Mitchell, Neil. Carrie.
Neil Mitchell's exploration of Brian De Palma's Carrie (1976) is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding Devil's Advocates series devoted to the classics of contemporary horror cinema. The series targets a wide audience and solicits contributors from an array of fields, such as academia, journalism, and fiction. Approachable and informative, Mitchell's book presents the key concepts, themes, and motifs necessary to grasp the significance of Carrie within the fields of gender, genre, and horror studies.
Mitchell's interpretation of Carrie is a robust example of formal analysis, paying close attention to themes, stylistic tropes, technical approaches, use of color and sound, dialogue, and visual symbolism. The volume is divided into four parts. Part One, titled "Birth of a Monster," focuses on the determining factors that led to Carrie's status as a classic of horror cinema (15). Part Two, "From Page to Screen: Bringing Carrie to Life," concentrates on De Palma's adaptation of Stephen King's eponymous novel published in 1974. Part Three, "Carrie: An Analysis," illuminates the key themes (religion, the supernatural, adolescence, women, authority) and motifs (blood, duality, the Psycho-inspired musical score, split images) of the film. Part Four, "Life After Death: Carrie's legacy," investigates the influence of Carrie regarding themes, structure, and milieu (85). All things considered, Mitchell's book foregrounds the intersection of gender and genre as central to horror studies, reminding us that Carrie is a source text for nearly half a century of horror cinema and media, if not the basis upon which horror's most prolific era (1968-1982) is imagined.
For the reader who is unfamiliar, the story of Carrie White, played by Sissie Spacek in De Palma's adaptation, focuses on the bullied daughter of a religious fanatic, played by Piper Laurie. Due to her unorthodox attire and social anxiety, Carrie is the target for a wave of abuse that culminates in the movie's violent denouement. With unapologetic delight, Carrie's shy mannerisms are laid bare in the opening sequence of the film. "Split in true De Palma fashion into two separate scenes," writes Mitchell, Carrie "is slapped with a baseball cap, bombarded with sanitary towels and tampons and slapped again" (60). Tormented by Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) and her dimwitted boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta), Carrie, despite the patronage of Sue Snell (Amy Irving) in the form of prom date Tommy Ross (William Katt), exterminates the majority of Bates High School in a fit of rage after being doused with pig's blood.
In the first chapter, Mitchell situates the film in the contexts of horror film history and contemporary American society. He argues that Spacek's embodiment of Carrie White, not unlike Boris Karloffs performance in Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931), "was a new 'monster' for the modern world--an adolescent girl, frightening to her peers, unsettling for the adult patriarchy and confusing to herself" (11). Mitchell attributes the complexity of Carrie's female-centric, youth-oriented narrative to a variety of factors that emerged in the 1960s and 70s, most specifically linking it to the rise of feminism and changing gender roles.
Yet the difference between Whale's Frankenstein and De Palma's Carrie has more to do with the age and gender identity of the audience member than the representational status of the monstrous-feminine. As a theatrical experience, Frankenstein was a Depression-era counterpart to Tod Browning's Dracula (1931), a dark romance marketed primarily to adults. After World War II, the teenager, both as icon and consumer, radically altered the motion picture landscape, setting the stage for a new wave of horror fandom. The boyhood of Stephen King, for example, was galvanized by the televisual, rather than cinematic, exhibition of the Universal Monsters (1931-1956), a trend that affected the tastes and artistic vision of a number of horror luminaries, including John Carpenter and George A. Romero.
In his second chapter, Mitchell addresses how De Palma adapted King's novel to the screen, focusing on style, tone, and creative and budgetary constraints. According to Mitchell, screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen's initial screenplay adaptation of King's book "was largely faithful to the source material, retaining the flashback structure as seen largely through the eyes of Sue Snell" (32). However, due to a malfunctioning conveyor belt, the opening sequence of the film (a shower of stones raining down on the White household) was scrapped, and De Palma chose to shift attention away from Snell to the character of Carrie. In addition, De Palma jettisoned King's portrayal of Carrie as overweight and unattractive. The opening sequence of De Palma's film presents a more appealing image of Carrie. Although unconventional, Spacek inspired both lust and revulsion in the audience, a trope that De Palma felt was essential to viewer acceptance and emotional investment.
Looking at how theme and motif are deployed in specific scenes and sequences, in chapter three Mitchell argues, "Carrie can alternately be viewed as pop culture, mythologised horror and politicised cultural critique" (43). Carrie's nightmarish coming-of-age story integrates supernatural and realist elements, emphasizing the social and symbolic value of womanhood, in addition to "the spiritually corrosive dangers inherent in fundamentalist lifestyles" embodied by Margaret (Mitchell 44). This chapter also offers a rudimentary plot structure, dividing its sequences into the following blocks: opening sequence, detention, last supper, prom night, climax, final sequence, and coda.
In chapter four, Mitchell considers Carrie's deep cultural impact on the horror and comedy cycles of the late 1970s and early 80s. Preoccupied with the adolescent body out of control, films like Animal House (John Landin, 1978), Porky's (Bob Clark, 1981), and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (Amy Heckerling, 1982) are as indebted to Carrie as the made-for-TV horror movies The Spell (Lee Philips, 1977), The Initiation of Sarah (Robert Day, 1978), and the theatrical release of Jennifer (Brice Mack, 1978). According to Mitchell, Carrie "is the archetypal teenage horror movie about the turbulent transition from innocence to experience, the power of female sexuality and the cycle of life and, ultimately, death" (96). By extension, Carrie provokes serious study while engaging a pop culture audience. The juxtaposition of teenpic and Gothic horror, Mitchell observes, "have inspired camp, musical and comedic re-interpretations," in addition to critical deconstructions of the nuclear family, state, and religion "that have themselves become seminal texts applied to the study of the horror genre" (94).
What is impressive about Mitchell's analysis of Carrie is that he focuses on three key concepts: the female-teen-centered horror film, the relation between the early teen slasher film cycle and modern American horror, and the juvenescence or youthful affect of Sissy Spacek as Carrie White. It is important to note that Carrie's belated entrance into adulthood is underscored by the fact that a sixteen-year-old girl was played by a twenty-six-year-old actress. According to Mitchell, Carrie is "a whetstone for a changing genre in which gender and audience identification issues were being redrawn for culturally, socially and politically changing climates" (87). Mitchell's exploration of Carrie, like Anne Billson's examination of Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008), also a Devil's Advocates book, is ideally suited to the classroom and home library as a point of entry into a range of theoretical and critical discourses, including: feminism and film, genre studies, gender and sexuality, media and popular culture.
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|Publication:||Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 19, 2019|
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