Collusions in Sadism
Brian De Palma's Carrie seems less a film directed for the viewer than at the viewer. (perhaps even in some way directed by the viewer). There is an assaultive quality that isn't a necessary condition of the horror movie but is frequently a dimension of it. We can link this fundamentally to Linda Williams' observation in Hardcore that horror is a body genre, a generic film, like comedy, pornography and the weepie, that seeks to elicit a bodily reaction from the viewer as the western or the science-fiction film does not. Obviously, there will be sci-fi films that do (especially when films like The Thing or Scanners combine elements of both genres), and it isn't impossible for a western to utilise a startle-effect as someone is gunned down without the audience expecting it. If this happens to be the case then there is no reason why a horror film needn't eschew the assaultive altogether and play up much more a low key tension rather than a punctuated shock. Yet that isn't De Palma's intention as he makes a film that seeks to utilise a high-school setting for the high of a certain type of exultation.
Carrie is in this sense an 'excited' film, a horror that plays up the cruelty of high school status and plays on our own fears and anxieties within that status. The film may ostensibly concern itself with telekenesis, but this is a minor feature of the work (one that would be extended much more in De Palma's film two years later, The Fury) - a point De Palma made at the time of Carrie's release. "I felt the telekinesis was basically a device to trick, and I wanted to use it as an extension of her emotions her feelings that were completely translated into actions, that only erupted when she got terribly excited, terribly anxious and terribly sad." (Cinefantastique) In Carrie, the title character manages to turn mental energy into physical violence, but it is as if De Palma could have found a means other than the telekenetic to do so. If the film feels pertinent today it isn't because of Carrie's (Sissy Spacek) special powers but her vengeful determination to take out the many people she believes have ruined her evening as she was about to become prom queen for a day.
The story Carrie tells is simple and perhaps even simplistic. Carrie suffers various humiliations at school and none more so than the period she experiences at the beginning of the film in the shower. She is both a late developer and hopelessly ignorant of her body, a very bad combination in the nubile school environment De Palma creates, and an environment vital to the horror cinema generated in the mid-to-late seventies and early eighties. De Palma might say I "used it [sex] well in Carrie without going over the top. Straight sex scenes are very hard to shoot because it's been so exploited and shot from fifty different ways. I mean, how many times can you show people getting into bed with each other what is there to shoot?" (Brian De Palma: Interviews) Yet De Palma would continue his fascination with sex in Dressed to Kill and Body Double, and uses here for the first time Pino Donaggio, who scored one of the most erotic sex scenes in cinema, in Don't Look Now. But what De Palma ushers into horror film is a quite different sexuality than that evident in Nic Roeg's great work. Instead of the sexual maturity between Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland, De Palma plays up adolescent sexuality that would then influence Halloween, and their numerous sequels and imitators. What matters isn't the telekinetic but the photogenic: that these are young and attractive people and Carrie isn't. Any special powers she possesses is contained by the prettiness she lacks. It isn't so much a special power; more a manifestation of understandable resentment. The film manages to see telekinesis as a mode of the resentful and thus closer to the high school film that can incorporate anything from Fast Times at Ridgemont High to Elephant, Clueless to We Need to Talk About Kevin. Here people stand (or fall) on the basis of their sporting prowess and physical beauty: they are not necessarily positive qualities but their absence negative ones. Telekinesis becomes the means to ward off the negative feelings, thoughts and comments of others with actions that speak louder than words. Early in the film, Carrie is walking home from school and a kid whizzes past her on a bike shouting "creepy Carrie, creepy Carrie". Carrie throws him a glance mean enough to toss him off his bicycle. The camera zooms in on Carrie's eyes and a sharp sound of blades being sharpened intrudes on the soundtrack. Our point is that De Palma isn't interested in it as a special power that can function positively or negatively: as a force of good or evil evident in so many a superhero film or horror, but as an accumulated resentful force, a power that is in the society rather than in Carrie's body. She says at one moment to her mother this is a power anybody can access but we are inclined to see this accessing as a quality which can never really impact on the plot because De Palma refuses to give it a value.
What do we mean by this? In a superhero film, heroes and villains have forces that can develop the story: if heroes can climb walls and fly through space, villains have telepathy, levitation and hypnosis. The superpowers of one are matched by the powers of another and a fight between good and evil can take place. But De Palma isn't here interested in good and evil as a struggle. Carrie is a decent person with powers that she turns against the community and against herself, with De Palma showing no interest in the sort of modulated drama that can allow a plot to develop as the film instead becomes a horror opera rather like Dario Argento's Suspiria, released the same year. The purpose isn't plot development but terror escalation, to heighten the drama beyond the dramatic. Watching Carrie we can see why some were very keen for De Palma to direct the film from Stephen King's book; others less so. "Now the Carrie project was in the hands of United Artists, and the head of production, Mike Medavoy, and the president, Eric Pleskow, were emphatic that they wanted me to direct the film. They didn't think it should be made by anyone else. Paul Monash, however, was not sold on me and it was only because of pressure brought about by the studio people that he came around to thinking that maybe I was the right person for his film. So that's how I came to direct Carrie!" (Brian De Palma: Interviews) De Palma's previous three films were Sisters, Phantom of the Opera and Obsession. While Sisters was the one horror film of the three, De Palma's style seemed to be moving towards the melodramatic and indeed the operatic. Would he continue in this vein for Carrie or rein in the flamboyance for the greater sobriety the horror film would seem to demand while it so often generates tension. But no, De Palma saw in Carrie the capacity for escalation as he emphasises instead manipulation. We aren't just playing with words here; manipulation can be seen as tension exposed rather than masked. When Polanski in Rosemary's Baby brilliantly builds up the tension when Rosemary is determined to get hold of Dr Hill as she waits for his call in a phone box, fretful that he won't phone her back, worried that the husband she no longer trusts might arrive, or that someone else will insist on using the phone, Polanski builds the tension. There is little sense in tension of foreknowledge or the knowing. Even in Spielberg's Jaws, manipulation isn't quite the thing in the very fine sequence where the young boy on the yellow air raft meets his demise. We cannot say in Jaws what will happen next (can anybody guess who will be eaten by the shark?), nor do we feel that Rosemary's Baby is knowingly playing with our fear and that we half-laugh at its recognition.
This is exactly what De Palma does, and can lead us inevitably to talk about the collusively sadistic dimension to his work. We offer the term collusive to suggest in De Palma's oeuvre a halfway house between Hitchcock's need to implicate the viewer visually in events that give us a certain amount of foreknowledge, and Quentin Tarantino's desire to make the viewer well-aware that they are watching a film with clear forebears. When Hitchcock's camera in Frenzy retreats from entering the flat in which a character will be murdered and instead goes back down the stairs as the killer enters the apartment, this is Hitchcock implicating us in our troublesome passivity. We know she will die but there is little we can do about it. When Tarantino shows us the Jewish people in the basement and the Nazi asking the farmer for milk at the farmhouse in Inglourious Basterds, we too expect the victims to die. But while Hitchcock suggests forlorn loss, knowing the grammar of film will make clear to us the inevitability of what will happen, Tarantino seems to use the grammar more gleefully. We know that he knows that a Nazi is in the farmhouse, Jews are in the basement, and that a camera which moves from the farmhouse to the basement in one shot makes us all the more aware of what will happen.
In each instance, in Carrie, in Frenzy and in Inglourious Basterds, we have variations on collusive sadism. In Frenzy, Hitchcock knows that it is worse for the viewer to be left outside the door when someone gets killed because it plays up our inability to do anything about it. Of course, there is nothing we can do but watch the film, but if we were to witness a struggle between the killer and his victim the viewer at least feels like they are capable of being involved. Tarantino works almost syllogistically with our expectations: Jews in the basement, Nazi in the farmhouse - ergo, with a camera movement, there can be only one conclusion. In Carrie, De Palma moves towards the prom sequence inevitably: the girls who laugh at Carrie during the shower sequence are told they are in danger of losing their right to go to the prom, Sue (Amy Irving) starts feeling guilty about how she treated Carrie and thus foregoes her own right to go and insists her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) goes instead with Carrie. Meanwhile, another of the girls, Chris (Nancy Allen - played by De Palma's wife!) arranges with her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) to humiliate Carrie by both rigging the vote that means Tommy and Carrie will be prom king and queen, and rigging up a system that will lead to a bucket of pig's blood landing on top of Carrie's head and destroying the night of her life.
The collusive sadism is different in each instance, but there are enough similarities for them all to find themselves under the same rubric. Collusive sadism, as opposed to the sort of sadism we often find characters indulging in with each other - to be found in very fine films by Losey, Fassbinder and Pialat - emphasises the formal properties that trap the viewer into a sadistic form which we are implicated in and cannot easily exit from. In the diegetic sadism practised by Fassbinder, Losey and others, we watch the way people treat each other appallingly, but the film doesn't expect us to second guess it and thus involves us in it in the same way. In our three instances from Hitchcock, Tarantino and De Palma this is what they insist upon. The grammar of cinema meets with the cruel to generate a sadistic sensibility beyond the frame, not only within it. Of the three, Hitchcock's is the most human within that sadism: he knows that we know the woman will die, and we know too, and so the camera retreats down the stairs silently, toward the front door as we hear a clock ticking and then out onto the street as we hear the tumultuous noise of the city that would make any scream hard to discern. But anyone familiar with classic Hollywood knows that when it comes to scenes of sex and violence it is common for the camera to retreat from showing the act itself. Frenzy was made in 1972 long after the collapse of the Hays code in the mid-sixties which insisted on implicitness (and there are explicit scenes to be found elsewhere in the film), so Hitchcock's use of the implicit within the availability of the explicit carries with it a sadistic dimension, one that tells us that by not showing us something this isn't because he cannot but will not - evident much later again in Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs when he retreats from showing the cop's ear getting cut off as the camera pans left and towards the corner of the room.
What happens in the two examples from Tarantino and the one from Hitchcock is that their understanding of the grammar of film, and our understanding of it, generates the collusive, practised by most films, but they add to it a sadistic dimension which leaves us decidedly implicated. De Palma exacerbates this aspect by using a panoply of formal devices to register this fact, on top of a narrative that can only go in one direction. As Pauline Kael noted when reviewing the film as it came out: "For a sophisticated, absurdist intelligence like De Palma's, there's no way to use camera magic except as foolery. He's uncommitted to anything except successful manipulation...He can't treat a subject straight, but that's all right; neither could Hitchcock." (New Yorker). We might not agree with Kael on the nature of that manipulation, seeing, first of all, sadism where she notes the satiric, but manipulation it surely is. Let us look closely now at the sequence that takes up a quarter of the film the prom scene. Just before going into the hall Tommy and Carrie sit in the car and Tommy asks if she is scared. "Maybe this was a mistake", Carrie reckons as Tommy says, "don't be so nervous." Tommy's speaking honestly, as we know he isn't in on the ruse but we know that Carrie has every right to be nervous as De Palma has cross-cut on the build-up to the prom, showing Carrie getting ready for prom night, Tommy trying on his suit, and Billy and Chris preparing the bucket of pig's blood. When he goes on to utilise slow motion, point of view shots and numerous lachrymose reaction shots to others clapping and cheering Tommy and Carrie's victory, nobody in the audience can run with the feeling such moments usually generate, because De Palma is utilising them as a mode of sadistic forewarning. Don't get too embroiled in this emotion he is telling us, it is only a temporary shelter from the storm. After all, moments before he shows us Carrie teary-eyed and joyous, De Palma has shown us the camera following the rope leading up to a bucket of blood. The point of view shots, the reactions shots and slow-motion don't indicate one possibility against another as we would find in suspense, where we feel the bucket may fall on Carrie but equally may not, but instead sadistic inevitability. While Kael sees the satiric, we are inclined to see the satiric serving the sadistic a deeper and darker sensibility that nevertheless can be accompanied by a lighter tone when the occasion demands.
Such occasions can include the film's symbolism and image foreshadowing. Earlier in the film, Carrie prays to a small statue of Christ, his body pierced with arrows. Late in the film, the mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) will meet the same fate with knives as Carrie's telekinetic powers are forcefully applied. Early on, Carrie is awash in menstrul fluid as the water pours down, standing in the shower having her period. During the prom night she is once again standing in a pool of blood, this time a pig's. After Carrie is drenched she literally sees red as De Palma adopts crimson filters while she enacts her revenge. When De Palma much earlier in the film cuts from Carrie talking to the Christ figurine in the cupboard he allows the shot to transition from the candlit eyes of Christ to the house itself, also lit from inside. There's the suggestion here of an inner illumination, whether it is the Christ figurine or the house itself, both are lit from within but in a mocking manner. Shortly after the mother has been impaled by knives, De Palma can't resist showing us the Christ figure again, making clear that the mother has gone the way of her beloved, proving that, as she says earlier in the film, she should never have practised intercourse: it hasn't only brought a daughter into the world but also brought about her own demise. The mother doesn't only go and meet her maker; she will meet him on the same terms. These are all symbolic moments, but De Palma refuses to take this imagery seriously and here his satiric edge adds to his sadistic streak. When Tom Snyder, writing on De Palma in the early eighties, says "De Palma has concentrated on two kinds of films: satirical, offbeat comedies...and stylized horror films or thrillers influenced by, and highly derivative of, Alfred Hitchcock's films", (Dictionary of Filmmakers) the two come together as the De Palma sensibility: a satiric sadism that is all the more sadistic for passing through the satiric.
De Palma knows that we know he is utilising cod symbolism and he knows that we know we shouldn't be taking religion very seriously at all but it still plays well within the context of horror gothic. When Margaret shows up at the door of Sue's mum this is the Avon lady as God botherer, a flamboyant, even sexually attractive figure who all but puts her foot in the door as Sue's's mother reluctantly invites her in. De Palma presents Margaret not so much as repressed but in sexual denial, a woman in need of a good orgasm that she misguidedly believes only the good Lord can provide. Not for a moment are we supposed to believe in Margaret, nor take her religion seriously; that would undermine the satiric sadism of De Palma's approach. When Carrie goes home after destroying the school we don't expect her to find solace in her mother's arms, even if De Palma's offers Carrie thirty-seconds of comfort in her mother's embrace. "Hold me momma, please hold me" Carrie says, but her mother replies by saying, "I should have killed myself when he put it in me." She then relates that terrible moment when with whisky on his breath Carrie's father took her one evening and we see beads of sweat pour down Margaret's face while she talks about an encounter that was full of sin, but also full of pleasure as she admits she liked it. As she gathers Carrie in her arms while they sit on the floor, so she reckons she should have given her baby then to God, and the music starts up while the mother goes for a knife, ready at last to sacrifice her child to the lord.
Snyder is correct when he says it is unfair to accuse De Palma merely of copying Hitchcock: "he is creating works of horror and mystery that uses Hitchcock as a popular mythic background, a point De Palma himself acknowledged many years later when saying: "How many books have been written about Hitchcock? Now they can write books about De Palma and Hitchcock. That could go on for another couple of decades." (IndieWire) Indeed what De Palma does is take further the collusive sadism Hitchcock hinted at by giving it a greater satiric dimension, just as Tarantino would give it a greater ironic one. Both De Palma and Tarantino know they are working in the maestro's shadow (if in Tarantino's case diluted through Leone's influence), but where De Palma offers an operatic exaggeration that suggests we should lose ourselves in the schmaltz and lose ourselves no less in the mayhem, Tarantino often suggests that the ironic mode denies such an affect. This is partly why Tarantino has never really found himself working in horror (unless we count his script for From Dusk Till Dawn) and the thriller, while De Palma frequently has. Tarantino is inclined towards more sober genres like the heist film (Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown) the revenge movie (Kill Bill, Inglourious Basterds) and the Western (Django Unchained to some degree and certainly The Hateful Eight). This is also reflected in their use of music. De Palma usually goes for a symphonic score, which exaggerates the emotional tenor, while Tarantino prefers popular music songs that can undercut the scene, evident of course in the use of 'Stuck in the Middle with You' in Reservoir Dogs, a light song to a serious moment, and self-reflexively in Jackie Brown when he uses 'Across 110th Street' while invoking the blaxploitation film of that name in the catchy tune. When Tarantino does go orchestral as in Inglourious Basterds the nod to Leone and Morricone is not only evident but perhaps paramount: the already ironic use of original music in Leone's westerns becomes an ironic use of the ironic in Tarantino. It is true De Palma's scores echo Hitchcock's but they don't quite ironise them, as if the affect De Palma seeks is still emotionally significant, however exaggerated, hyperbolized and satiric. Because the sadistic is more important than the satirical this means that he has to generate an affect still stronger than the disbelief even if the two are in close conjunction. To lose the affect to the satirical would undermine the proper sadism that he takes from Hitchcock.
We can see this by looking, for a moment, at scenes from other De Palma films: The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible. In the former, De Palma offers horror/thriller moment within the grammar of a gangster film. Here we follow the immediate point of view of an intruder into cop Malone's (Sean Connery) house. It isn't just the intruder's point of view we adopt, but the very camera as it moves through the house at one with the character intruding. As the suspense music builds, as the camera moves from room to room as the person breaks in, so suddenly turns round with a sawn-off shotgun in his hand and forces the figure, who we now see, out of the apartment on the backfoot. But all this has been a ruse to coax Malone out of his apartment and onto his doorstep, where another gangster pumps a few rounds of machine-gun fire into him. Up until this point in the story, Malone has played an important role; a father figure and mentor for Elliot Ness. As he lies dying, pulling himself along the floor, the earlier suspense music which has been followed by diegetic sound (we hear a baby crying) now moves into the opera Pagliacci, before De Palma cuts to a tight side elevation shot of the singer as the camera moves in at a distance to Al Capone sitting in the audience as the assassin appears behind him. It then cuts back to Malone dying, and then again to Capone wiping tears from his eyes as the assassin explains what has happened, disturbing Capone's emotional engagement with the fictional lives on stage that are seen as so much more important to his feelings than the actual people whose lives he takes out.
What response does De Palma seek from the audience we might wonder, since irony itself would leave Malone's death insignificant next to Capone's cheap tears. Yet if we accept that De Palma is a collusive sadist then what matters isn't quite the emotion he can extract but the sadistic manner in what he implicates the viewer in and at the same time subjects the viewer to. He subjects us to suffering with Malone, a character we have built affection for, and sadistically reminds us we are watching a film aware that we could easily fall into the obliviousness that the callous Capone practises: crying real tears for art and with no feeling for real death. Now, of course, Capone is a gangster death is his trade and Malone a cop he wishes dead, but De Palma frames the sequences less with the different ethical systems of the characters in mind, than with the cinematic need to flaunt his own sadistic aesthetic and find ways in which simultaneously to exploit the viewer and also incorporate the viewer into that sadism. Trying to rescue the director from a certain reputation he felt was undeserved, Chris Dumas says, speaking specifically of Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Body Double, reckoned "Brian De Palma, right around the moment Ronald Reagan was elected president, could be - and was understood: as a thief of the Master's [Hitchcock's] treasured masterpieces, and, metonymically, as a rapist or sex murderer..." (Cinema Journal) In various ways, Dumas wants to salvage De Palma's reputation as manipulator and plagiarist and offers a more Godardian side based partly on looking at his earlier work. But this leaves us musing over a Pauline Kael remark in the seventies where she wondered whether anybody short of Sam Peckinpah was inclined to get labelled Brechtian. It isn't that there is no self-reflexivity to De Palma's oeuvre (it is there in abundance) but that for us the self-reflexive works to exacerbate the effect not undermine it. When De Palma cuts to the side elevation shot of the opera singer, and also allows us in a zooming long shot to see Capone's face, this is the director telling us he has the full cinematic arsenal at his disposal. It allows him to shift emotional registers as quickly as he pleases all the better to allow for the sentimental (the lush orchestral score that comes in as Ness discovers and attends to the dying Malone) and the ruthlessly narrational as he dies Malone gives Ness an important piece of plot in the form of a piece of paper with information on it. De Palma doesn't undermine the sentimental with the cynical, or undermine the cynical with the sentimental, he offers them in a ruthless combination.
In Mission: Impossible he extends this into a plot twist. Early on in the film, it seems like the head of the team, Jim Phelps (played by John Voight) has been killed as operative Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) determines to get hold of an important disc and find out what happened to members of his team. It turns out that Phelps didn't die at all as De Palma manipulates across the course of the film rather than from moment to moment, scene to scene. Nothing new in that of course, but De Palma's combination of impossible shots and innumerable mind games turns a standard TV show into a De Palma-esque experience. Whether it is Ethan wearing a very plausible Phelps mask to draw out the femme fatale's treachery, or a precise helicopter shot that moves in one take from a high, long shot of a TGV crossing a bridge to moving in on the train so that a mobile phone can be perceived through the train window, De Palma takes a film that ostensibly resembles a Bond or Bourne movie and fills it with that little bit more flamboyance and control. This rests partly on De Palma's relationship with shot construction that indicates the opposite of Godard. If the French director became famous for eschewing shots that had previously appeared important (transition shots of people going upstairs; removing cut-aways that led to the famous jump cuts as two shots cut together no longer matched), De Palma moves in the other direction by giving us more shots than we would usually perceive are needed. We see this evident in most of De Palma's work and certainly from Carrie onwards, but examples from the three films already mentioned will do.
In Mission: Impossible there is the justifiably famous sequence involving Ethan entering a top security environment as he retrieves important information with the aid of a disc. Entering through a shaft and lowered down by a colleague while a third figure keeps them informed of the logistics of the situation, the film cuts between the three of them and also the employee whose coffee has been poisoned to keep him out of the room. As the film cuts between these four figures, De Palma doesn't just lay out the logistics of the enterprise, he also can't resist adding mischievous complications and shots that play up the directorial control and the audience's helplessness. At one moment (Krieger) Jean Reno, responsible for keeping Ethan above ground level by hoisting him down but without allowing him to touch the floor, literally smells a rat and momentarily loses control of the hoist as he kills the rodent. Ethan all but plummets to the floor as Reno regains control. Here we have Ethan hanging by a thread and working the sweat off his brow as again De Palma goes literal: a bead of sweat falls from his forehead, onto his glasses and Ethan just manages to catch it in his hand: if it had fallen to the floor it would have tripped off the alarm system and the mission would have been doomed. Yet this is still just plot. De Palma creates the necessary variables the team have to deal with and then throws in a couple more. But what makes it especially De-Palma-esque are the 'excessive shots'. The overhead shots of the office worker in the bathroom; the angle offered as Krieger notices the rat, the cut to the bead of sweat in slow motion as it falls.
In The Untouchables we can give the no less famous example of the pram scene, indebted of course to Battleship Potemkin. Here Ness and his team are waiting for some gangsters to arrive at Grand Central when he witnesses a woman struggling with a baby in a pram and two suitcases. She finally makes it to the top of the stairs and Ness helps the woman with the pram all the while keeping an eye out for the villains. As he pulls out his gun and leaves the pram at the top of the steps, blowing away one of the gangsters, so the pram starts its downward descent as De Palma cuts between the various villains getting blown to pieces and the pram left alone. As the pram starts its fall, De Palma cuts back and forth between the mother and the pram giving us no new information but emphasising the terrible predicament, and of course in slow motion. As the woman tugs at Ness's arm so he notices the pram careering down the stairs and he is torn between defending his life, taking out further gangsters and saving the baby. De Palma manages, of course, to complicate the nature of a given situation with the infant, but he also intensifies the aesthetic with numerous shots to the pram falling as the shootout continues, with Ness eventually arriving at the bottom of the stairs before the pram and colleague, and saving the day, the pram and of course the baby.
As so often with De Palma, it is a crude sequence brilliantly executed. But in both The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible they are worked into strongly modulated plots. If the aesthetic is much more pronounced in Carrie it rests on the fact that as we've noted there really isn't much of a story. Carrie is humiliated in the shower but looks like she will gain the acceptance of her peers by going to the prom with Tommy, but it all goes awry as she gets soaked in pig's blood. The film hinges on two subplots machinating the tale into a struggle between good and evil. Sue persuades Tommy to take Carrie to the prom and they, in turn, persuade the gym teacher that they are doing this for Carrie and not as a cruel trick. But unbeknowest to them a cruel trick is being put in place elsewhere as Chris and Billy prepare to ruin her night. De Palma doesn't seem too interested in the problems that might arise even if Carrie's night does go off well; might she develop strong feelings for Tommy only to see him once again with Sue? Won't she realise that the whole evening was a ruse if not at her expense, nevertheless carrying a retrospective cost? Equally, De Palma isn't too interested in showing us whether before the event Carrie is at all bothered by what happened between Tommy and Sue. They looked like a pretty successful couple; why have they suddenly broken up and why is he now taking her to the prom? More abstractly, David Thomson says, "the breathtaking punishment is an extravaganza consuming the vicious and the innocent. It is a display of a wit and bravura in the filmmaker that is supposed to condone or decorate flesh burning like lard. Is it too nagging to say that Auschwitz relied on the same kind of dislocation? Is De Palma justified in his defense that no one should take this too seriously?" (Overexposures). When Amy Irving appeared in De Palma's next film The Fury playing telekinetic herself, John Cassavetes, also in the film, mocked Irving's determination to perform the role with such studied professionalism. "You'd think she was playing Joan of Arc" (Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), Cassavetes said. If Cassavetes has a point that De Palma wouldn't appear to disagree with, it rests on De Palma's interest in complexity of mise en scene, over that of character. To wonder about the various permutations and possibilities available to Carrie's psyche, her motivations and her future feelings even if the date did turn out well, would perhaps by De Palma's reckoning be beside the point. It is the difference between the possible and the actual, between creating a scenario which alludes to the off-screen and the sub-textual, invisible variables, and the on-screen and clearly textual the visible variables. When we proposed that De Palma's genius is for giving us complicating situational throughlines (the rat and the bead of sweat in Mission: Impossible), and utilising numerous inventive shots to do so, we sense that the invisible variables are all but missing. Who cares what Carrie is thinking about Tommy, whether their relationship will succeed, or whether she will mind if Tommy gets back with Sue afterwards? That is all needless speculation.
But is it? Doesn't many a film work off needful speculation, even on occasion horror films? Polanski's Rosemary's Baby and Roeg's Don't Look Now, for example? Can't we muse over what exactly happened to the girl staying in the flat next door to Rosemary who throws herself out of the window, or why exactly the ostensibly good Dr Hill informs Rosemary's husband (who, she tells Dr Hill, frightens her) she is in his office and that he (played by none other than Cassavetes) must pick her up. in Don't Look Now, surely this must be the first time since their child's death that the Baxters have made love, and so on. Such thoughts aren't just idle speculation; they are part of the experience, part of the density a film can invoke. If De Palma's work often seems thin despite its immensely complex visual texture, it lies partly here. In The Untouchables and Mission: Impossible this flimsiness of feeling can be more easily masked by the plot mechanics he utilises, but in Carrie there is hardly any plot to rely upon.
What he offers instead is technique and a proper concern for the image, not precisely one and the same since the former is, of course, necessary for but doesn't exhaust form, as this concern can be used, for good and ill, for symbolism and parallelism; visual coherence and invention. We don't have time to attend to them all, but we will say just a few words about the film's technical know-how and visual imagination. A technique De Palma uses frequently in Carrie and across the body of his work is the diopter lens. It allows an apparent single image to be split in two by using different lenses simultaneously: subsequently, the foreground can be bold, large and clear, the background small but still in focus. It is there in the scene on the sports field; the gym teacher in the foreground taking up the right half of the screen as close to a dozen girls are crammed into the left-hand side a few feet behind her. It gives the teacher all the visual authority she needs as the girls have recently been told she has the power to withdraw their right to go the prom. In an earlier scene, Tommy sits in the class bold on the left-hand side of the frame, Carrie on the right-hand side a few tables behind him. Tommy's just read out a poem he has written and after the teacher asks if anybody has anything to say about it, Carrie coos that "it was beautiful", with the shot suggesting a hint of complicity between Tommy and Carrie that the film depends upon later as it asks for a hint of plausibility in the teaming of Carrie and Tommy. We can also think of the frequent filters used to bathe the film in soft light in the outdoor scenes and to bathe the film in blood during Carrie's rampage. De Palma also utilises the split-screen he has used earlier in Sisters and Phantom of the Opera, a device of its time and close to a gimmick, yet in De Palma's hands doesn't possess just an idle modishness but helps create an inevitability that is close to indifference. De Palma may claim that he needed the split-screen to convey the complex events that he shows but he doesn't use it at all in the build-up to the prom disaster; only once the telekinesis gets unleashed. Yet it is the build-up that is more complex since it is here we have to follow Chris and Billy's plan as we see the rigged-up bucket of blood above the stage, and watch how Chris arranges for Carrie to become Prom queen. Afterwards, when the mayhem starts, the split-screen along with the red filters indicates that people are trapped in hell, the split-screen better emphasising the nature of that entrapment. It becomes not an informational necessity (De Palma has shown that crosscutting works as well as ever for this) but a formal device that distances us from chaos in front of our eyes. In the scene, we aren't really siding with Carrie's rage and we are likely to be unhappy with how the events unfold in front of us. Tommy gets knocked out and killed by a falling light; the gym teacher impaled against a wall as a falling arch traps her. If De Palma wanted to involve us in the sequence then he'd be a bit more concerned about who he was killing. Instead, the split-screen says it really doesn't matter: the characters are trapped in the school, and De Palma has trapped us in his film frames.
If De Palma's reputation in some places is so high and in others so low, it rests partly on what we make of such an entrapment. David Thomson sees that "in Carrie the girl's trauma is beyond healing; it reaches out for the frenzy of holocaust. Her mother's madness is a comic-book mockery of belief the very response demanded by the picture. But these are the human figures that attract De Palma's creative pessimism." (Overexposures). Speaking during a Cahiers du Cinema roundtable, Jean Douchet believed however that "Brian de Palma isn't someone that I know well. I was told that Phantom of the Paradise wasn't that good, but by chance I went to go see The Fury for a review for the radio. I was stupefied by The Fury, so I went to go see some of his other movies. And I found them to be all fascinating, if only for how they literally rework Hitchcock, just like how Hitchcock would rework Lang's set-ups." (Toronto Film Review) Thomson sees weak characterization; Douchet witnesses strong form, but while Thomson might be accused of falling into literary rather than cinematic expectation, Douchet wants to attend to film as a medium unto itself. Whatever our own reservations that take us closer to Thomson's position than to Douchet's, nevertheless when critics as perspicacious as Douchet, Serge Daney and Pascal Bonitzer (all at the round table) see merit it might be useful to understand what is involved in that merit.
We will thus conclude on two moments that indicate not just the rhythms of surprise and shock, but the formal aspect behind them that suggests a surplus too. If De Palma reworks Hitchcock it rests partly on his insistent use of the mater's idiom but for his own aesthetic ends. Returning to the scene where the boy on the bike humiliates Carrie we start with a long shot on Carrie walking down the path, with a pink flower bush out of focus in the foreground on the left as the boy enters the frame and weaves in and out of the trees lining the way. He turns round and starts weaving his way in the other direction as the film cuts to an angle where the trees are now on the left but also too is an out of focus bush of red flowers. The film cuts again to the boy calling out "Creepy Carrie" as the film returns to the previous shot but with Carrie closer now to the camera. These three shots are simple, but they contain a menace of precision, a frame balance that doesn't emphasise the horror of the generic but the banality of evil as casual cruelty. The three shots tell us this is the sort of casual terror that is Carrie's daily life, and while Thomson might wish for De Palma to offer more humanity in his work, here his camera position shows, if not concern, more than generic indifference. The director might be very interested in manipulating us but that doesn't mean he wishes to do so generically. The shock this brief scene registers is minor and what matters more is the sense we have that this happens often to Carrie without turning it into a montage of bullying or a purely generic moment of jump-scaring the viewer.
In the sequence at the end of the film, De Palma does exactly the latter, but within a scene that lulls us into a false sense of security while also making clear there is no reason except the generic why we should feel secure - and yet there is immense craft at work too as he utilises the surrealistic. The film seems to be more or less over and Sue lays some flowers by Carrie's bulldozed house where a for sale sign doubles up as a grave and the film tells us that we can now feel sadness over the prior events. But the scene is a fine example of surrealist film, indebted more to Magritte, Delvaux and Dali than the horror film per se. Two red cars we see in the background are moving backwards in slow motion while in the foreground Sue moves forward. The light seems to have faded, the flowers in Sue's hands may remind us of the earlier red rose bush, and we are now suddenly at night rather than in the day. Then, rather more suddenly, a bloodied arm comes out of the charcoaled rubble as Carrie works a startle effect much more impressive than the boy's earlier one on her as the film cuts to Sue waking from a nightmare, her mother to hand. By the mid-eighties such a dream startle would become standard practise in numerous horrors, but this was the mid-seventies, and De Palma certainly cues us to see that we shouldn't be taking the sequence at face value. When we invoke Magritte, we are of course thinking of his play on light in 'L'empire de lumiere', and of Delvaux paintings like 'The Road to Rome' or 'The Tunnel' where women in diaphanous gowns seem to be moving in slow motion. De Palma acknowledges a surrealist dimension to his work that he thinks is missing from Hitchcock. "I am dealing in surrealistic, erotic imagery. Hitchcock never got into that too much. Psycho is basically about a heist. A girl steals money for her boyfriend so they can get married. Dressed to Kill is about a woman's secret erotic life. If anything, Dressed to Kill has more of a Buuel feeling to it." (Rolling Stone) But Hitchcock utilised Dali for the dream sequence in Spellbound and Michael Gould, author of Surrealism and the Cinema: Open-eyed Screening, writes on Vertigo, saying, "while a surrealist sensibility is present in many of Hitchcock's later films, Vertigo (1958) is his surrealist masterpiece. Beneath the plot of a gripping suspense film is the disturbing and profound evocation of life lived in a dream world." The flowers Sue carries resemble after all the bouquet Madeleine takes to Valdez's graveside in Hitchcock's San Francesco film. Equally, in the Cahiers round table Douchet, notes that "there is a side to De Palma where he endlessly analyses Hitchcock. And this is exactly what also makes him Buuelian. We realize, as time goes by, that there is actually a lot in common between Bunuel and Hitchcock, two filmmakers that were contemporaries while psychoanalysis was being developed and who both admired one another. And the re-apparition at the end of the film, heightening the fiction, making it about the impossibility of endings, is more aligned with Bunuel." (Toronto Film Review) Here we have De Palma insisting he is more surreal than Hitchcock and Douchet recognising parallels between Hitchcock and Bunuel. But what matters is that what De Palma takes from Hitchcock isn't just his grammar but also an aspect of the English maestro's sensibility that he also exacerbates. What they both possess however is an interest in imagery that can take us beyond the generic and what appears like the formally necessary. They are capable of producing excessive images that generate an image structure greater than the plot of the film.
Perhaps such an aspect tempers De Palma's collusive sadism or just gives it a further twist. If we have been arguing that De Palma is a sadistic filmmaker, we can also see that this isn't the sadism of everyday life (Tarantino is far more a realist in this sense than De Palma), but a world always hinting at dream and the exaggeration of reality. Whether adopting the frequently operatic, or occasionally the surrealistic, De Palma's final collusive sadism perhaps indicates not only what we he can do to us, but also what we are doing to ourselves; that cinema can easily demand from us not only a passivity that contains within it our immediate haplessness, but an active cruelty too that suggests a terror that can feel very much self-created. After all, we don't only have dreams; we also have nightmares, and who is responsible for those? De Palma manages to suggest that his films are partly our responsibility; that somehow we are too blame for their creation.
© Tony McKibbin