Friday, October 16, 2015

Freaky Friday: "Carrie" (1976)

Scene from Carrie
The season is upon us, and it's time to get in the mood for Halloween. Every Friday in October, The Oscar Buzz will be highlighting the films that The Academy recognized that likely chilled you to your bone. While there have been several genres more prevalent than horror, there's been a fair share that have popped up and proven themselves among the more prestigious competition. What is it about these films that stand out? Are they just scary, or is there something more to their charm? Join in the journey of recognizing the award nominated scares that you may or may not have known about.

Directed By: Brian De Palma
Written By: Stephen King (novel), Lawrence D. Cohen (screenplay)
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving

Oscar Nominations: 2
-Best Actress (Sissy Space)
-Best Supporting Actress (Piper Laurie)

Even if Carrie doesn't seem nearly as influential as the past installments involving The Exorcist or Aliens, it does have one specific honor. It was the birth of the Stephen King adaptation. To backtrack, "Carrie" was the first published novel by the legendary horror writer, and it's also one of his most jarringly different. "Carrie" is a collection of articles and experimental narration created to tell the story of a teen with telekinesis and a religious mother. By comparison of everything that the prolific writer has done since, it's a mediocre book that was somehow able to be salvaged into one of the most iconic teen angst films of the 70's and created one of the most iconic "tragic figures" in horror in an era where schlock and monsters were more likely to run rampant.

Then Brian De Palma adapted Carrie, and made one of the most iconic films of his career - many would even argue his best. For starters, it's opening is one of the most immediately striking openings of a film in which a trip into a girl's locker room pits a naked Carrie (Sissy Spacek) into a corner as she has her period. It's humiliating enough, but her lack of help sets up perfectly why she is an outsider. Blood is a returning motif, coming in the famous third act scene in which some pranksters dump pig's blood onto her head after fixing the prom election to make her queen. That time doesn't go nearly as well. However, she has evolved from the helpless figure into a psychopathic being, hellbent on destroying her bullies. For nerds, it's likely great escapism. 

But, what makes Carrie such a great movie that both Spacek and Piper Laurie earned Oscar nominations? Horror is not a genre that is often present in these categories. In fact, it's likely that few people will argue in 2015 that any horror film has an Oscar-worthy performance. It's because those films are full of silly effects, poor story telling, and lack any cultural awareness. Sure, some could argue that It Follows would be an applicable entry. However, that film is more about atmosphere than performances. There's no memorable characters in that film. That alone may be why Carrie works. Among the characters, you're likely to remember Carrie and her mother, who constantly throws her religion into Carrie's face. 

Of course, there aren't often great, standout performances by child actors worthy of recognition. To go back to Carrie as a character is to notice what works about her. Spacek already looks a little bit different. She doesn't have the natural beauty of her peers. She looks boyish and, while sweet, seems timid to upset any order. Then the performance kicks in and you're immediately familiar with her. She is the girl who was picked on. Everyone knows Carrie. She's quiet, taking abuse while hoping that it will be all over soon. When she finally does lose her mind, she becomes haunting because of the misuse of trust. Her stare becomes haunting, especially underneath a layer of blood that ruins her dreams, reminding her of her plebeian life. Probably what is most tragic of all is that she isn't a hero in the eyes of the narrative. She's dead and made into a tragic figure.

It's a film that feels amazingly in tune with the high school experience, even with the supernatural elements. Instead of embracing them, it's part of what makes Carrie a freak. She is unable to relate to her mother because she finds her powers sickly. Everyone doesn't like the way Carrie looks. It's the perfect outsider character in that she manages to find the most solace when she is alone, unable to trust anyone. Whether that was De Palma's addition or from King's book, it's unclear. However, it manages to be pulpy and melodramatic and also just as dark, tragic, and piercing as any prestige drama. It's a great balance that set the bar high for King adaptations to follow.

Speaking as "Carrie" isn't among most people's Top 10 favorite King books, it's amazing that Carrie has withstood the test of time, even making a few sequels and reboots. Spacek went on to have a great career after this, earning six Oscar nominations total, and one win for Best Actress for Coal Miner's Daughter. She remained just as charismatic throughout the rest of her career, finding ways to turn complicated women into sympathetic and powerful screen presences. While Piper Laurie was no slouch either, earning three nominations, I do think that a large reason that Carrie works and is an iconic character period is because of Spacek. Yes, the direction and co-stars are great, but you remember that stare long after the movie ends.

It isn't likely that this year's Freaky Friday will cover any more King movies. However, it's interesting how accessible they tend to be. Beyond Carrie, there's films like Misery and Stand By Me that turn the author's work into more personal character dramas as well as having that horror edge. They're arguably more deliberate with their emotional presence, reflecting a balance between the pulpy supernatural that makes him compelling and the general power that cinema can have over its audience. While they're not all great movies, I do think that Carrie was a sign of what works best about the author's work and why he adapts to the big screen better than everyone else. They're inherently silly, but logically entertaining. 

Carrie is a film that marked a lot of compelling factors at play. It introduced us to King as a movie presence. It also introduced us to how the teenager movie could be updated in an exciting and fresh way. Even then, it's most interesting that both acting roles received Oscar nominations for them, thus proving that there was more substance underneath it all than we're willing to admit. Of course, that's just because you cannot forget Carrie once you see her. She has that stare and that charisma that you wish came into horror films more often. It's powerful, unique, and makes you glad that you're not a bully. 

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