Setting the School on Fire with Carrie - 2/17

If you’ve been following this blog for the past year you’ve no doubt noticed my obsession with drive-in theaters. Well, this week I learned some surprising news – the folks who run the Flashback Weekend Horror Convention and Drive-In in Chicago (which we also attend on a regular basis) have made a bid to re-open Rockford’s own Sunset Drive-In! Satanica and I attended a city zoning meeting on Wednesday where the first step was approved to bring the drive-in back into operation.

There are still a couple of other hurdles to be cleared in the next month or so, but Satanica and I take this as good news for Rockford and the surrounding area. We’ve taken it upon ourselves to drive to Monroe, WI every summer to visit the Sky-Vu Drive-In, but the possibility of having an outdoor theater in our own hometown again is the best thing I’ve heard in some time.

The Sunset was closed down in 1986 after the drive-in business deteriorated and the theater resorted to showing XXX porn, resulting in a lawsuit that shut down the facility. A couple of years ago I went snooping through old newspapers in the Rockford Public Library and turned up some old movie ads that showed the Sunset’s decline over the years, from the mainstream theater of the 60’s to the exploitation showcase of the 1970’s (including dusk till dawn horror quadruple bills near Halloween) and finally to hardcore in the early 80’s.

Unlike the other drive-ins in the area (the Robin, Riverlane and Belford) the Sunset was never demolished. It’s overgrown now, but the giant screen is still standing – still white after all these years. Here’s hoping the City sees fit to allow the return of the Sunset Drive-In to continue unabated! You can find out more by visiting the Sunset Drive-In here.
Last Saturday’s movie of the night was Brian DePalma’s Carrie, the first movie to be based on a Stephen King novel (his first) kicking off what would become a three decades long institution (a new Stephen King film, 1408, about a haunted hotel room, comes out this summer starring John Cusack and Samuel Jackson.) Looking back at Carrie three decades later, it’s a pleasure to watch a movie put together with such craftsmanship that it still holds up over time.

The film begins with what was (and still is) an undeniably a shocking sequence where teenage Carrie White (Sissy Spacek, Oscar-nominated for Best Actress) has her first period in the girl’s locker room after gym class. The shy, isolated Carrie, brought up by a fanatical religious mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie, also nominated the same year for Best Supporting Actress) has never been taught the facts of life and thinks the menstrual blood means she’s dying, and the other girls, including Chris Hargensen (DePalma regular Nancy Allen), Norma Watson (P.J Soles) and Sue Snell (Amy Irving), pelt her with tampons and chant “plug it up!”

According to Margaret White’s skewed belief system, the “curse of blood” has come upon Carrie because she has sinned, and she punishes her daughter by locking her in the broom closet. All the scenes inside the house take on an extra layer of interest through the set design, which emphasizes Gothic arches, candlelight and medieval tapestries suggesting the interior of a convent or church.

Carrie’s period also unlocks a latent telekinetic power which begins manifesting itself. Soon, she begins exploring her ability of manipulating objects with her mind.

A subplot surfaces involving Sue Snell, who feels so guilty about the locker room stunt that she recruits her boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt), to take Carrie to the senior prom. The bitchy Chris is banned from the prom due to her insubordination and conspires with her boyfriend, Billy (John Travolta), to publicly humiliate Carrie. All the elements are in place and tick toward a tragic finale like clockwork.

Carrie becomes more courageous in defying her mother, who is convinced Carrie is possessed by Satan. Chris & Billy arrange for the voting process for prom king & queen to be rigged, and when Carrie and Tommy take the stage a bucket of pig’s blood is dumped on Carrie from the rafters. Reliving the humiliation of the menstrual blood in the locker room in front of the entire high school, Carrie’s powers come flooding out in a powerful, destructive force that obliterates the entire senior class.

DePalma is a master of suspense (or was, based on his early career output), and although many complain that he got his best stuff by studying the works of Alfred Hitchcock, there’s no doubt that the man knows how to put together an effective sequence. From the virtuoso, virtually silent suspense sequence involving the prom king & queen, in which the audience knows about the bucket of blood although no one else at the prom does, to the firey pyrotechnics of the split screen revenge sequence, Carrie is a master class of filmic tension.

One can't go without mentioning the great music by Pino Donnagio, a lush orchestral score that lunges into Psycho-styled violin riffs whenever Carrie uses her psychic power.

Carrie remains one of DePalma’s best screen works and one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King story on the screen. DePalma would go on to work with his stars Nancy Allen and John Travolta in subsequent films, putting Allen in Dressed to Kill, his reworking of Hitchcock’s Psycho, and both Allen and Travolta together in Blow Out (itself a reworking of Antonionni's 60's counterculture experiment, Blow Up). Amy Irving was cast in DePalma’s The Fury (one of his early works still unseen by me) before becoming (for a time) Mrs. Steven Spielberg. In 1999 she reprised the role of Sue for The Rage: Carrie 2. P.J.Soles went on to gain fame as the doomed Lynda in John Carpenter’s Halloween two years later. She recently made a cameo appearance in Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. William Katt became The Greatest American Hero (“Believe it or not, I’m walkin’ on air”) in the short lived TV series before battling ghosts in Sean S. Cunningham’s House (and it’s terrible, direct to video sequel, House IV.) Leading lady Sissy Spacek went on to be nominated for 5 more Oscars (for Coal Miner’s Daughter, Missing, The River, Crimes of the Heart and In the Bedroom), unfortunately without a win. She recently returned to the horror genre opposite Donald Sutherland in the godawful An American Haunting. Betty Buckley, who plays sympathetic gym teacher Miss Collins, starred as Margaret White in the short run of Carrie: The Musical on Broadway. And Priscilla Pointer, who plays Mrs. Snell, may be familiar to genre fans as the Nurse Rachet-like Dr. Simms in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors… or possibly her role in C.H.U.D II: Bud the Chud.