by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas
Crudely boiled down to the barest of narrative and thematic bones, horror more often than not is predicated upon a world of villains – Michael Myers, Freddy Kruger, Jason Voorhees – and, in turn, the heroes who fight them to restore order. Even when delineations are not that clear cut, it still often exhibits (and may be defined through) a perverse delight in manipulating and challenging the binaries of ‘good’ versus ‘evil’ for its own macabre, sometimes even subversive, purposes. For its critical history alone, it is on these terms that director Brian De Palma’s 1976 film Carrie is of some note. Neatly fitting into this binary system, responses to Carrie can be divided into two schools. The film’s brazen technical excesses and references to Alfred Hitchcock are considered by some critics to be the films greatest virtues, while for others these same elements are Carrie‘s downfall and reveal De Palma as naught more than an artless hack. Even more violently opposed are the many critics that have taken part in the most heated debate concerning the film (and “De Palma studies” in general): is he a misogynist? The debate has reached the point of such repetition that over 30 years after its release, the question itself is problematic if only by virtue of its overwhelming dominance of critical treatment of the film. But not all criticism has entered into the invitingly Manichean world that horror frequently encourages. Despite the bulk of material to the contrary, there still appears to be critical life for Carrie outside of the traditional hackneyed debates.
To suggest that De Palma’s technical style – in Carrie at least – is anything less than overt would not only be untrue, it misses De Palma’s painstaking (although perhaps zeitgeist-drunk) formal construction of the film. Critics have employed startlingly polarised language in response to these stylistic issues, Richard Combs embarking upon the clearest mode of attack when he accuses De Palma of “leading his audience on with the gushy lyricism of a shampoo commercial before kicking them in the pants with the knife-wielding hysterics of the crudest Hammer horror” (1977: 4). Serafina Kent Bathrick is equally hostile, employing terms such as “fatuous”, “overstuffed” and “flashy”, describing the prom scene sequence as “the ultimate-moment of self-congratulation”. Eye-of-the-beholder critical evaluations come to the fore, however, when this same sequence is described by David Rosen as “De Palma’s stylistic high point” (38: 1977), and that the film’s excessive style is, as a whole, “lush” (37). Those who defend the films excesses do so by crediting the very significance of that excess: “Carrie…experiences everything with excessive intensity, and the film takes its purply style from her feelings”, says David Pirie (22: 1977), while for Kenneth MacKinnon, the issues are one of authorship; “De Palma’s announcement of his hand in the organisation and execution of the film may be resented by the spectator wishing to stay lodged in the security normally available to the viewer of dominant cinema” (132: 1990).
Then there’s the old “Hitchcock Knock-off” chestnut. Pirie describes Carrie‘s shower scene as “an odd and fruitful progression from De Palma’s acknowledged mentor” (22), while Rosen notes a shared thematic concern between the two directors, suggesting De Palma “quite effectively exploits [shared themes]…satirizing them with a menacing Hitchcockian touch” (37). Robin Wood and Keith Ulhich dismiss accusations of plagiarism as ultimately irrelevant, Wood suggesting a high-brow hypocrisy active within this claims core: “When De Palma works his variations of Psycho (1960), this is imitation or plagiarism, whereas when Bob Fosse or Woody Allen imitates Fellini or Bergman this is somehow, mysteriously, evidence of his originality” (125: 2003). Ulhich is more diplomatic; “I like to view [it]…as a conversation between two filmmakers – one who has been absorbed into history and memory, and another who uses certain of the elder filmmaker’s techniques and themes as a prism through which he filters his own sensibilities”. On the flip side, we find Bathrick’s attack encased in a continuing tone of dismissive indirectness; “Carrie is a senior at Bates (ugh) High” (Bathrick), the style of Carrie’s house is “another clunky comment on Norman Bates’…more massive mausoleum”. Shelley Stamp Lindsay gives her concerns about the connection between the two directors a somewhat more serious tone, suggesting that De Palma’s attempts to mimic Hitchcock fundamentally fail on an ideological level. Again referencing Carrie‘s shower scene; “Violence and sexuality are further confused in this sequence through overt parallels to Psycho‘s shower scene … whereas the violence in Psycho is split between victim and attacker, between Marion and Norman Bates, here no such division exists” (282: 1996).
It is these ideological concerns that dominate discussion about Carrie. Bathrick’s attack on the film is not alone in its fundamental claims that De Palma “has developed his own brand of sexism”. She claims, “there is an urgency in his desire to prove the impossibility of community amongst women”, and that ultimately, “like all the women in the film…[Carrie] is punished for being a woman”. Lindsay shares a similarly negative view of the film in terms of its gender politics; “In charting Carrie’s path to mature womanhood, the film presents female sexuality as monstrous and constructs femininity as a subject position impossible to occupy” (281). Barbara Creed focused on this notion in The Monstrous-Feminine, approaching Carrie as, you guessed it, an example of the monstrous-feminine; “a particularly interesting representation of woman as witch and menstrual monster” (77: 1993) (with no Ginger Snaps around to take the now gratingly orthodox critical “flogging a menstrual horror horse”, many critics of this era had to make do with Carrie to fit the bill). Michelle Citron’s comparison of Carrie to The Marathon Man (1976) is also based on the connection between Carrie’s introduction to biological womanhood with her supernatural abilities; “To be a man is to become moral and courageous, to rise up victorious out of the evil of the world. To be a woman is to become that evil: uncontrolled and destructive” (1977). Michael Bliss shares this belief that Carrie’s telekinesis that “first manifests itself along with ‘the curse’ suggests that the power itself is a curse, a view supported by the film’s subsequent events” (53: 1983). For these two events – the onset of her first period and the awakening of her supernatural powers – to be fundamentally linked to De Palma’s misogyny is, again, dependent upon the critics subjective intent. De Palma himself defends the depiction of Carries’ “out of control” body simply: “I wanted to use it as an extension of her emotions”.
Misogyny arguments are primarily based on the assumption that because it is Carrie’s supernatural abilities that ultimately are a destructive force, it is this relationship between the onset of menstruation and those telekinetic powers that indicate that her womanhood is also a destructive force. But as Bruce Babington radically points out, the film never indicates that her telekinesis – and by association, her womanhood (gained through menstruation) – is a negative force as such in its own right. In fact, this is where the power of the film lies: our fundamental positioning as spectators with Carrie. The simplistic reading of her classmates violent attack in the opening shower scene where “period=abject/bad/ evil” are challenged by Babbington. The attack, he claims, stems from a larger social awkwardness at their own femaleness “their own self-hatred, of their own unconscious, culturally-developed fear of the female in themselves” (11). Their attack on Carrie is an attack on their own discomfort with their own response to their socially taboo menstruation. But to suggest that by virtue of exposing the other girls’ socially-conditioned and aggressive discomfort with their own menstruation, De Palma is himself responsible for creating the patriarchal attitudes that are responsible for such a phenomenon seems quite a leap, but one that is made by many of his detractors. This is the similar kind of rhetoric that surrounds much writing on rape-revenge film: does even the depiction of rape as a violent itself count as a symbolic act of violence , or is there a way that, by showing the horror of rape, some kind of message or lesson can be imparted? Does this act of “showing” in effect neutralise intent?
A further complication in the misogyny debate is from Carol J. Clover, who uses the film as an example of her notion of cross-gender identification in the horror genre. “With its prom queens, menstrual periods, tampons, worries about clothes and makeup, Carrie would seem on the face of it the most feminine of stories” (3: 1993). But, she argues, this is clearly not the case: ‘If Carrie, whose story begins and ends with menstrual imagery and seems in general so painfully girlish… and if her target audience is any high school boy who has been pantsed or had his glasses messed with, then we are truly in a universe in which the sex of a character is no object” (20).
What is unendingly fascinating is the very insistence of so many critics to take such extreme, polarised positions within the misogyny and style debates themselves. This raises significant questions about the critical landscape upon which De Palma criticism takes place. It could be argued that critics have followed habit when attempting to read Carrie on the plane of polarised heroes and villains that the horror genre so frequently evokes, but in the process ironically reducing critical debates on Carrie to one that mirrors the very same divisions: De Palma is a villain/ De Palma is a hero. What is more curious is the often-blatant disregard for evidence provided by the film itself to support or deny these claims. As Babbington points out, “in order to sustain the views that Carrie is misogynistic and incoherent, it is necessary to cut off discussion that might be embarrassing” (16). Babbington offers the example of the minor but significant character Frieda – her position is vital, but he is the only critic I have found who even mentions her. And for Bliss to comment on what he describes as “the polarized world of Carrie, in which a Manichean struggle continually exists between good and evil” (15), he relies upon a deeply concerning dismissal of the many debates concerning the moral classification of characters such as Sue and Miss Collins.
There are alternate ways of reading Carrie: these either/or readings are not the only positions possible. William Paul’s examination of the film in his brilliant book Laughing, Screaming takes the dominant binaries of the horror film into account in his reading to dramatically enlightening effect, taking the daring step towards a moral reading of the film and stepping away from the done-and-re-done debates of mysoginy and Hitchcockism. He’s worth quoting at length:
Horror films generally operate in a Manichean universe to the extent that the monstrous and the human inscribe a world of polar opposites. Carrie seems to take over the Manichaeism of the horror film, but it ultimately challenges it as well… Carrie offers a radical shift by invoking this familiar opposition in order to collapse it. The human and the monstrous are not polar states in this film precisely because the human is the monstrous (366) … Carrie earns a sympathy that seems to confuse our willingness to designate her as monstrous. Yet since the film does finally insist on her monstrousness, it invokes a scheme of opposing monsters only to collapse it as much as it collapses its other oppositions. (367: 1994)
Paul’s book – amongst other things – is the closest to attempt what Vivian Sobchack invites in a footnote to her seminal essay, “Bringing It All Back Home: Family Economy and Generic Exchange” (1987), noting that critical attention needs to be given to connections between horror films like Carrie and “the contemporary teen revenge comedy” such as Revenge Of The Nerds (1984). Sobchack’s article also refuses to participate in the traditionally dominant either/or debates around Carrie, locating the film as a significant example in her analysis of the “problem child” figure in horror and other genres. And curiously, despite being referenced by both Creed and Lindsay in their positions on Carrie as fundamentally misogynistic, Sobchack has little interest in gender in regards to De Palma’s work, and instead weighs Carrie up against the far more problematic male protagonist in De Palma’s following film The Fury (1978).
Other interesting readings of Carrie do exist even if they hold less immediate appeal than the ready-made positions provided by traditional De Palma debates concerning style (Hitchcock!) and gender (pig!). Pauline Kael reads the film as “a satiric homage to exploitation film” (211: 1981), while MacKinnon views it as “a satire on fundamentalism” (136). Rosen agrees (39) also widening his critical scope to include in its thematic concerns “some very real and recognisable horrors of contemporary American life, chiefly and centrally the trauma of female adolescence when subjected to the… terrors of the anxiously conformist ambience of high school” (37). Dmetri Kakmi‘s analysis of the film is noteworthy if only for its refreshing absence of any reference to Hitchcock at all, replacing it instead with comparisons to everything from William Blake to Jean-August Dominique Ingres to Hieronymus Bosch. While these arguments may be debated in their own right, their very value stems from their refusal to enter into the more pedestrian misogyny/Hitchcock debates. And there are still areas as yet untouched – while virtually all critics comment in one way or another is to the sympathetic character of Carrie, not enough attention has been given to the powerful and specific role of pathos in the film.
Few other directors so immediately polarise opinion like Brian De Palma, and a history of the critical treatment of Carrie suggests that this film is no exception. But regardless of your take on the film – even if just on an initial subjective, gut level – it seems only fitting that this film, so intent on collapsing the binary framework of heroes/villains and good/evil, has even critics themselves caught up in the inviting honeytrap of the Manichean in horror.