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The World Is Made of Fire November 14, 2009

Posted by monty in books, movies.
Tags: , , , , ,


Last night I began my foray into the (mostly) complete cinematic works of Stephen King.  Before I get to the actual review, I want to establish one relatively important ground rule: I’m not reviewing King’s books.  In many cases (including the one I’m writing about today), I haven’t read the actual work in at least 20 years.  So I won’t be talking about how the movie is faithful to the original text.  If it matters to you, I don’t really think faithfulness to the source material is particularly important anyway.  Books and movies are completely different mediums, and what works in one won’t always work in the other.  I know there are differences between book and film.  I don’t care.  Okay?  Then away we go.


It’s fitting that Brian de Palma is the director responsible for the first King adaptation.  Like all the movies based on King’s works, de Palma’s own films veer wildly from great (Scarface, Carlito’s Way) to trashy but entertaining (Dress to Kill, Body Double) to virtually unwatchable (Mission to Mars, The Black Dahlia).  De Palma’s filmography is all over the map, but it lacks the cohesion of quality possessed by Martin Scorsese, one of de Palma’s contemporaries in the group of great American filmmakers to emerge in the 1970’s.  Watching De Palma’s movies, I always feel like I’m watching someone who simply doesn’t have control of his technique. When one of his movies crashes and burns, it’s like watching the Hindenburg of cinematic flame-outs.  But he does, as I mentioned earlier, have his moments of brilliance, and Carrie (1976) is certainly one of them.

The fact that Carrie is able to overcome its opening is a minor miracle in and of itself.  The movie begins with a group of high school girls frolicking in the locker room in various states of undress, shot in gauzy slow motion, accompanied by a treacly musical score, and looking, for all intents and purposes, like a late-night Cinemax feature.  I completely understand what de Palma was going for here – establishing sort of a fanciful, bucolic atmosphere that would ultimately serve as a stark contrast to what was about to happen – but looking at it now is ridiculous and uncomfortably voyeuristic.  Maybe it worked in ’76 and didn’t seem like the mother of all feminine hygiene ads.

De Palma’s restless camera (de Palma’s camera, if you’ve never seen one of his movies, is always restless) moves through the locker room and slowly settles on Carrie White (played by Sissy Spacek), showering by herself apart from the other girls.  She lathers up and gives herself a good scrubbing, and as she rinses off, we’re treated – still in slow motion – to the sight of blood streaming down her legs.  This is, we learn, her first period, and she panics, rushing into the locker room.  The other girls ridicule her and force her back into the shower, pelting her with tampons and sanitary napkins until the kindly Miss Collins (a very good Betty Buckley) furiously breaks things up.  Oh, and did I mention that in the middle of all this a lightbulb mysteriously shatters?

The savagery of this scene, as I mentioned above, is the antidote to the sickly sweetness of the opening moments, and it effectively sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  If you don’t know the story, we learn that Carrie White has burgeoning telekinetic powers.  They first manifest themselves when she’s angry or frightened – hence the shattering lightbulb in this scene, and an overturned ashtray in a later confrontation in the principal’s office.  Carrie lives at home with her religious fundamentalist mother (played by a deliciously over-the-top Piper Laurie), who treats everything sexual as evidence of sin, and who frequently locks Carrie in a closet filled with religious icons, including a statue of Jesus that looks uncomfortably like comedian Russell Brand.

The plot accelerates when Miss Collins punishes all the girls who took part in Carrie’s hazing.  in this group is Sue (Amy Irving), who realizes what she did was wrong and feels immense guilt for it, and Chris (Nancy Allen), one of those imperious teenage bitches who metes out punishment to anyone she feels is inferior to her, without recourse to compassion or morality.  Sue wants to help Carrie acclimate to high school life, and talks her jock boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt, in a terrific performance), into asking Carrie to the prom.  Chris, on the other hand, only wants revenge for being punished by the gym teacher, and decides to enact it on prom night.

One of the first things to say about this movie is that the acting is all note-perfect.  Spacek inhabits the title role so well that it becomes inconceivable to imagine anyone else in it, and as I mentioned before, Piper Laurie is excellent as the mother who sees sin in every action her daughter takes.  Importantly, though, the key roles of Sue, Chris, and Tommy are all played sensitively and without affectation.  We clearly see Sue’s disgust at being caught up in the mob mentality of the locker room, and feel her acute need to atone for it.  Tommy is schnookered into asking Carrie to the prom by his girlfriend, and while he’s reluctant at first, it’s one of the movie’s small joys to watch him gradually grow fond of the shy, naive Carrie.  And Nancy Allen, as Chris, attacks the least sympathetic role in the movie with glee.  Without these actors in these specific roles, De Palma’s visual tics might have taken over.

And, as is the case with all of de Palma’s films, the visual tics are in abundant display.  Steadicam, smash cuts between scenes, quick edits within a scene, split screen work, and, in a nauseating sequence at the prom, a dizzying 360-degree camera move around Tommy and Carrie that starts slowly, picks up speed, and seems to last forever, even though it adds nothing to their conversation.  This is what I meant earlier when I talked about de Palma often seeming not to have control of his technique.  He frequently uses flashy stylistic devices that draw attention to themselves, even though they aren’t essential to the story being told.  It’s a show-offy move that seems designed more often to highlight the man behind the camera than the action in front of it.

For all of that, the movie gets by on the strength of the acting, and the parallel drawn by King’s story between Carrie’s developing sexuality and her growing telekinetic powers.  When prom explodes in an orgy of fire and destruction, the image of a vacant-eyed Carrie standing stock-still in the middle of it all is one of the most indelible in cinema history.  And then there’s the final shock that comes at the end of the movie – an audacious, laugh out loud trick that’s been copied by numerous films since.  Carrie is not just a high-water mark for adaptations of Stephen King’s work; it’s one of the great movies of the 1970’s.


Current listening:

Gravenhurst fires

Gravenhurst – Fires in Distant Buildings



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