A standard in horror - 70s b-grade type, but still riffed on three decades later - Carrie probes the rich themes you'll find in any great film, regardless of genre. To limit Carrie to "horror talk" oversimplifies it; the film is loaded with deep, storybook emotion, which makes its terrifying grand finale more memorable. Many films have tried to borrow from Carrie over the years, usually with less appeal, due to the fact that they aim for the style of it without focusing on much of the very substance.
Seeing a crime on the street brings less emotion than seeing a loved one involved in the same crime. Seeing a kid get hurt in a high school football game is harsh, of course! - but seeing your kid hurt in that same game will send you into a state of sheer panic. Human nature suggests we are driven by something deeper, something that resonates inside - not just what we see on a day to day basis. The more our emotions are involved in the life of another, the more seeing that person's suffering will hit us where it actually hurts.
It's the same way in the movies.
Stories have grounded us in each other's lives since oral tradition around the caveman's fire. We bond to one another through the stories of our lives, and the meaningful stories we make up, too. Sharing stories is to our emotional well-being what eating, drinking, and breathing is to us physically. It's a part of the fabric of our being that has extended through thousands of years; it's how humans relate, how we care.
It's for this reason that much of what horror peddles, we simply don't care about. The genre creates a lot of schlock with very little heart. I've often said that I'm a fan of the idea of horror more than a fan of most of the films themselves. Monsters, killing sprees, butcher knives and masks often feel like a glossy item on sale in a window, but when you walk inside you find out there's no store. I have always liked to refer to films like these as "empty scented boxes."
After going back to Carrie, a film which has become one of my favorites from repeated viewings, I noticed a few things that stand out, things which bring deeper meaning, getting us involved long before the carnage that later stamps the film as horror:
Competition. Folks often remember the first scene of Carrie as the locker-room scene, but this is misremembering. The locker-room scene is actually the second scene in the film, which the credits and music play over and which ends with Carrie's first terrifying exposure to her period. The very first scene in the film is on an outdoor volleyball court, one high school team of girls pitted against another in gym, with Carrie unable to help and eventually losing the game for her team when the ball is intentionally hit hard in her direction. The girls exit, her team having lost, one of them swatting Carrie with her baseball cap, another telling her she eats shit.
It's a perfect representation of the pissing contests of girly high school histrionics. Remember the teen girls in your high school hallway that used to scratch at each other like cats in the alleyway? The high school girl in De Palma's film represents puffed up pride from the outside in, the idea that image is better, that beauty is all that matters and that it really is only skin deep. (Think: Mean Girls, but less cute.)
It is no mistake that the very first scene in Carrie is that of cat fighting high school girls caught up in stuck up contests of the exterior. The film seems to suggest that the tragedy at the end could have been stopped from the beginning if it weren't for the need some feel to be seen as better than others, and not just be seen as better, but to constantly expose how others are worse (whether it is actually true or not) - through humiliation, verbal abuse and insults. It's the lie that says we're better than someone else because we can find "fault" in them, instead of looking at ourselves. It's a leap in logic which is a strong historically in the nature of man. It goes back to Cain and Abel, who, rather than celebrating and embracing their differences, chose instead to out-do each other for God's supposed approval.
My point about the competitive nature that sets the events of Carrie in motion sets the framework for much of the following:
Cruelty. It's certainly fair to say that in Carrie, personal competition in the introductory scene also leads to the following scene of utter cruelty. Witness scene number two, the aforementioned naked and half-dressed locker-room scene, where innocence and eroticism, symbolized in the nature of the room itself (any room of naked females eroticizes a scene to the mind of a man), melds as one in Carrie's own body, where, in the words of her own mom, she becomes a woman by receiving her first period.
But the cruelty comes from every angle: Carrie's mom has been cruel enough to not explain the nature of the changes in her body; Carrie lives with constant cruel taunts from the popular crowd; and when she notices the blood between her legs while in the shower, she freaks out, berserk with a gripping fear that something in her body is terribly wrong. It is also cruel that she should even have to see it this way, when in fact the blood is evidence that something is right in her body, perfectly normal. Having no clue of what's happening to her, she screams and shrieks and begs the girls for help. The mob backs her into the shower, throwing tampons and chanting for her to, "Plug it up!" She has no idea what this even means.
The cruel nature of everyone surrounding Carrie's life creates an internal tension, isolating her at first. But when put to the boiling point in Carrie it will bring out a torrential wave of wrath.
Isolation. Carrie is symbolic of the kind of person that has nowhere to go but inward. She has been burnt, used for laughs, and is obviously neglected by her mom. She is cut off from help from anyone outside of herself. She turns to books about science and miracles to try to figure out her uncanny and uncomfortable telekinesis, which seems to be growing stronger in puberty.
The Absence of Men. There is only one man present in the film, and he is a wimp - the principal, a pushover, a blundering rolypoly leader. When Carrie needs a man to simply speak her name, he isn't even up to this simple task. Other males in the film are either ignorant, immature, or horny teenagers with no knowledge of what it takes to be a man. De Palma's high school world portrays the need for a strong man to bring balance to all the chaos and cruelty.
Tommy Ross, the boy who takes her to prom, seems decent enough for a big headed jock, but even he, in his eventual kindness, is too little, too late to the task of saving this world. He's as close to a man as the film is going to get, but he's caught up in the moment too much like a boy to be able to make a man's kind of difference.
One has to wonder where all the real men are.
Spiritual Abuse. Carrie's mom uses Biblical-type language, most of which isn't contextually Biblical and a good portion just thrown in from left field. "The raven was loosed by Eve, and the raven was sin and the first sin was intercourse"?
She makes Carrie repeat this mantra while smacking her in the face with some sort of guide to the "Good Book." It's hard to say exactly what her religious point is, ever, but most of the time she's a power hungry accuser, ensnaring everyone in guilt, heaping her own brand of legalism on top. Whatever she is, whether some kind of Christian or not (pictures of the Last Supper and crucifixes are all over the house, so one is led to believe this is some kind of Christian cult mentality), the word and deed reeks of nothing but abuse. She's a feminine prototype foreshadowing of David Koresh, and will usher in the same Waco-like destruction.
Looking at the description I just wrote, one has to wonder whether she is for Satan and not God.
Justice, wrath or revenge? What happens when Carrie finally does blow her lid, using her powers to wreak havoc on the students and faculty at Prom? Was it premeditated? It doesn't seem so. It looks nothing like the coolly malevolent kids of Gus Van Sant's Elephant, who have planned out the Columbine-like deaths of their peers at school. Carrie, in that awful onslaught, has the look of a zombie, half-crazed or from another world, as if possession has taken over. But we know it's still her.
The vindictive thought has to have crossed her mind already - with her incredible skills in telekinesis she could wipe out her people problems in one fell swoop. The thought of total annihilation has to have already entered her mind. Does this incredibly wrong act seem somehow justified? If she would have lived and been brought to court, would she have been declared temporarily insane or given the death chair?
The viewer knows her story before we see her cruel act, which changes everything about the nature of what we see. We identify with the need for justice, but we end up involved in her revenge. If we celebrate the revenge, we're implicated along with her whether we understand her background or not. The scene of wrath is so effective (aside from the greatest De Palma use of a split screen on record) because we've already traveled some hard road with Carrie. We've seen through her eyes, we've rooted for her both at home and at school. Other horror stories might come up with similar scenarios for the killing scene itself, but it is rare that an audience cares. Carrie is rooted in traditional deep story structure, and Story keeps us involved.
Guilt Complex. In post-traumatic stress, Sue, in her dreams, is scarred forever. Her mother, who believes in nothing more than the hope and the power of human will, is of little help to her battle tattered psyche. Sue was a part of the second-scene locker-room romp, and after Carrie and her boyfriend Tommy has probably grown the most in the film. By the end, she is one of the good guys and not one of the bad. But she will be scarred by layers of guilt forever. This is what happens when a good person gets lost in competitive back biting, cruelty, isolationism and the lot, regardless of her early role in it and her attempt to create something better.
. . .
The wonderful (now retro) creepy background musical stylings, and sound effects ripped straight from the shower scene in Psycho (Aii! Aii!), aid the split screen use at the film's tragic end; these brush strokes combined with Sissy Spacek herself all play a role in how the film throttles the eye with relentless imagery, using sound and creative acting technique to charge ahead hard. It is the imagery one is left with.
But none of that would reach us more than any other horror film out there were it not for the deep delving of the initial horror story.