shy, pretty, and complicated high school senior who’s a lot like kids we once knew.” Carrie opens with what is undoubtedly one of the most memorable and horrific openings in a film – the girl’s locker room scene. The scene is gorgeously shot (see picture below) as steam from the showers softens the image on screen, giving the whole sequence a sexual fantasy feel. The serenity contained in these scenes is wonderfully complemented by Pino Donaggio’s romantic music score. As we pan across the locker room and watch the camaraderie between the young women, the camera finally settles on Carrie, all by herself in the shower, relaxed and at complete peace. That is, until De Palma pulls his well-known bait-and-switch and transforms his scene from one that is full of sexual innocence into one of pure horror. Carrie starts to bleed from her period and, not knowing what is happening to her, she begs and pleads her classmates to help her. However, Carrie is only greeted with ridicule and scorn as her classmates laugh and throw tampons at her.

This opening perfectly sets the tone of the entire movie. Although since Carrie’s release, realistic portrayals of high school and adolescence have become commonplace in movies, Carrie was the first film to portray high school like it really is: a less violent, but no less competitive, harsh, and cruel version of Lord of the Flies. Carrie White is the weak link in this society, and like animals with a sixth sense, the other, stronger kids can sense it and prey upon Carrie. The teachers are generally oblivious to the dynamics of this adolescent society. Even Miss Collins, the P.E. teacher, doesn’t understand that despite all of her good intentions to help and protect Carrie from the bullies, Carrie has been permanently marked an outcast by her peers and Miss Collins’ protection actually hurts more than helps Carrie (by placing Chris Hargensen on detention, Miss Collins’ motivates Chris to eventually dump the pig’s blood on Carrie at the prom).

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Sissy Spacek embodies Carrie White so fully and perfectly, that even with Spacek’s impressive filmography, I still cannot watch Sissy Spacek and not think of her as Carrie White. This role will forever remain Spacek’s defining role (perhaps tied with her Oscar-winning performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter). It is a testament to Spacek’s talents that she was able to effectively portray Carrie as a sweet, innocent, and very sympathetic young woman and at the same time show her to be a rage-filled woman with a frightening supernatural force she uses to kill every person, friend and foe, who has been involved in her life. Carrie does not fall within the category of one-dimensional, evil creations such as Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger. Thanks in no small part to Stephen King’s gifted ability to create characters that are so alive that you must think they exist in real life, Carrie White is a complex, fully developed character. Because of this, Carrie transcends the typical tropes of the horror genre to the point that to categorize Carrie as a horror film would be to undermine those qualities that makes this film such a classic.

Equaling Sissy Spacek’s performance in this film is Piper Laurie, who plays Margaret White, Carrie’s unhinged, religious fundamentalist mother (by the way, both actresses were nominated for Academy Awards for their performances). Although Carrie White officially fills the role that Michael Myers, Jason, and Freddy Kreuger play in their movies, Margaret White more appropriately represents these singularly evil personas than Carrie does. Margaret views the world (and her daughter) as one giant test from God that continually throws new temptations at her and Carrie to test their faith. No amount of reasoning can shake her beliefs, especially her belief that her daughter is a spawn of the devil. Given how the film was released only a few years after the counterculture movement of the 1960’s, with its attendant hippie communes that gave rise to religious cults, Stephen King and Brian De Palma seem to have taken the folksy, sandal wearing-guitar playing 60’s variant of Christianity and combined it with gothic, Puritanical sensibilities to create Margaret White.

The remaining cast of characters in Carrie pull in solid performances and nicely capture Stephen King’s sensibilities. Nancy Allen’s (Robocop’s female partner) Chris Hargensen is Carrie’s other antagonist, but one that could not be more apart in values from Carrie’s mom than Chris is. Chris reminds me of a mean and less sophisticated version of Lolita. Like Margaret White, Chris is singularly focused on one thing, but rather than religion, she is obsessed with exacting revenge on Carrie. John Travolta has a small part in this movie and he basically plays Chris’ dumb hillbilly boyfriend who goes along with whatever she wants so long as he gets a blowjob at the end of the day. Amy Irving also doesn’t get to do much here, but apparently it was enough to land her a date with Steven Spielberg (she was supposed to have been cast as Marion Ravenwood in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but she lost the role after breaking up with Spielberg), who she later married and then divorced.

The most substantive and important supporting role belongs to William Katt (Greatest American Hero TV series, House), who plays Tommy, the most popular guy at school, and the one who takes Carrie to the prom. Sporting the blond perm, Katt looked like the quintessential 1970’s high school heartthrob. Katt’s only job in this movie is to be as cool and likeable as possible in order to set up the horrific nature of Carrie’s final act at the end of the movie. A lingering question remains after the film as to whether or not Tommy genuinely liked Carrie. There is an indication that he does during the prom, but the film never clears up what Tommy really thinks of Carrie. Had he lived, would he have pursued Carrie White, or would he have returned to his real girlfriend?

Speaking of the final act in Carrie, I never believed that any modern remake of the movie would allow Carrie White to kill every person at the prom, especially Miss Collins and Tommy. Sure enough, although I have not seen the recent remake, I know that Miss Collins (or Miss Deskardin in the remake) escapes along with some other students. That is a real shame because it takes away from the horrific nature of Carrie’s action. What makes this final scene so haunting is not the fact that Carrie goes absolute apeshit on the whole prom and burns it to the ground, but that she indiscriminately kills even those who were trying to help her, like Tommy and Miss Collins.

Brian De Palma is well known among cinephiles for his slavish devotion to Alfred Hitchcock. His films, especially his early ones from the 1970’s and 80’s, shared similar themes to Hitckcock’s films (Obsession, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out) and he paid generous homage to the master of suspense in many of his movies. In Carrie, Margaret White chases her daughter with a big ass knife that is reminiscent of Psycho. More tribute is paid to Psycho at the beginning of the Carrie, when we see the titular character in the shower, and we see that Carrie’s high school is named Bates High School, after the motel in Psycho. Carrie also features what has become Brian De Palma’s signature technique: the split screen (see picture below).

1976 Carrie Brian De Palma

Carrie gives a huge middle finger to a society that ultimately does not accept her despite every effort that Carrie White makes to fit in. Rather than end the story on a hopeful note in which Carrie perhaps finds love or new friends, she gets fed up and decides to burn it all to hell. This is what makes Carrie so memorable, haunting, and easily one of the best film adaptations of a Stephen King novel.

The problem with a race feminist story is that you’re dealing with two complex issues (feminism and race) that either alone can easily take up the entire 2 hours of a movie. The problem with a white person attempting to tell a story about race is that you’re not likely to see a complete or altogether accurate picture of an African-American perspective. The problem with adapting a 544-page book that contains numerous subplots and characters into a movie is that the film risks feeling episodic and won’t (or can’t) do justice to the many facets of the book. The film adaptation of THE HELP, which is based on Kathryn Stockett’s national bestselling novel, suffers from all of these problems and much like the HARRY POTTER films, true enjoyment of the film can only come if you read the book first. However, I also don’t regard THE HELP as a failure. Despite its flaws, I enjoyed the film very much and it served as a nice respite from all the loud, brainless, action movies of the summer.

THE HELP is set in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s. The story is essentially about Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has just graduated from college and she aspires to be a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper writing a Miss Manners-type column, but what she really wants to do is write a book about the racial inequalities suffered by African-American maids who work for Southern white households. Although Skeeter was raised in a household that hired a maid and she grew up within Jackson’s upper-class, white society, she doesn’t share the same views that her other lady friends do. For her book project, Skeeter contacts Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis), a middle-aged African-American maid who has spent her life raising white children while she lost her own in an accident. Skeeter convinces Aibileen to set aside her reservations about working with Skeeter and to recount her experiences being a maid. Aibileen soon recruits other maids to tell their stories, including her best friend, Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer).

The main story of THE HELP revolves around Skeeter and her collaboration with Aibileen and Minny to write her book. However, the film contains many subplots revolving around Aibileen, Minny, and other maids as well as some of the other Southern white society women. Every character we meet seems to have their own story and the film attempts to give adequate coverage to all of them. The rule of thumb for screenplays is that you have one main story that serves as the film’s narrative spine. Given that a film’s running time typically clocks in around 2 hours, you don’t have much time to establish and develop your main story. A successful screenplay will also usually have no more than a few subplots that support the main story, develop the film’s themes, and generally add more dimension to the plot and characters. The book version of THE HELP clearly didn’t concern itself with the possibility of one day becoming a movie because its chock full of characters, each of whom has their own story to tell. In addition to Skeeter’s, Aibileen, and Minny’s stories, you also have Celia Foote’s (Jessica Chastain) story, Elizabeth Leefolt’s (Ahna O’Reilly), and Skeeter’s mother’s story (Allison Janney) among other smaller subplots. The film’s running time is over 2 hours and that’s undoubtedly because it tries very hard to allow sufficient screen time to tell all the stories that need to be told. With very careful listening (and not taking any bathroom breaks), I was able to mostly keep up with the film’s breakneck pace in going through the different plotlines. At times I felt like I was getting a crash course preview of what the book was about rather than getting a film that stands on its own and that doesn’t make you feel like you need to read the book.

Like I said before, one of the film’s biggest problems is its attempt to handle both the racism and feminism themes. This isn’t a problem in a book because the author can write for as long as he/she needs to in order to get their point across. For a film, however, such comprehensive themes can prove an unwieldy task for any seasoned director or screenwriter. What ends up happening, as it does in THE HELP, is that neither theme receives the exploration that it deserves and we’re left with a watered down, cursory examination of what the book more fully covers (and which is partly why the film feels like a Cliff Notes version of the novel). What’s more, by shortchanging these themes, the film comes off as either not caring about the social issues the story presents or not properly understanding them. I think this is what partly underlies the controversy in the African-American community about how the book deals with the racial element of the story (that and the fact that a white woman wrote the book). For example, I wish we saw more of the racial tension between the maids and their white employers, especially that of Aibileen and her employer, which I don’t think was given enough attention. I would have also liked to have seen more of the story between Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her maid before the maid was sent to jail for stealing. As for the feminist theme, I think much of how the community viewed Skeeter’s single status and her choice to be a professional working woman was implied. That and her relationship with her mother and especially her old maid, Constantine (Cicely Tyson) received so little attention that by the time we get to Constantine’s resolution, there wasn’t sufficient buildup to generate the intended emotional response from the audience.

THE HELP is already receiving Oscar buzz and if there is anything in this film that deserves recognition during awards season, it is the performances given by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer (there’s a great scene involving Spencer where she explains the benefits of Crisco). Both deliver beautiful and moving performances, especially Davis. The film is also full of engaging performances from Emma Stone, who continues to impress me this summer after her star turn in CRAZY, STUPID, LOVE, and Bryce Dallas Howard, Jessica Chastain, Sissy Spacek, and Cicely Tyson. Bryce Dallas Howard’s ultra-bitch turn will forever be burned in the minds of many moviegoers. I was impressed with Jessica Chastain’s sorta-dumb blond, naïve, but heart of gold character. She reminded me a bit of Laura Dern and Melanie Griffith.

Finally, THE HELP is a gorgeous looking film. It beautifully evokes the South during the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in nostalgic, warm colors and magic hour lighting. The film managed to transport me to that time period and it never once gave itself away by slipping into a modern convention and taking me out of the time period. Hopefully, the wonderful work done by DP Stephen Goldblatt will also be recognized during awards season.

THE HELP is certainly going to appeal to fans of the book and for those who are into the types of books Oprah Winfrey likes to recommend to her female audience. I don’t mean to downplay the strengths of the story, but THE HELP is aimed to a particularly older, female audience and they’re more likely to enjoy this film than men are. If you’re looking for an intellectual analysis of the racism experienced by African-American maids who worked for rich, white, Southern households, this isn’t that movie. This movie feels more like the product of some privileged, white, country club woman who momentarily felt strongly about the plight of African-Americans and began to remember her grand ol’ black nanny who raised her so she decided to write a story about it.