Ginger Nuts of Horror
Due to the recent cinema releases of The Dark Tower and IT, along with the BFI showing a season of King movies to celebrate his 70th birthday, I’ve seen five movies based on King’s work at the cinema in the last month. So, here’s a mini-series of trip reports - nothing so grand as reviews - based on my month of King Cinema. Spoilers for both the movies under discussion and the source books abound, so be warned. Enjoy.
We’re off to the BFI in London for this one, as part of the Screen King season in September, celebrating Stephen King’s 70th birthday with a month of screenings of some of the most iconic movies based on his work (and also Maximum Overdrive, which tragically I couldn’t justify financially, no matter how loudly my soul called out).
I hadn’t originally planned to do this double bill. Carrie, I fancied - I’d seen it a few times in my late teens, but rarely if ever since, and getting to see it on the big screen appealed. The Shining, on the other hand, I really felt I’d seen - a lot. But then good friend and podcast buddy Daniel Harper told me that if I hadn’t seen The Shining in the cinema, I really hadn’t seen it at all, and I figured if I was going to make the trip, I might as well go for the double bill (and, spoilers; Daniel was right).
And when we say the big screen, to be clear, we’re talking about the BFI London IMAX - in other words, the biggest screen in London. Just looking at the damn thing as I walked into the theatre gave me vertigo.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I took the afternoon off work and traveled down with my Dad, who’d not seen Carrie at all, and not seen The Shining since it’s original theatrical run. We hung out in London, did some tourist stuff, and went for a meal before the 6pm Carrie showing. There was also a memorabilia auction connected to a charity, and the exhibits were all in the IMAX foyer, so we had some fun nosing about at Christian Bale's Batman suit, the Lament configuration box from Hellraiser, and (personal highlight) the hat Sylvester McCoy wore as the 7th Doctor in Remembrance of the Daleks. Also some weird flying bike prop they claimed was from RoboCop 3 - as if!!! Still, there was also a close to lifesize RoboCop model. I may have gotten some photos before heading into the theatre.
Carrie was a really interesting experience. There are ways in which the IMAX did the film no favours - the flaws in the source material film stock were painfully apparent, especially in some of the daylight exterior shots, where an effect that was probably intended as a soft haze gave almost the impression of fog. Similarly, some of the night footage, especially during the driving sequence with Travolta and Allen, had a slightly grainy quality - which I actually enjoyed, but again felt to be more visible than had originally been intended.
That said, there were also aspects of the movie that were served well by the bigger screen treatment; the climactic sequence, as you might expect, was appropriately overwhelming, but there were also some quieter moments that I also felt stood out especially well. The sequence where the girls are being given extended PT as punishment benefited a lot, the size of the screen emphasising the long panning shots over the increasingly exhausted classmates, and the long spinning shot of Bobby Ross and Carrie White dancing at the prom as the film builds to it’s climax was, literally, dizzying.
And, you know, it’s fucking Carrie. It’s a hell of a story, in the classic mold of especially early King stories - it’s a view of humanity that is unflinching, unflattering, but manages to stop just short of cruel, just barely shy of utter cynicism - which, of course, makes the inevitable ending of the tale all the more shattering. There aren’t actually that many irredeemably awful people in the world, this story seems to say - but there’s often just enough, and enough others with lazy good intentions but insufficient understanding and an all-too-powerful herd instinct venality, to create tragedy.
And De Palma is pretty much the perfect director for this subject matter. The opening shower scenes, for all the beauty of many of the slow motion shot compositions, also owe a clear debt to exploitation cinema, and that eye is present throughout (especially in the aforementioned PT punishment scene, and in the depiction of the deliciously dysfunctional Chris and Billy relationship). Similarly, the way he allows the prom scene to pay out, especially the seemingly endless march of Carrie and Tommy to the stage, as the bucket hangs poised, and Sue realises, just too late, that something awful is about to happen, is frankly cruel: he allows us to absorb every ounce of Carrie’s doomed joy at her moment of acceptance, knowing that it’s all about to come crashing down around her. In that way, De Palma both makes us complicit in the awful voyeurism, and also victimises us, by forcing us into the role of impotent witnesses, lambs to Carrie’s slaughter.
It’s still one of the great moments in all of horror cinema, for me. No subtlety to it, and no mystery, either - the horror and awful tension come not from any sense that we are unsure how this moment is going to play out, but entirely from the sickening inevitability of what is occurring, second by painful second. It’s unforgivably long in the playing out, and the decision to stick with the slow mo beyond the initial downpour of blood is similarly brilliantly sadistic, really twisting the knife. It’s so brutal that once the lighting goes crazy and the mayhem and murder kicks off, it’s almost - almost - a relief.
And bloody hell, Sissy Spacek. What an incredible performance. Every single ounce of vulnerability, every moment of naivete, her tragic, doomed defiance of her mother… Spacek sells every single moment of it with an authenticity so powerful it’s painful. Every scene she is in, she owns - no mean feat, considering how little dialogue she has in most of them - and a huge part of what makes the film such a creeping, crawling horror to watch is bound up in how much Spacek’s portrayal of Carrie White both captures and breaks your heart.
The years really haven’t dulled it, for me. Dated it, sure, but not dulled it. Carrie remains an intense, unsettling, upsetting movie-going experience that both bludgeons and cuts with cruelty and skill.
There was a fifteen minute window between Carrie and The Shining. I frankly could have done with longer. A shot of bourbon took the edge off a little, but it was still an experience that I suspect will live long in the memory.