‘Carrie’ explores adolescent sexuality through Brian De Palma’s overtly masculine gaze


Is adolescent sexuality a subject in which any film critic should venture? No. Film critics should not sink into this quagmire. No one should wade through this quagmire. It should be obvious by now, if you are proficient in social media. The prevailing ethic, it can be discerned, is that while exploring and changing gender identity is good for all ages, anything like actual sexual activity is less.

Admittedly, this is a little roundabout way of getting us to Carrie, the now-sorta-classic of Brian De Palma’s 1976 horror film, which is celebrating its 45th birthday today. As I recall, Stephen King’s groundbreaking 1973 novel about high school kids was quite popular with real high school kids at the time; I remember many high school students carrying the paperback and comparing juicy pieces, much like they did with Mario Puzo’s. The Godfather a few years earlier. The King Book was a book that gave pop culture a proper and explicit introduction to telekinesis, which is the power to move things with my mind that poor Carrie White is using to both fix her mother. religion fanatic and his prom-ruining peers at the savage ending of the story.

Then star director De Palma, whose most films until this one have reveled in a sarcastic, at times perverse subversive streak, brought significant irreverence to this project, which he believes could be a success. commercial who would sharpen his profile as a studio director. . Watch a dinner scene between Sissy Spacek’s Carrie and her off-balance mother, played with perfect conscience by Piper Laurie. When Carrie reveals “Was I invited to prom?” Mom raises an eyebrow and says “Prom?” At that point, lightning flashes out like something out of a Universal Frankenstein movie.


The virtuoso director does everything but a kitchen sink in orchestrating effects to achieve maximum shock and horror: dioptric shots, shock cuts, rack focus, whatever you want. The way the movie fits the time it was made is in its pragmatic treatment of how high school kids supposedly did it.

Here Carrie’s tormentors are both super mean and super excited. Billy from John Travolta, boyfriend of Chris, Nancy Allen’s horror series, is both stupid and physically violent. There’s a reverse shot in which Billy ogles Chris’s bra-less breasts under his sweater which shares the character’s joy of ogling. In the same scene, Chris uses fellatio to convince Billy to take part in his evil plan to get revenge on Carrie. And here, too, De Palma can’t resist a joke, Chris interrupting his efforts to exclaim “I hate Carrie White,” much to Billy’s confusion.

The opening scene from the 1976 film, in which a horrified Carrie first experiences her period in the girls’ locker room shower class after the gym, is set in a wispy, dreamy, slow-motion and literally scorching male gaze fashion that De Palma would use again in the opening of Trained to kill, with Angie Dickinson (and her double body) fantasizing rhapsodically about sex with a beefy stranger. Nancy Allen – director De Palma’s future wife, it’s worth mentioning – bounces back overall, and De Palma lingers on Spacek’s Carrie soaping her breasts, tummy, and thighs. (Pino Donaggio’s score has a flute melody that suggests some sort of advertisement for life’s “special moments”.) Carrie’s “plug it up” humiliation in excruciating detail.


The 2013 Carrie remake, directed by Kimberley Peirce, keeps the period of discovery – or, rather, the discovery of the period – in the girls’ shower, but also keeps the mocking teens in towels or underwear. And it shows Carrie mostly from the shoulders, with some shot choices paying homage to the shower scene in Hitchcock’s. psychopath as she goes. (Why didn’t De Palma think about it?) When it comes to sex, popular kids Tommy and Sue are characters thoughtful enough to interrupt their coitus (very briefly depicted) to discuss feelings of guilt over Sue about to throw tampons at Carrie. There’s more time spent on the ins and outs of how Chris and Billy get all that pig’s blood than the details of their strained relationship. (Cell phone videos are also added to the mix.) But as Manohla Dargis pointed out in her rather favorable review of the remake in The New York Times, “the terror of the female body that deepens Mr. De Palma’s version somehow disappears.”

This fear is not unrelated to a less specifically gendered trend that was brewing in genre films during this period, eventually called “body horror”. Carrie can nestle comfortably – or uncomfortably, as the case may be – between David Cronenberg’s 1975 and 1977 films Thrill and Enraged in this regard. And the provocative new French film by Julia Decorneau Titanium is a proud and distinguished heir to what De Palma and Cronenberg were doing. As the Peirce remake refocuses the film on Carrie’s relationship with her mother (in the more recent film, Carrie is played by Chloe Moretz and the mother by Julianne Moore), and the theme becomes twisted family relationships, for the better. or for the worse.

Much of what makes De Palma’s Carrie potentially problematic is also a source of its destabilizing power. The girl’s shower scene notwithstanding, the treatment of teenage sexuality isn’t just meant to titillate; instead, he makes a biting comment on the use of sex as a weapon, leaning heavily on a stereotype of a female vampire. While we now view this as a backslid cliché, it is not a condition unheard of in real life. As good art sometimes should, the whole makes the viewer uncomfortable.

Veteran critic Glenn Kenny reviews new appearances on RogerEbert.com, the New York Times and, as befits someone his advanced age, AARP magazine. He blogs, very occasionally, on Some Came Running and tweets, mostly jokingly, on @glenn__kenny. He is the author of the acclaimed book of 2020 Made Men: The History of the Goodfellas, published by Hanover Square Press.

Where to stream Carrie (1976)

Where to stream Carrie (2013)

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