Baptized in the Blood
directed by Brian de Palma
November 30, 2020
Carrie showed me something beyond its film facade: it showed me a thin line that divides love and fear. Now maybe this is old news, maybe it’s not even true to reality, but it’s a feeling that resonates deeply and sincerely. Love and fear … two neurotically charged emotions, each with the potential to lead to self-destruction. Of course in this story, self-destruction means destruction, plain and simple, with all the accompanying fiery spectacle one expects when watching a movie. Forget filmmaker – Brian De Palma is a true moviemaker; he embraces the junky, crude, surface-level connotations of that label and, as he did with Phantom of the Paradise, elevates them until they become an art-form in their own right. Love and fear … I can’t help but believe those are the two beating hearts of Carrie. She longs for love yet fears her own ineptitude. Based on the novel by Stephen King, the simplicity of the plot recalls the timelessness of fairy-tales; one might imagine stumbling upon Carrie’s road to perdition in a leather-bound copy of the Brothers Grimm, albeit in a slightly more historical setting than a 70s American high school. It is this guttural simplicity that makes the film a classic. Love and fear, fear and love … let us explore the dark depths of Carrie a little deeper.
We might argue that the set-up is just as important as the pay-off, if not more so. I’d like to propose that this entire movie is a build-up for one scene – more specifically, one moment. Before unpacking that crucial point, however, the preceding majority of the film deserves equal recognition. From the very opening shot there is an undercurrent of unease, even when nothing particularly disturbing is happening on-screen. Perhaps it is the way editor Paul Hirsch jumps straight from black into the bright mundanity of a girls’s volleyball game (along with the awareness from the movie’s poster that things aren’t going to remain so peachy) that catches the viewer off guard while simultaneously luring him/her in. Dollying in to a close-up of our lead who appears upon first glance just as uninteresting as her surroundings, Carrie White’s big introduction is a screw-up; she fails to hit the ball and gets scolded by her peers. Clearly this has happened before. Straight away we understand what will drive the rest of the plot; this is the story of a black swan in disguise, bullied by her more femininely empowered, stereotypical peers (and parent). The only two ways this story can end is in accepting one’s inner self, or revenge. As we will soon see, Carrie accomplishes both.
Smash cut to a squirm inducing opening credits sequence. Melodic strings play over foggy slo-mo footage of the volleyball girls showering, changing, play-fighting. De Palma has led us into the ladies’s locker room without our consent. The male gaze is undoubtedly at play here, pushing us to a series of fetishized shots of a naked Carrie, so tight on her skin we don’t know whether to turn away in embarrassment or absorb it like a sponge. Water and steam cascade down her leg; the music suggests isolated bliss. Then all the life-altering forces of reality come crashing down as the clear water turns a dull red. She lifts her hand, the music is replaced by the droning noise of the shower-head, and I feel just as shaken as Carrie. There is a clear emphasis on blood from the beginning, which is made all the more stark by the use of white – white walls, white underwear, white skin. Blood holds many powerful meanings; it denotes the pulsing elixir of life, the fragility of the body, the sacrificial key to salvation – each of which is played out over the course of the film. In this moment blood means natural maturity. It ought to be free from any extraneous implications as this is purely biological, but Carrie is unable to comprehend it. For her, and, thanks to De Palma’s intimate camera placement, for the audience, this is terrifying. Begging for help from the other girls prompts further humiliation. They stone her with tampons and towels, screeching “Plug it up! Plug it up!” At last, their own menstrual rage has found an outlet.
From here the rest of the plot is basically written in stone. The girls are reprimanded by Miss Collins, igniting two different reactions from Sue, a smartly compassionate Amy Irving, and Chris, the delightfully bitchy Nancy Allen (frequent collaborator and future (ex-)wife of De Palma’s). Sue feels guilty for her participation in the locker room incident (her face when Miss Collins rattles her shoulders is one of immediate regret), leading her down the path of active repentance by convincing her popular athlete boyfriend Tommy (William Katt with the most flamboyant set of blonde curls you’ve ever seen) to do the unthinkable: take Carrie White to the prom. Meanwhile Chris and her boyfriend, a young doltish John Travolta, scheme their own terrible antithesis of Sue’s act of good intention: shame Carrie White in the most morbid way possible. There is an air of dread over the entire movie. Cutting between Carrie’s home life (which will be discussed shortly), Tommy chasing her down partly against his will, and Chris executing her devilish plan makes for a rivetingly simple structure for a film. Add to this a few occasional glimpses of the supernatural – the same way some girls take to books to understand their changing bodies, Carrie seeks the answer to why objects have a habit of violently erupting in her proximity – and the movie takes on the impression of a ticking time bomb. Final destination: prom night.
A trademark of monster movies is a fear of the monster. Carrie complicates this particular trope by establishing its monster as the protagonist, our anchor of empathy. And here is where Sissy Spacek shines. She navigates this role with the utmost precision, morphing from helpless victim, to radiant princess, to shell-shocked executioner, and I believe her every step of the way. Most memorable are those wide eyes. Who can forget that green stare, projecting innocence and frailty, caution and desperation, betrayal and loss? Is it any wonder why Hirsch cuts from an extreme close-up of her eye to the catapulting fire-ball that was once Chris and Billy? The total lack of make-up or flattering wardrobe only heightens the joy we feel when she shows up to the dance, clad like a teenage Cinderella. Think of the scene when Miss Collins takes her to the bathroom mirror and speaks to her reflection. She literally points to all the potential beauty hidden behind that shy epidermal layer, lifting her hair, accentuating her cheekbones, applying an imaginary stroke of mascara. We the spectators long for this reawakening because we too can visualize it. But De Palma is always careful not to give the audience too much hope; the camera zooms into a close-up of Miss Collins’s face, and our spirits fall as her expression changes from optimistic to wary. Good things don’t just happen to unpopular schoolgirls.
The real tragedy of Carrie is the squashing of a sixteen year old girl’s right to feel loved. Everywhere she turns leads to pain. Not even the sheltered sanctuary of home can provide her the comfort she needs. A vulnerable soul like that needs the warm embrace of mother. One look at the White household and we know that was not an option for young Carrie. The production design by Jack Fisk and Bill Kenney captures what must have been a painfully lonely upbringing. The exterior is a desolate ramshackle island, the kind of house parents tell their kids to steer clear of. (Judging from the bicycle boy who weaves in and out of the trees taunting Carrie as she returns home from school, this was likely the case.) The interior is even more foreboding. Dark save for the ominous flickering of candles, dirty while being full of “clean” imagery, an Old Testament altar rather than a 20th century suburban residence. Two images in particular stand out: the dinner scene, when Carrie’s mother throws water into Carrie’s face, extinguishing the candles and casting The Last Supper into shadow; and that small statue of Christ, a supposed symbol of relief in the punishment zone, surrounded by cobwebs, pierced with arrows, eyes that glow an ugly yellow.
The religious element is, for me, the strongest point of personal relation to this film. Growing up in a house where the crucified Christ and the painfully affectionate figure of the Madonna rest on nearly every shelf and wall, this movie is not too far from reality. An important distinction to note is that, unlike Carrie, there is no fear associated with my Christian beliefs. I am not repressed, I am not forced to pray, I am not scolded through biblical prose. I am fortunate to have grown in a loving household, with parents who mean nothing but good will when offering moral guidance. At the same time I am not oblivious to the realities of the less fortunate. How close could I have come to feeling how Carrie feels, entrapped inside her own body, surrounded by iconographic reminders of her flawed nature as a young woman, as a human being? Christianity is a core part of who I am, but so is the way in which it was delivered to me. I remember being told to pray as a kid, to read my Bible every day, to thank God for all He’s done, and, yes, to ask for forgiveness after lying, insulting my brother, or whatever other petty things children do that constitutes as sin. And again, I must reiterate, it was done out of love – not fear. Growing older I am able to understand and appreciate the depths of my beliefs with a little more clarity; an opportunity Carrie was never afforded.
Piper Laurie’s performance as Margaret White is the final nail in her daughter’s coffin. Like Carrie, she too undergoes a transformation by the end of the movie, but we are aware from the very beginning that something horribly dark lives underneath that holy veneer. Unlike Carrie’s watery green eyes, Mama White has the blackest irises I’ve ever seen. The singsong depth of her voice recalls that of a radio preacher warning the masses to repent for Judgement Day; it never wanes, not even when her child pleads for help on bended knees. The moment that stuck with me most takes place in the attic, near the end of the film, when she breaks down into manic tears. Laurie doesn’t blink. Her face is plastered into a pearly white smile, cheeks and neck wet, the lighting sparse. Coming after the climax at the school dance (which has been saved for last), Missus White’s confession is all the more harrowing as she recounts the pleasure she felt surrendering to the filthy act which birthed her daughter. “I liked it,” she says; “I could smell the whiskey on his breath.” It comes as no surprise then that the same woman who locks Carrie in the cupboard, who scolds her for committing Eve’s sin, gently follows her through the house with an upraised knife, Psycho style. The black costume is replaced by an angelic white, further underscoring the demonic smile and deranged dance she does before being plunged to death by kitchen cutlery in an orgasmic relinquishing of the soul. And in his big reveal, De Palma relishes the slow dolly back from her resting expression of peace, framing her as the sacrificial lamb. Was Mama right all along? Was she only trying to protect her offspring from the horrors of the world? Was she not right in saying, “They’re all gonna laugh at you”?
Which leads us to the pay-off. From the moment Tommy pulls up to the “Dance Among the Stars” themed high-school ball, to the same exterior shot of the doors closing on a blazing building – I was mesmerized. Without a doubt my favourite sequence of any De Palma film. Carrie arrives in her hand-crafted pink dress (credit to Rosanna Norton, costume designer: a combination of pure white and evil red) to the amazement of all her classmates. We are unsure whether they are baffled by her newfound beauty or merely shocked at her appearance to a social gathering; not just any social gathering, but the most important social gathering a teenager can dream up in his/her Hollywood head. Having already established the impending sword of Damocles, a bucket of pig’s blood perched directly over centre-stage, De Palma employs Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” technique to transfix us to the screen. Transfixed I was. Sparkling glitter, strobing lights, a slow guitar – all reflected in the child-like disbelief of a girl who’s yet to have her first kiss. I felt drunk just watching her dance with Tommy, the camera low to the ground, circling the two of them in an awkward embrace, gradually picking up speed until the room becomes a blur and there is nothing left but a dizzying haze of ecstasy as their lips meet and all of mother’s warnings disintegrate to fairy dust. After Tommy convinces Carrie to vote for themselves as prom king and queen, a moment that rings like a death toll, we believe that they should win, only to see that the ballots have been rigged by Chris and her goons regardless.
The announcement is made, and time slows down. A haunting orchestral score cues onto the soundtrack as a radiant Carrie parts the student sea. Tears shine in her eyes. A spotlight beams onto her gleaming face. Her purest display of happiness is almost unbearably sad for the viewer. De Palma sadistically prolongs her walk to the stage, while simultaneously pulling back the curtain on Chris and Billy hiding beneath the stairs, and a giddy Sue here to see her good deed brought to fruition. Once positioned in front of an applauding audience, the sweeping music is replaced by a Jaws-like staccato. We watch helplessly as Sue comes to the slow realization of what’s really going on. The camera tracks along the rope leading from Chris’s hand to the bucket over Carrie’s head. Eye-lines cross every which way; Sue catching Chris, Miss Collins apprehending Sue, Tommy watching Sue get locked out of the gym, and Carrie emotionally thanking her peers. Just when the tension becomes intolerable, the rope is pulled and down comes the guillotine. De Palma plays the moment in dead silence save for the sloshing sound of the blood hitting Carrie’s body. It is this absence of music that makes the impact so deafening, so defeating. No one can bear to look away. Still without any sound, one of the other girls breaks into hysterical laughter, and all the pointing and screaming and humiliation from the opening comes rushing back to Carrie in a kaleidoscopic nightmare. Unblinking eyes show years of repressed emotion coming to such a palpable boiling point that it soaks the screen until the lights burst and the film takes on an angry red hue. She doesn’t move. With only a close-up of her darting glances we witness the blood-drenched, fiery massacre of her school. The sexual frustration from the locker room returns a hundred-fold. Gone is the innocent damsel in distress; Carrie moves through the chaos like a ghost, her pace slow and deliberate, flames building in her wake. It is absolutely surreal, yet believability is never strained, precisely because of the careful filmmaking – excuse me, moviemaking – that paved the way for this moment in cinematic history.
In dividing Carrie into set-up and pay-off, we fatalistically remove any hope for the young girl at its center. Perhaps there really was no question about love and fear – only the inevitable damnation of a doomed soul. But we moviegoers like to hope. We like to believe there is good in all of us, bullies and victims alike. All one must do is repent and —
Just … let me breathe for a moment … there was a hand, and it – it came out nowhere …
Never mind. I take it back.
Carrie White burns in hell.