Tag Archive: Stephen King

Carrie (1976): Grade: A+


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.



Available on Netflix Instant or iTunes Rental? The film is not available on Netflix Instant, but you can rent it on iTunes.

It’s a well known fact that Americans obsess over their cars. On any given summer day (especially in California where it does not rain in the summer), you will find at least one person on his driveway washing and waxing his beloved vehicle. In 1983, best-selling author Stephen King took this idea and wrote Christine, a novel about a 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury that is possessed by supernatural forces. I don’t count the book being among King’s best work, but its an entertaining read nonetheless. As is true with many of King’s novels, the book is written such that it’s practically intended to be adapted into a movie. Enter famed director John Carpenter. In 1982, Carpenter came out with The Thing, a now-classic sci-fi/horror film that was a big box office flop upon its initial theatrical release. Carpenter needed to bounce back with a hit and he was offered to take on Christine, which he did. Christine was also not a box office hit, but it was well liked by critics and like The Thing, Christine eventually turned into a cult hit that is now revered by film fans.

Set in 1978, Christine is about Arnie Cunningham (‘Cunt-ingham as the bullies like to call him), a high school nerd played by Keith Gordon (who also played the nerd in Back to School) who’s only friend seems to be his childhood buddy, Dennis (John Stockwell – ‘Cougar’ from Top Gun), a high school football jock. One day after school, Keith and Dennis spot a beat up 1958 red and white Plymouth Fury sitting in a dusty lot of a decrepit looking house. Despite his buddy’s advice to not buy the car, Keith immediately falls in love with the Plymouth and buys the clunker. Over the worry of his parents, Dennis and his new girlfriend, Leigh (Alexandra Paul – who played Stephanie Holden on Baywatch), Keith begins to obsess and spend all of his time with Christine (the car’s given name by its former, deceased owner), fixing her up and restoring her to her former glory. The more time Keith spends with his car, the more he changes as a person. At the same time, Christine becomes possessive of its owner and anyone who gets in her way is permanently taken care of.

Although not in the book, Christine opens over the song ‘Bad to the Bone’ with a cool sequence where we basically see Christine’s ‘birth’ on an automobile assembly line in Detroit in 1957. The story does not further elaborate on exactly why or how Christine is an evil possessed car, but it doesn’t need to and it is better that it did not. After all, the film’s premise has a certain level of tongue-in-cheek playfulness that it necessarily needs in order to work. Part of this requires that certain elements of the story, such as why Christine is evil, remain unexplained.

As I stated before, Christine is a twisted look at Americans’ obsessions with cars. The film is also about the time-tested notion that chicks love guys with cool cars. Before he bought Christine, Arnie was a high school nerd that no one except his friend Dennis paid attention to. Arnie’s fortunes change after he buys Christine. Suddenly he’s cool now and enough so to attract the hottest girl at school. This idea gets turned around when we soon discover that Arnie’s real girl isn’t Leigh, but Christine herself. In a strange way, this reminds me of the premise in Weird Science, in which the two high school nerds can’t get any girl to notice them so they create the perfect girlfriend on their computer in the form of Kelly LeBrock.

Christine is set in 1978, but the story has a 1950’s sensibility and innocence where you see guys asking girls to go dancing with them on a Friday night, girls fawn over the football jocks (Dennis) and cool guys (Arnie), couples go to a drive-in movie to make out, and where the bully (and even Arnie) looks like a 1950’s greaser. If you have read enough Stephen King novels like I have, you might surmise that Arnie represents Stephen King, who grew up in the 1950’s and he seems to really like cars from that era.

The Arnie Cunningham character was originally going to be played by Kevin Bacon. When Bacon decided to drop out of the role in favor of starring in Footloose, Keith Gordon (now a TV and film director) took over the role. Keith Gordon is one of cinema’s quintessential nerds just from his two performances in Christine and Back to School. That being said, although I’ve seen Christine a couple of times, I’m still not sure what to make of Gordon’s performance. Although its cool to watch the character transform from geek to 1950’s cool guy, I cannot make up my mind whether the quality of Gordon’s evil Arnie performance is deliberately hammy and over the top or whether Gordon is simply a bad actor. As one example, the car scene toward the film’s climax where Arnie and Dennis are riding in Christine and Arnie explains to Dennis how all the ‘shitters’ of the world are against him is laughably bad to the point of distraction.

Speaking of Arnie and Dennis, one of the strong points in Christine is how Arnie and Dennis’ friendship is portrayed. Although he is a popular football player, the story wisely refrains from painting Dennis as being a stereotypical high school jock who is surrounded by meathead friends and airhead girls. Despite their differing social status, Arnie and Dennis remain the best of friends and John Carpenter portrays this relationship in a believable manner that does not feel forced. Through their dialogue and body language, it is alluded that these two have been friends since childhood. A good example of this occurs early in the film where Dennis and Arnie are driving to their first day of school and Dennis tells Arnie that they will need to finally get Arnie laid. Based on the tone of the conversation, you can tell that Dennis does not say this to be mean, but he says it like he’s been aware of this issue for a very long time and its due time to resolve it.

photoChristine also features a wonderful cast of colorful characters. Of course, the star of the film is the car itself (its astounding that the production actually destroyed a couple of these classics for the film). However, Christine is also populated by memorable secondary characters that lend a deeper tapestry to the film. You first have Robert Blossoms, who plays George LeBay, the brother of the former owner of Christine and the one who sells the car to Arnie. There is also Robert Prosky (the old, white bearded TV producer in Mrs. Doubtfire), who plays Darnell, the garage owner who lets Arnie keep his car in his garage. There is also the woefully short performance given by the great Harry Dean Stanton, who plays the detective investigating the deaths of the bullies killed by Christine. Finally, we have the film’s villain, Buddy, who is played by William Ostrander. For years I used to think the actor playing Buddy was Peter Weller (the star of Robocop) until very recently when I discovered to my surprise that it was an actor I have never heard of. Buddy has a great presence in Christine that is very reminiscent of Biff from Back to the Future, but less comedic and more threatening. By the way, as an aside, doesn’t the chubby bully who gets crushed by Christine look and sound like the actor Jonah Hill?

Christine is also noteworthy for some of its technical achievements. For one, its always nice to hear John Carpenter’s film scores. A rarity for a director, Carpenter can not only write and direct, but he also composes music for his own films and he’s actually quite good at it. Like many of his films, Christine features a synthesizer sound that is especially played to great effect in the scenes where Christine hunts down the bullies. The film also contains some nice camera and lighting work by DP Don Morgan (Starman) (e.g. the drive-in scene when Christine attempts to choke Leigh). Finally, in an era where anything and everything is done with computer-generated effects, its absolutely amazing to see these older films that contain special effects that would most certain be done with computer effects today. In Christine, there are two such scenes. The first was where Christine fixes herself up after she’s almost destroyed by the bullies (the effect was done by simply reversing the camera). The second is when we see Christine completely engulfed in flames and chasing down Buddy.IMG_2946

So what did I not like about Christine? Aside from its sorta hokey premise, which you will either completely buy into or not, and Keith Gordon’s somewhat weak performance, the film mostly remains strong. My minor issues are with the script. First, the story does not do a good job explaining why Arnie falls in love with the car so fast. Did the car use its evil power to draw him to her or had Arnie seen the car previously and now he really wanted it? The film probably needed just one additional scene or even a few pieces of dialogue to cement Arnie’s immediate interest in the car. Second, we never see Arnie ask Leigh out. We suddenly find out he’s dating her when Dennis sees her on the football field. It felt like there was a scene missing where Arnie should have met Leigh and asked her out. Third, Arnie’s transformation from nerd to cool was too sudden. There needed to be some more transitional scenes to make the final transformation more plausible. Finally, the climax and the scenes leading up to it felt rushed. I do not fault the screenwriter or Carpenter necessarily because I know this is what was written in the novel. Also, the one major weakness in most of Stephen King’s novels are usually the end.

I enjoy Christine for what it is, which is a pulpy, sort of campy horror flick that remarkably holds up after all these years. I recently showed it to my brother, who had never seen it nor read the book and who has a pretty discerning taste in films. Even he liked it and that’s more of a testament to the film’s quality than anything I have written here.