Fright Nights - Revisiting CARRIE

Tony Fyler goes to the prom.

My name is Tony, and I…I…
I have a problem with Stephen King.

There – I’ve said it. It’s been building up inside for years now, and I fully expect to feel better about both it and myself in due course.

I’d like to tell you I don’t know why I have a problem with Stephen King, but that would be dishonest. I’ve tried to like Stephen King, really I have. Clearly, it’s wrong not to like Stephen King, because he’s monumentally successful, which means the verdict of the human race is in, and I’m on the wrong side of it. What’s more, I have no problem with Stephen King the man. I’ve been in the same room as him, and a wittier, more sensible raconteur you could not wish to find. The point is I can’t read Stephen King’s books. I’ve tried The Shining; I’ve tried Christine; I’ve tried Firestarter and The Tommyknockers and even It, which a friend confidently told me would scare the willies out of me. I got about forty pages in before the writing annoyed me so much I threw it across the room – where, being the size of an 80s mobile phone, it took a chunk out of the wall.

Why am I wittering on like this? Really just to make the point that I am not a hopeless, doe-eyed Stephen King fan.

But then there’s Carrie.

Carrie is the only Stephen King book I’ve ever managed to finish. Carrie the original movie was the first video tape I ever bought with my own money. And it is with my Not-A-Stephen-King-Fan hat on that I tell you that Carrie is a practically perfect horror movie.

The first two scenes manage to do in a high-school girls’ changing room what it took Lord of the Flies most of a movie to achieve: the stripping away of civilisation in youth, the unveiling of an animalistic savagery in a herd of humans towards any one of their number that shows a chink in her armour, as Carrie first reveals her lack of athletic prowess and is victimised by the traditionally pretty Chris, then begins her first period while the other girls hoot and laugh and throw things at her, revelling in and laughing at her cluelessness about her body. It’s shocking to rewatch even today, as the shower room scene is filmed initially in slow motion and with accompanying sweet flute music, almost like soft-core porn, as though it’s going to be a sweet story of a young girl’s sexual awakening - until the arrival of the blood shatters the illusion, and Carrie’s composure, and the fragile peace between her and the other girls. Instantly the high school environment becomes visceral and cruel. They literally scent blood, and go in for the kill.

This is the story of Carrie in a nutshell – the needless victimisation of the non-conformist, and the consequences, beginning and ending in blood. Carrie, played by Sissy Spacek, has a fragility that makes her a born victim, a natural prey animal to the packs of girls who need to persecute the non-conformist to feel righteous in their superiority. But as it turns out, Carrie is a prey animal with claws.

Terrorised by her borderline insane religiously zealous mother (King predicting the rise of the Westboro Baptist Chapel there…), Carrie is torn between the beliefs of the spirit and the realities of the flesh inasmuch as they impinge on her day to day life as an American teenaged girl. But when Carrie gets angry or stressed…things happen. The shower scene only ends with the popping of a lightbulb, which everyone naturally assumes is just a bulb blowing.

It isn’t.

Carrie can move things with the power of her mind, and she isn’t at all sure what this means or what it makes her, a fact that only adds to the weight on the young teen’s shoulders. But the genius of Carrie, in book form too but more especially in the Brian DePalma-directed movie version, is the heartbreaking stringing-out of hope it involves. One of Carrie’s initial tormentors, Sue, has a genuine change of heart towards the girl and becomes the closest thing Carrie’s ever had to a friend. Sue persuades her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom as his date, to give her an experience of being involved and normalised. Everything could all go so beautifully well.

But we know it won’t. We know it won’t because, punished for tormenting the girl, the petulant blonde Chris is banned from the very same prom, and (in a telling comment on American culture) blames not her own bad behaviour, but Carrie, the victim, for her fate. She and her boyfriend Billie (John Travolta in his first film role) plot a ‘revenge’ on Carrie for the way things have turned out. This is King and DePalma underscoring a message: there are two ways you can react to nature’s victims – with kindness and compassion, as Sue does, or with hardness and hatred, as Chris does. You don’t get to know the consequences of your actions in advance, so make sure you take the best road possible.

DePalma takes what is – I admit – an extremely well-written, tight, short, and claustrophobic story of teen tragedy and what happens if you pick on the wrong person (which of course is shorthand for any person), and strings it out into absolutely heartbreaking, inevitable, aching sadness. Even if you’ve read the book, when you see Chris and Billy fix the pale of pigs blood into place, then actively campaign to get Carrie elected prom queen, so she’ll be where Chris wants her to be (we always get the sense that Billy is complicit not from malice, but just so he will continue to get laid), you ache for it to go wrong. When the trap is sprung, just at the moment when Carrie and Tommy kiss, it makes your stomach lurch, because even though you understand the dramatic point of Carrie being telekinetic, DePalma makes you hope, makes you desperately, fruitlessly hope, that the denouement can be avoided. But of course it can’t. Malice towards the helpless will be punished on the day the helpless stand up and refuse to take it any more. Carrie’s powers roar to the front of her brain, and, drenched in pig’s blood, she determines to take her persecutors down.

Spacek is superb throughout the movie, but after this point, she is a thing possessed, her eyes wide, like a persecuted animal, and with a look here and there, Carrie burns the gym where the prom is being held, killing nearly everyone. As she goes home to her mother, Chris and Billy try to run her down with their car. Carrie’s having none of it – with one look she makes sure they literally crash and burn. Home and having bathed off the pig’s blood, Carrie and her mother have a kind of reconciliation as Margaret reveals some of the reason behind her religious mania and sex-phobia – she was raped by Carrie’s father, and enjoyed it, which is enough to send anyone into a crisis of self. But when Carrie confides in her mother, Margaret stabs her in the back with a kitchen knife. Carrie, finding refuge and understanding nowhere, telekinetically impales her demented mother with a range of kitchen knives in a dark, ironic crucifixion, before pulling the house down on top of them both and setting fire to it. The message is painful in its clarity – where there is no refuge, where there is no kindness, where religious zeal and social pressure leave no space for individuals to simply be, bad things happen, to the individuals and possibly, just possibly, to everyone else.

And then there is that ending. That ending – the shocker that keeps on giving. When Sue goes to Carrie’s grave on the lot where the house once stood, and lays flowers there – Carrie’s bloodstained hand reaches up through the ground to grab her. The point of this though is not the shock value of the moment. It’s immediately revealed as a trauma dream, not a supernatural reality. That’s the point of that ending – Sue, even Sue, the girl who changed, the girl who tried to be kind, to give Carrie a good experience to help her along, is traumatised by the after effects, when one of nature’s victims is treated harshly for no good reason. When you mistreat people just because you can, the consequences are unknowable, and they could be terrible.

DePalma’s 1976 Carrie takes King’s novel and turns it into a movie experience that, despite being nominally a horror film, leaves you sad, and sorrowful, and resolving to be kinder to everyone you meet. We all know a Carrie. Many of us may even be a Carrie, without the supernatural power to stand up for ourselves. The movie’s message is clear: Always take the higher path. The alternative is bad for everyone.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at
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