Although Carrie single-handedly established the careers of writer Stephen King and director Brian De Palma, the two seemed to go in different directions after that, at least in regard to their career trajectories. For King, Carrie was just the start, as he quickly became one of the world’s most popular novelists. He still enjoys that distinction more than a quarter of a century after the story started him on the road to riches.
As for De Palma, Carrie made him a prominent director, but his path has been much rockier since then. After the success of Carrie, he settled into a pattern of duds and moderate hits. Actually, even when De Palma produces a popular film, it still seems like a disappointment; flicks like The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible and Scarface reached significant audiences, but they felt like they fell short of vast popularity.
I’ve long thought that De Palma and John Carpenter were leading parallel careers. Both hit it big in the Seventies with influential horror movies - Carpenter released Halloween in 1978 - and to a certain degree, both have coasted on that early success ever since that time. I admit this comparison is somewhat unfair to De Palma, as Carpenter’s maintained a much iffier track record; I couldn’t name that last movie of his that didn’t stiff. Still, while others of their generation - Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas - went on to huge successes, those two remained mired in second-tier material.
Ironically, though I feel Carpenter established the lesser career of the two, I prefer his breakthrough feature. Halloween seems like a more satisfying and coherent piece than Carrie, and I also think it became the more influential film of the two; Halloween essentially set the slasher formula that’s still copied in flicks like 2001’s Valentine.
Not that Carrie was a slacker either. While I don’t believe it merits the stellar reputation it currently boasts, I did feel that Carrie offered a reasonably winning and compelling experience.
At the start of the film, we meet Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a lonely high school student with no friends and a reputation as an awkward and creepy loser. While showering after gym class, she gets her first period and freaks; her spooky ultra-religious mother (Piper Laurie) never told her about “the curse”, and Carrie loses it in front of her peers. They react less than sympathetically as they toss towels and tampons at her.
Miss Collins, the gym teacher, breaks up this ordeal and punishes the other girls with 10 days detention. When snotty Chris (Nancy Allen) refuses to go, she learns that she must attend or she can’t go to the prom. This initially gets Chris to the rough session, but she ultimately rebels and loses her prom privileges. Chris blames Carrie for her problems, and she plots revenge.
In the meantime, Sue (Amy Irving), apparently Carrie’s only classmate with a conscience, rues her teasing actions, and she attempts to make it up to Carrie. Sue forces her studly boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom. Reluctantly, he agrees to do so, and after additional prompting, Carrie agrees.
All seems well until Chris’ plan goes into effect. She rigged the election for the prom king and queen to ensure that Tommy and Carrie would win. Once on the bandstand, Chris will humiliate them with the assistance of her dopey boyfriend Billy (John Travolta). However, this results in some actions that could not have been predicted. I feel I’ve already said too much for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie, but suffice it to say that significant problems ensue.
Part of the problem with Carrie - as with many of De Palma’s films - is that it wears its influences too heavily on its sleeve. De Palma’s always had a serious Hitchcock fetish, and the master’s voice permeates Carrie. Not only does the score strongly echo Bernard Herrmann’s famous work for Psycho, but they named the high school “Bates”, for crying out loud!
Admittedly, De Palma clearly did this in a wink-and-a-nudge manner, as Carrie walks the thin line between straight horror film and campy parody. Actually, it usually veers into the latter territory, though it doesn’t do so with enormous abandon. Carrie can be viewed in a fairly concrete manner, but it usually appears obvious that De Palma went for a grander, almost satirical tone. The movie’s not played for laughs, but it creates a broadness that occasionally goes beyond the realm of pure horror.
While that’s part of the film’s charm, I don’t know if it always works. The almost operatic intensity of the relationship between Carrie and her mother is effective, but the overamped emotions of the rest of the crew can become a bit much at times. Everyone seems to be so high-strung and intense that it gets carried away to a degree.
Still, I have to love a movie that virtually begins with a loving journey through a girls’ locker room, and I admire De Palma’s stylistic creativity. Carrie’s filled with fine visual imagery, and even when the attempts aren’t particularly successful - such as the split screen during the climax - the techniques seem interesting.
That climax deserves special recognition, for it really is the best part of the film. Although it barely goes beyond straight carnage, De Palma builds it in a very effective manner, and while it doesn’t quite seem terrifying, it still gets the old heart pumping. Spacek seems over the top at that time - it’s the only aspect of an otherwise fairly nuanced performance that appears weak to me - but it still works quite well.
As a whole, I must admit that Carrie provides a fairly entertaining and creepy experience. It doesn’t enthrall me to the degree that some may feel it should, but despite some exceedingly dated styles and techniques, it holds up well after a quarter of a century.
Marketing pet peeve: the packaging for Carrie heavily touts the involvement of Travolta. He receives second billing, whereas the movie includes at least seven roles that are more substantial than his. Surprisingly, this emphasis actually reflects the original advertising; by the time of Carrie’s theatrical release, Travolta’d already achieved some prominence due to Welcome Back, Kotter, so the studio clearly tried to capitalize on that. It still bugs me, though!
Possibly the oddest bit player in Carrie is Edie McClurg. Best known for frumpy Midwest women seen in films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, she seemed to have been born middle-aged; it’s bizarre to see her play a teenager. Of course, not a single cast member of Carrie was younger than 22, and at 27, Spacek was actually two years older than McClurg. Even though she played their teacher, Buckley was only two years senior to Spacek, the oldest “student” in the school.
Carrie appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture showed its age at times, as a whole it seemed fairly satisfying within those limitations.
Many of the concerns I saw appeared during the first half or so of Carrie; I noticed that the image definitely improved as it progressed. Throughout the movie, though, sharpness seemed to be quite strong. The picture always appeared nicely crisp and detailed, and I saw very few soft or fuzzy images. Moiré effects and jagged edges presented no concerns, and I also detected no signs of edge enhancement.
Print flaws caused some of the DVD’s biggest issues. At various points of the film, I saw examples of grain, grit, speckles, hairs, scratches, blotches, running vertical lines and general debris. While that may be a long roster of defects, note that they don’t appear constantly, and as I mentioned, the picture became cleaner as the movie progressed. The film could have looked much fresher, but despite the many different kinds of flaws, they didn’t overwhelm the presentation.
Colors also varied, and they could come across as somewhat bland at times. However, for the most part the hues looked fairly distinct and accurate, and during the prom sequence, the tones appeared rather vivid and brilliant. Some red lighting caused a few problems, but overall I felt pleased with the character of the colors. Black levels were fair to slightly muddled, while shadow detail looked slightly thick at times. Both concerns didn’t seem great, but they could have been better. Ultimately, Carrie was hamstrung by its age and its low budget; when those factors were taken into consideration, I thought the image looked quite good, but in a fairly objective vein, it merited a “C+”.
Somewhat stronger was the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Carrie. This mix came from the original monaural recording, which also appears on the DVD. Despite its single channel origins, the soundfield presented a nicely broad and engaging affair. Music functioned quite well, as the forward speakers showed good stereo separation, and the surrounds added useful reinforcement of the score. Effects largely stuck with general ambience, though they created a reasonably involving forward environment. Those elements popped to life well during a few segments, however; for example, when Carrie freaked out toward the end of the film, voices arose from all around the room, and that contributed to the scene’s effectiveness.
Audio quality seemed to be somewhat dated in general, but it still appeared positive for its age. Dialogue sounded slightly edgy and stiff, but most speech was distinct and reasonably crisp, and I detected no concerns related to intelligibility. Effects also showed somewhat thin and flat tones, and they lacked much depth. Nonetheless, those elements came across as acceptably realistic, and they displayed no distortion or other flaws. At times, I did hear hiss and/or a background hum, however.
Based on those elements, Carrie should not have earned a “B”, but the music worked so well that I felt it merited that high a grade. The score sounded really fine through much of the movie, as it appeared nicely bright and dynamic. Not only did the music spread well across the channels, but also the fidelity seemed to be positive, and it presented a rich and full experience. Ultimately, Carrie didn’t provide a stellar auditory experience, but it still worked well for the material and for its era.
The original 1998 DVD release of Carrie skimped on extras, but this new special edition nicely rectified that situation. Of prime importance are two documentaries, both of which follow a similar format. Acting Carrie concentrates on the film’s performers. The 42-minute and 35-second program features film clips, stills from the set, and new interviews with director Brian De Palma, art director Jack Fisk, and actors Sissy Spacek, Nancy Allen, Amy Irving, Piper Laurie, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles, William Katt, and Priscilla Pointer. Visualizing Carrie worked along the same lines as the 41-minute and 30-second show examined the movie’s more technical side, and it offered new interviews with De Palma, Fisk, editor Paul Hirsch, and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen.
Between the two programs, we get an excellent look at the overall production. “Acting” describes the manner in which the actors got their roles, and it consists of quite a few solid anecdotes from the set. These are both entertaining and informative, and they shed a lot of light on the production. Despite the technical edge, I thought “Visualizing” is even more compelling. It neatly covers the movie’s genesis and its execution, and it relates a lot of useful and interesting facts from the set. Separately, each program adds a lot of solid notes about Carrie, but together they provide a fairly comprehensive examination of the film. My only complaint stems from the lack of new interview footage from John Travolta, but I won’t fault the DVD’s producers for that; I’m sure that they tried to get him for the project but were unable to do so.
Next we find Carrie the Musical, a six-minute and 20-second featurette that discusses the ill-fated stage adaptation of the story. The program consists solely of interviews with screenwriter Cohen, who apparently pushed the production, and Buckley, who played Carrie’s mother on stage. They relate some interesting notes about the musical, but ultimately I think this featurette is unsatisfying for a number of reasons. For one, Cohen and Buckley make it sound as though the show was a triumph, but it quickly departed theaters; Cohen blames some money concerns, but if it really was a hit, why would it encounter such severe opposition?
I find it very odd that the featurette includes no footage from the production. Not only do we see nothing and hear no songs, but also we don’t even get to look at some stills; there’s literally no material from the show. I suppose some rights questions may have interfered with this, but I think it seems virtually unbelievable that they couldn’t even get some photos! Anyway, it’s interesting to learn a little about the bizarre spin-off from the movie, but I think this was a disappointing examination of the topic.
Much better is the text piece called Stephen King and the Evolution of Carrie. This area breaks down into three subdomains: “Stephen King and the Writing of Carrie”; “From Novel to Script”; and “Book and Film Comparison”. All three add some useful details, but the first is easily the most compelling. It covers a lot of fine information about King’s early career and his inspirations for Carrie. Overall, these pieces seem quite compelling.
The Animated Photo Gallery provides a running montage of images. During this six-minute piece, we see mostly publicity shots and movie stills, but we also get some photos from the set and a few advertising materials. It’s a decent little package, though nothing special.
Finally, we discover a Collectible Booklet with some fairly good production notes about Carrie; many of these seem redundant after the documentaries, but there’s a few new comments as well. The film’s theatrical trailer also appears. It’s notable for two reasons. One, we hear the original “creepy Carrie!” line from the kid on the bicycle; this is looped - by Betty Buckley, of all people - in the final film. In addition, I recommend you skip this trailer until you’ve seen the movie; it gives away far too much of the story.
While I’m not sure Carrie deserves its prominence, I did think it offered a very entertaining horror flick. The movie flirted with excessive campiness at times, but it usually balanced those elements to a satisfactory degree, and it provided a nicely compelling experience. The DVD featured decent but unspectacular picture and sound plus a solid roster of extras. Fans of Carrie should be pleased with this package; the image could look cleaner, but it still appears to be the best representation of the movie yet seen, and the terrific supplements combined with the surprisingly low list price of $19.98 make the set a winner.