CARRIE ON SCREAMING
Coinciding with the new version of Carrie, released this month, based on Stephen King’s classic novel, Auteur Publishing has just brought out Devil’s Advocates: Carrie. The excellent book covers director Brian De Palma’s 1976 classic, which is certainly one of my favourite horror films. It provides a fascinating insight into Carrie, its background and the making of the film, along with an analysis and a personal appreciation from the author Neil Mitchell. Neil is a freelance writer and editor based in Brighton. He is the editor of The Big Picture magazine, the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Britain and the editor of the London and Melbourne editions of the World Film Locations series, all for Intellect Books. He has written, in print or online, for Total Film, Little White Lies, The Guardian and Electric Sheep.
I asked Neil for his thoughts on the original film and about the book, Devil’s Advocates: Carrie.
For you, what makes Carrie such a powerful film?
I think it’s the fact that nobody is left unscarred by what unfolds; they are either killed or, in Sue Snell’s case, left psychologically disturbed. That’s pretty unforgiving – young and old, intimately involved or a bystander, antagonistic or well meaning, they all pay a heavy price for the cruelty dished out to Carrie White.
In the introduction to your book you touch upon your overriding sense of sadness for the character’s isolation. It’s a key element of the film, which I totally understand. Carrie, played brilliantly by Sissy Spacek, is a character that we have a lot of sympathy for, isn’t she?
We do, it’s a canny trick De Palma and Spacek pulled off. In the novel, King makes her a lot less sympathetic. In the movie, however, most of us will either relate to or empathise with Carrie. We all have either been Carrie at some point or known a Carrie – male or female – the runt of the class, always the punchline, forever the outsider. If we’re honest, most of us will also have probably joined in with ridiculing those figures as well. Of course, the most complex part of our relating to or sympathising with Carrie is that she goes on to massacre everyone, leaving us repulsed by her as well.
Piper Laurie was, of course, Oscar-nominated for her performance as Carrie’s mum. She was a bitch, wasn’t she?
I’m not sure that’s the word I would use to describe Margaret White. I see her as being equally as lost and alienated as her daughter. Margaret means well, she’s just so damaged, so consumed by her religious fantaticism that she can’t see past it. She’s not ‘evil’; the novel and film are way subtler than that. Margaret’s wrong-headed, out-of-touch, over bearing and manipulative, but she’s clearly also a victim in the narrative – of her own upbringing and failed marriage.
How would you describe the director, Brian De Palma’s style, particularly for Carrie? Of course, he’s known for a split-screen technique, which was used rather effectively in this film.
It’s funny, I think the split-screen sequence in Carrie is effective too, De Palma, on the other hand, has since called it a ‘great mistake’, believing it takes the viewer out of what is happening. He’s a grandiose film-maker, very operatic. Slow motion, split-dioptre shots, canted angles, 360 degree camera movements – he draws attention to the film-making, but always in a way that complements the story in question. He really is a master of creating suspense and tension – visually and aurally – which he does so well in the prom sequence in Carrie. In fact, just about everything you would mark down as being anachronistic about De Palma’s directing style can be seen in that sequence.
What were the main differences between Stephen King’s novel and the film?
Aside from Carrie White being less sympathetic and physically different – in King’s work she is chubby and dark haired- the novel’s flashback structure was totally jettisoned for the film. Also the widespread destruction of the town that Carrie wreaks in the novel is absent in De Palma’s adaptation; budgetary constraints put pay to that. Faulty equipment saw scenes De Palma had shot of stones raining down on the White household – at the beginning and during the climax of the novel – dropped from the film… although you can see some stones coming through the ceiling when the White household is destroyed.
Describe the process of writing the book. Was it enjoyable and how much of a challenge was it, if at all?
It was hugely enjoyable, and a challenging too. I’ve edited a few film-books but this was my first solo authored project. Research is key, I spent a long time preparing – re-reading the novel, watching the film again, devouring everything I could find that had been written about both and De Palma’s career (there’s a lot), and then amalgamating that into what I personally thought about the film, about what it means to me. John Atkinson, the head honcho of Auteur Publishing, wanted the Devil’s Advocates series to be a mix of the personal and the academic – the format works well in my opinion. Some days I wrote for hours, sometimes I’d stare at the page blankly, I guess that happens to most writers. I’m itching to write another and have a few projects on the horizon.
What would you say is the film’s most shocking scene?
It’s a film full of shocking scenes – the ‘plug-it-up’ sequence at the beginning, the prom night massacre and the hand-out-of-the-grave scene at the end – but the one that always gets me is, in comparison, relatively tame, but I find it horrid. It’s when Margaret throws her tea into Carrie’s face, it’s so contemptuous, disrespectful and abrupt. It’s obviously symbolic too: Margaret is literally pouring scorn on her daughter’s desire to go to the prom and be ‘normal’ like the other kids. It’s the banal, pitiful reality of it, who’d want to live a life like that?
Would you say that Carrie has the acclaim and popularity that it deserves?
Well, it regularly appears in ‘best of’ horror lists, not so often in general ‘best of’ lists though. It’s a masterpiece in my eyes, regardless of whatever genre it’s classified under. Horror is still wrongly seen in some critical quarters as somehow less deserving of serious critical appreciation and De Palma has never been fully embraced into the bosom of Hollywood. There has been a lot of academic work written about the film and its director though, and it’s still widely read and watched. Carrie and De Palma’s body of work have longevity – that’s success.
Why do you think the seventies was a significant decade for horror films?
It was a combination of things – the end of the old Hollywood studio system meant that the young ‘New Hollywood’ directors and producers could take more risks on a film-making front. The studios also wanted to draw in youthful audiences (the ones with the disposable income). Films like Deep Throat had played in mainstream cinemas and more graphic horror movies from Europe had made their way across the pond as well. Add that to the turbulent social, cultural and political climate in the US, and that 70’s horror was dominated by US releases, the era was ripe for extreme, explicit movies. The death of the hippy dream, the Manson family murders, the war in Vietnam, Watergate – the US was a country in spiritual crisis in the 70’s (as it is now) – and film-makers voiced this with movies such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, The Last House on the Left and Carrie.
What are your expectations regarding the new version of Carrie?
I hope Kimberley Pierce gives us her take on King’s source material – not her version of De Palma’s take on it – that would be disastrous. She’s a good director and from what I’ve read it is much more a retake than a remake. I love De Palma’s movie but am intrigued to see what Pierce and her cast have created. Casting Julianne Moore as Margaret White is fantastic, though both she, and Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie, have some going to match Laurie and Spacek’s performances. I hope they keep the CGI to a minimum, I like my special effects old school.
Devil’s Advocates: Carrie is published by Auteur www.auteur.co.uk