THOU SHALT NOT REPRESS FEMALE SEXUALITY screams Brian De Palma, gleefully painting the message with neon-red blood, electrical prom night explosions and Hitchcockian strings so that when amplified to IMAX sound and image levels, his adaptation of CARRIE is practically guaranteed to induce a heart attack. Whether or not I will ever forget the image of Piper Laurie descending the stairs with a knife raised triumphantly above her and an orgasmic smile on her face, having seen it blown up to such proportions, is doubtful.
Thanks to Glasgow Film Festival, this nightmarish work of art was amplified in such a way on Friday night. Little gems of retrospectives, like this one, are what make festivals special. By harking us back to that 70s auteur Hollywood period of firsts, when sound design was having its renaissance, conspiracy thrillers were born and protest art was rife as a backlash against a new wave of post-swinging-sixties conservatism, we re-imagine those classic films that we thought we knew so well, and are encouraged to focus on how they have specifically progressed the medium.
We all know the story: Sissy Spacek plays the ethereal teenage freak show, Carrie White, who is caught between a rock and a hard place – namely, her pious witch of a mother (Piper Laurie) who’s life ambition is to repress her daughter’s sexual impulses, and a group of catty school bullies who’s collective life ambition seem to be to arouse men. The fear of female sexuality (the subject being already present, of course, in Stephen King’s book) has arguably never been so overtly portrayed in cinema as in CARRIE at the time it was made in 1976. The horror genre is the perfect place to explore such feelings of desire and fear; it is perhaps the only safe place we can play out our darkest impulses and remain sane. CARRIE minces nothing, and there is almost too much surreal symbolism to single anything out as particularly poignant, but essentially, every moment of horror is tied up very firmly with pleasure.
CARRIE is also about perversity (De Palma: a shameless worshipper of Hitchcock and his pervy reputation). The perversity of sexual repression and extreme religious devotion making a witch out of Mrs White; the perversity of the satisfaction the head school bully feels when attacking the symbol of female sexuality unchecked by the male gaze, Carrie; and above all, the perversity of the way we experience our own sexuality, as women, through the eyes of someone else, compared to the reality of it. The last layer of perversity is, like all Hitchcock’s films, the fact of it all being made and written by men, playing out their own fears and fantasies in this progressive, yet highly misogynistic, way. What a mind-boggling vector for us as an audience – especially a female one – to experience enjoyment through!
The image of Carrie drenched in first her own period then pig’s blood is more than just a visually revolutionary image ingrained into cinema’s history. It’s a nightmare hallucination of the male fear of sexual difference, and the fact that De Palma fearlessly put it on screen for all of us to gasp at is a beautiful truth. Thank you, GFF, for making us relive it all over again.