Recommended Viewing Situation:
Surrounded by candles while breaking out from stereotypes.
Running Time: 98 mins.
Format: 35mm film.
Director: Brian de Palma.
Writer: Lawrence D. Cohen (screenplay), based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name.
Cinematographer: Mario Tosi.
Awards: Oscar Nomination: Sissy Spacek, Best Actress in a Leading Role (1977); Oscar Nomination: Piper Laurie, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (1977); Golden Globe Nomination: Piper Laurie, Best Actress in a Supporting Role (1977); and more.
Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, or so goes the cliché, which is, at first glance, the basis of Carrie (1976), based on the Stephen King novel of the same name. Sissy Spacek, perfectly cast as the film’s eponymous, ostensible villain, portrays her passage from innocent and terrified teen to woman, covered in blood and acting out her rage on everyone around her. Unlike the more popular jump-scare feature, common in more modern horror films, Carrie is a masterclass in tension building, taking the time and space to place each domino so that when it comes tumbling down at the end, it is all the more terrifying. However, this film is more than just a cautionary tale of the results of bullying. It also explores the results of extremism, particularly those damning restrictions produced and maintained by stereotypes of womanhood.
Women’s bodies inundate the film. De Palma saturates the film’s opening shots with images of womanhood in steamy soft focus. The school locker room is established as a scene of sexual objectification, using women’s breasts and hips as the compositional centre-point. This all functions as a counterpoint to Carrie’s first traumatic experience of the menarche; her panic is visceral as she smears the bloody evidence of her ignorance of this first tenet of womanhood across Miss Collins, the teacher who later becomes her mother figure, and is bullied ruthlessly by her peers. As it comes to a peak, Carrie also has her first experience with telekinesis and bursts a light above the shower. Terrified, Carrie’s mind literally bursts out from her body under this new sexualised expectation that will be culturally imprinted on her with the onset of her period.
Many of Carrie’s eruptions of telekinetic energy come when she is faced with restrictive stereotypes of womanhood. As her mother attempts to abuse her into religious purity, a mirror from which Jesus’ reflection stares out at Carrie shatters. Each major female character in the film is a metonym for culturally irreconcilable tropes of womanhood: Carrie’s mother as religious Madonna, her bully Chris Hargensen as the sexualised whore, her gym teacher as the mother. Carrie relates to each throughout the film, from acquiescing to her mother’s religious abuse and praying diligently, to enacting Miss. Collins’ mothering advice. Each role, however, does not present her with enough dimensions and she is continually bursting out of them through her telekinetic powers. As Carrie begins to create a niche for herself at the prom, she is violently reminded of the expectations of womanhood, doused in the blood of a sacrificial pig by Chris. It is a gruesome and violent portrayal of cultural gender policing, the aim of which is to destroy Carrie’s new-found personhood, and force her back into the shackles of partial subjectivity. It is then that Carrie learns to use her telekinetic powers, and, not incidentally, murders all the women who embody the most extreme stereotypes of womanhood.
This may not be the classic horror story of a scorned woman seeking revenge, but it is nonetheless a horror story: a cautionary tale of community destruction wrought by a society unable to conceive of womanhood outside of rigid tropes.