Book Review:

Carrie, by Neil Mitchell

Reviewed by Kellye McBride

Review of Neil Mitchell's Carrie, Auteur Publishing (Devil's Advocates), 2013.

Neil Mitchell’s book on Carrie dissects the film in a multitude of ways: from the film’s genesis as an adaptation by a still relatively unknown author and director Brian De Palma’s vested interest in creating a name for himself in Hollywood; to the story itself, which offers a rich landscape for interpretation in terms of its cinematic value and storytelling. In doing so, Mitchell reminds us that this is a film that cannot be regarded at face value: instead, we have to interpret it in terms of its totality. Mitchell notes that many of the film’s critics have been unfair or quick to criticize De Palma’s point of view as a director, noting that while it is primarily a story about women, he lends a particular male gaze that undermines any feminist potential. Such a reading ignores De Palma’s skillful displacement of any singular point of view: the reason the film is so successful is that it regularly employs multiple points of view aimed at displacing the viewer, as well as many of the principal characters.

The book itself is divided into four parts. Part one is mostly concerned with how Carrie came to fruition, describing how Stephen King initially set about writing the book and how he envisioned Carrie White, who was radically different from De Palma’s subsequent interpretation. Mitchell maps the political and social climate into which Carrie was introduced and posits exactly how revolutionary the film was in terms of influencing both women’s position within horror films immediately following its release (including Halloween) and the multitude of “high school” films that it inspired (Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Mean Girls).

The most interesting part of this section was De Palma’s relationship to the film. As the film was for King, Carrie was a turning point in De Palma’s career in which he “was also spurred on to make his presence felt by the critical and/or commercial successes of his friends and fellow ‘movie brat’ directors” (24). De Palma was not merely trying to make a commercial hit; instead, he was concerned with creating a nuanced masterpiece, which is why imitators trying to “ride the coattails” of Carrie’s success never managed to. As Mitchell notes, “in all of the deviations, remakes, sequels, reworkings and parodies, the crucial element missing is Brian De Palma” (95).

Part two goes further into De Palma’s process and explains his careful choices in adapting the screenplay, casting, and set-building. Besides the usual film trivia about who was so-and-so’s first choice, what is significant about this part is which aspects were taken directly from the book, what was explicitly left out, and what was added that changed everything. For example, the White Commission and the scene where stones fall on the White household were omitted, freeing De Palma to frame the story as a linear narrative. Moreover, while Carrie White was originally conceived to be a loathsome object of pity, De Palma’s conscious choice to cast someone attractive in the role and inspire mixed feelings of lust and revulsion further cemented his dualistic point of view. Mitchell establishes De Palma’s artistic and ambitious commitments to elevating the film’s potential, as well as the contradictions and duality the film embodies.

Part three is perhaps the most important part of the book. Perhaps what critics misunderstand the most about Carrie is that it is meant to be ambiguous: from the many detached points of view, to the various degrees we empathize with each of the characters, there can be no objective experience of the film. Mitchell notes that “to my mind there is little argument that De Palma’s movie is ‘successfully manipulative. The phalanx of critical readings of Carrie—be they positive, negative, impassioned, or ambivalent—mark the narrative, and specifically De Palma’s visualisation of it, as one that demands intellectual engagement” (43). Even if one disliked the film, there was no denying that there was something intentional about it worth engaging. The “successful manipulation” is the skillful way De Palma has the audience identify with the perspective of every single character through split camera angles, 360-degree rotating shots, and slow-motion sequences. Furthermore, like the repeated theme of mirrors throughout the film, Carrie gives us an ugly glimpse of ourselves and problematizes the good guy/bad guy (or, perhaps more appropriately, the good girl/bad girl) distinction, making it unclear with whom we are supposed to identify.

The oft-misunderstood shower sequence at the beginning of the film came under fire from feminist critics who argued that it served as an example of the male gaze. Mitchell, on the contrary, suggests that the shower sequence serves an alternative purpose: as a soft contrast for the shock of Carrie’s first period, as well as foreshadowing. Since the sequence of the stones falling on the White household was cut, the lightbulb bursting in the girl’s locker room replaced it as a glimpse of Carrie’s telekinetic power. The repeated motifs of religious iconography, blood (either literally or symbolically through the color red), and pigs are constant visual reminders for the film’s thematic elements.

Part four revealed how limited Carrie’s legacy was in terms of sequels or films within a similar genre. I was surprised to learn that Carrie had perhaps more of an impact in how high school is portrayed in horror films, with its stereotypical stock characters to ineffectual adults. It’s a bit like learning that your favorite opera inspired a bunch of terrible, carbon copy pop songs. As Mitchell argues, the reason Carrie was so successful (and revolutionary) is that it is subtle in its character development: we feel Carrie’s pain but we are also horrified and disgusted by her revenge—and at ourselves for wanting to participate. In sum, Neil Mitchell’s Carrie is a thoughtful, nuanced discussion of a thoughtful, nuanced film that does justice to the artistry that went into making it.

-5 May 2019