CARRIE (1976, De Palma)
Happy October, everyone! I’m going to kick it off Stephen King style, and keep the scary films coming this month. And what better way to start than with a bucket of blood?
Blood is a major visual theme in Brian De Palma‘s bold and super fun film Carrie, starring Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie and Amy Irving. And everyone knows this climactic use of it. (If you don’t, do yourself a favor and watch the whole movie before you get it spoiled here.) De Palma is also famous for his long single shots, oners, and this one in Carrie is as sneaky as it is gorgeous ( just when you think it can’t go any further, it does.) It was quite a few viewings before I clocked it as a oner; the dramatic suspense is so effective that the last thing you’re thinking about is what the camera’s up to. And that’s when movie’s are at their best, if you ask me.
Robert McKee on Brian De Palma’s suspense
I’ve been obsessed recently with Robert McKee‘s book Story, a fascinating telling of how and why story works, specifically the medium of the screenplay/movie. In it, the born-teacher McKee talks about the three kinds of suspense, which he labels: Mystery, Suspense, and Dramatic Irony. Re-watching Carrie last night, I couldn’t help but think about this.
Mystery is when the filmmaker hides a known fact to the antagonist from the audience. (Serial killer is behind one of many doors, but the character and audience don’t know which.)
Suspense is giving the audience and the characters the same information. (In above example, character sees the shadow under the door of the serial killer, and the monster is shown holding up an axe, waiting for our hero to open the door. They both know, but how will it end?)
Dramatic Irony was Hitchcock’s favorite device. Hide from the protagonist a fact known to the audience…
Well, everyone probably knows what a devotee of Hitch that De Palma is, and this scene in Carrie couldn’t be a more classic example of what McKee calls “Dramatic Irony” suspense. We root for Carrie’s escape from her world of tortures, and it looks like that sweet lamb has finally gathered the courage and confidence to do so. But we also know that a shit storm is a brewing, a powder keg (filled with pig’s blood) is about to go off, and that Carrie is going to unleash some serious psychic kick-ass on her tormentors (as foreshadowed and promised by her breaking the lighting fixture with her mind during the tampon-pelting scene in the opening.) That’s a lot of fuel for the suspense fire, so De Palma is in no rush and we’re all the happier as an audience because of it.
So enjoy the deftly blocked and executed oner that really sucks you into the world of suspense that De Palma, Stephen King and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen have built. If you continue the scene, you can behold the ethereal and dreamlike use of music and slow motion that De Palma uses to such evocative and ironic perfection throughout this film. (And the inspired & gripping use of falling crepe paper!)
The shot starts at 1:24 – and remember, they’re all going to laugh at you.