The horror of coming-of-age in Brian De Palma’s Carrie

Adolescence is key to everything in this seminal Stephen King adaptation from 1974.

Words

Anton Bitel

“Red. I might have known it would be red.” So says Margaret White (note the colour-coded surname), a sexually-repressed religious zealot (played by Piper Laurie) under whose rigidly controlling single parentage teenaged Carrie (Sissy Spacek) has been brought up to shun all men besides Jesus. A (sometimes literally) closeted misfit, Carrie is subjected to ridicule and bullying by her more worldly peers at school, and to horrific self-mortification at home. But now, unexpectedly invited to the senior prom by Tommy Ross (William Katt), she is defying her mother’s will and trying on the dress that she has made for herself.

Desperate to find something concrete to criticise in all this, Margaret focuses absurdly on what she imagines is the sexually provocative colour of the dress – even if evidently, as Carrie insists, “It’s pink, mama.” Yet Carrie’s mother, for all her deluded hang-ups, is not totally misguided in her warnings to her daughter. She is right to suggest that, “They’re all gonna laugh at you,” and right – at least eventually – about the colour of that dress, which by film’s end is bathed not in the crimson fluids of her daughter’s defloration, but in the blood of a butchered pig.

Red has a funny way of infusing the scenes of Brian De Palma’s Carrie. It colours the font of the film’s opening titles (for all their lower-case discreetness). Margaret herself has a shock of ginger hair, perhaps as a signifier of the hidden sexual desire that she tries to deny in herself as well as her daughter. And of course there is the opening sequence. In it, Carrie showers in the school’s changing room after a volleyball game. Her purity is foregrounded by images of soap cleaning her pale young flesh. Yet here purity vies with sexualisation, as the camera first slyly cuts away to the decidedly phallic shower head spurting liquid all over her, and we then see Carrie’s soapy hands caressing her breasts and thighs, in recognisable softcore gestures of masturbation.

As an adolescent (and something of a late developer), Carrie is caught precisely between the poles of childish innocence and womanly experience – and as though to underline this, the scene climaxes (so to speak) with menarcheal blood gushing from between her thighs, as Carrie herself looks on in uncomprehending horror, much to the cruel amusement of the other, savvier schoolgirls.

Adolescence is not the only source of horror here, although it is key to everything. For along with Carrie’s menstruation there emerges another development in her, as terrifying as it is empowering: a telekinetic ability that first exhibits itself in the ‘changing’ room in response to the bullying mockery of her peers. As Carrie’s confusion and rage explode, so too does the lighting fixture on the ceiling – and this preternatural happening is accompanied by the screechy stabbing of violin strings on the soundtrack, instantly recognisable not only from Psycho, but more specifically from its shower scene.

The sound is hardly a coincidence as De Palma’s film, like Hitchcock’s, concerns its protagonist’s unravelling into a multiple murderer under the influence of a domineering mother. Here Carrie, the girl in the shower (and later stabbed after coming out of a bath), is figured all at once as victim and aggressor, lashing out indiscriminately at those who humiliate her, but also at anyone else who gets in the way. Carrie’s climactic empowerment is all at once the tragedy and triumph of a young woman trapped between Biblical regression and a secular coming-out.

Based on Stephen King’s first published novel, from 1974, and in fact the first cinematic adaptation of that well-read author, Carrie dramatises all manner of first times, as Carrie gets her period, falls in love, and is ultimately penetrated, killing – and maybe dy(e)ing – in deep, deep red.

Carrie is released by Arrow Video on Blu-ray in a 4K restoration from the original negative on 11 December 2017.

Published 11 Dec 2017

Tags: Brian De Palma Sissy Spacek Stephen King

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