Admittedly, I became hooked on horror as a pre-teen watching movies at home and on the big screen. Later, it’d be friends at work who’d turn me on to Stephen King, which would ignite to my darker reading tastes during the 70s. Cutting swaths through the likes of The Shining, Salem’s Lot, and other such fare that decade. Sought out Maine’s book-writing dynamo every chance I got.
Plus, I saw the film Carrie when released in 1976.
The weight of what Brian De Palma did with the film adaptation of King’s first published novel still tips the balance in its favor to this day. Forever mesmerized me. Don’t take my word for it. See my colleague MN Movie Man’s thoughts on the subject. In truth, the movie spurred me to locate a copy of the novel from the local library and dig right in.
Carrie was actually SK’s fourth novel, initially published in 1974 under his real name, and dealt with a subject that continues to haunt our headlines and landscape. Critic-Filmmaker-Factotum Bryce Wilson of the Things That Don’t Suck blog, and author of the pseudo sequel to Stephen King’s Danse Macabre, wrote awhile back a wonderful and insightful review of the 1976 feature film. Part of his grand 31 Days of Horror series that year and nailed the age-old can of worms with this passage:
“It’s a story that I think, has the best chance out of King’s canon to be damn near eternal. Because as long as there are high schools there are going to know what that furnace of rage that can grow in your belly can feel like. And those who imagine what it would be like if they just let it explode (Or implode. Am I the only one to notice that the only difference between the rash of teen suicides that swept the country recently and the rash of school shootings that happened about twelve years ago is that this time the kids are turning their guns on themselves rather then others? I don’t know what this generational shift means. Or if it can even be termed as a generational shift. I just know that either way it saddens and disturbs the hell out of me.)”
The novel’s synopsis from Stephen King’s website: “The story of misfit high-school girl, Carrie White, who gradually discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Repressed by a domineering, ultra-religious mother and tormented by her peers at school, her efforts to fit in lead to a dramatic confrontation during the senior prom.” It’s easy to say that the novel has remained timely even as the years continue to tick by, which epitomized the strength of the book’s sad subject.
For all of its tragic power, the insidious and damaging nature of bullying seemingly knows no bounds, or gender. I hadn’t revisited the novel after that initial read for decades. Sorrow for the subject at hand and its tale only explain so much, though. The plain fact was I’ve seen De Palma’s film numerous of times over the years. Much like barrels going over Niagara Falls…with you screaming the whole way down, I took the motion picture to heart. The novel was another matter. Why was that I wonder? I’d suggest reading Bryce’s review of the film for the evidence.
For the longest time, I’ve been of the mind that this was that rare case where the film was better than the source text. Give credit to the skill of writer Lawrence Cohen in adapting King’s novel to the screen. Surely, he deserves the praise for it’s a feat that shouldn’t be minimized, Especially, since a number of the writer’s book conversions to feature film pale. To put it mildly. Plus, Brian De Palma’s cinematic treatment of the material can’t be exaggerated nor negated. His camera work alone could almost be the definition of a Whirling Dervish.
To say nothing of Sissy Spacek‘s performance as Carrie White. She was somethin’, alright. The stuff dreams…err nightmares… are made of. Her Best Actress nomination not only well warranted, but as IMDB mentioned in their listing of the actress, was “…notable in that performances in horror films are rarely recognized by the academy.” Ain’t it the truth. So great, in fact, made it damn difficult to get the film, or her, out of your head. Let alone compare both with the inevitable remakes, but more on that later.
A few years back, the publisher Simon & Schuster released Carrie in audiobook form as part of an October release schedule tailormade for the frightful season. Part of the splurge of Stephen King’s work released to audio in the 00s. Not only that, the audio production had as its narrator the same Sissy Spacek. And with Bryce’s encouragement, who listened to the audio on Halloween, which had to be some sort of test or dare I’m sure, I took another crack at the novel.
In the end, my thoughts would come close to mirroring Bryce’s own opinion:
“Take it from me. It’s phenomenal. So fascinating to listen to her reinterpret the character.”
Initially, I wondered if Ms. Spacek, so tremendous in the film as the sympathetic Carrie, could deliver on the vocal demands of not only the lead, but the distinctive characters throughout the novel. I needn’t of worried. She accomplished it with ease. Plus, Sissy managed to expand on that singular character in a way that was even more heart-rending, which I truthfully didn’t think was possible. Finally, who would have thought she’d also bring a stirring reinterpretation of Carrie’s fundamentalist mother, Margaret White. No disrespect to Piper Laurie’s bravura characterization of her in De Palma’s film.
With that in mind, I now think Sissy Spacek would have been the better and more inspired choice for that ferocious maternal character with the first of the new millennium remakes that arrived with the 2002 TV movie. Not to say Patricia Clarkson didn’t give it a decent go as Margaret. Lords knows the TV movie needed something more than just Angela Bettis as Carrie White to hold your attention in comparison. And don’t get me started on the fact producers seemed hell-bent on resurrecting Carrie as a television series, of all things.
Where’s the flying knives when you truly need them?
On the other hand, I thought Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 feature film was the more compelling update1. It certainly came closest to fulfilling the promise of bringing Stephen King’s story to a new generation and millennium, and unfairly derided by critics. I didn’t expect much going in, but damn it, the women of the film won me over. Chloë Grace Moretz keeps impressing me every time I see her, especially holding her own with the always superb Julianne Moore as mom. Plus, the modern-day horror of what a smartphone can capture in the hands of a high-schooler shouldn’t be glossed over.
Ms. Peirce made this less a Brian De Palma differentiation and decidedly more a woman’s take of Stephen King’s material in this day and age — kudos to her.
Still, Sissy has never lessened her grip upon moi, no matter who has stepped into Carrie White’s pig-blood-soaked prom dress in the years afterward. Spacek’s audio performance with King’s still powerful story proved to be a fantastic and one-of-a-kind combination.
Nonetheless, did it make me to reverse my thoughts on the unavoidable Carrie the novel vs. Carrie the film tussle? Simply, no. The same narrative problems still exist in the book. Even King himself does not rate this work as one of his best. My main issue remains the horror-meister’s concept of breaking up the story with various news, official or scientific, reports. All attempting to explicate and decipher the final horrific events in somewhat self-important tones.
It didn’t work for me back then, nor now.
In my opinion, it was too much of a good thing. Besides, many times the scheme interrupted the momentum the novelist had building throughout the account. Certainly, Sissy Spacek’s narration made the literary device more tolerable with her reading, as well as spurring my desire to get back to those memorable characters. But it was not enough to elevate the material above that of De Palma’s visually audacious and streamlined film. His (and Cohen’s) treatment smartly eliminated the ploy.
Still, was I glad to revisit this novel decades later for this Halloween season?
- I enjoyed the remake primarily because of its cast, turning the ‘blonde mean girl’ dynamic on its head (the bad ol’ brunette this time around), and a woman filmmaker perspective. The film only fell short via modern cinema technology. Specifically, the use of CGI effects for much of the prom massacre. Something I suspect will date the film quicker than the practical effects of the ’76 original, which still hold up. ↩