Friday, December 21, 2012


Why this nifty little thriller is so forgotten and nowhere to be found today is a mystery. It's really a rather intriguing, if sometimes uneven, attempt at mixing Hitchcockian suspense with the kind of supernatural theater of the macabre one might associate with an old episode of Night Gallery. Prior to its release in theaters, Universal Studios generated considerable public interest with TV ads that prominently featured footage of a little old lady in a runaway wheelchair careening helplessly towards traffic (backwards yet!) down a particularly precipitous slope of one of San Francisco's many hills. As a San Francisco resident at at the time, these commercials made Eye of the Cat the must-see movie of the summer of '69 as far as I was concerned.
This scene, which owes more than a little to Hitchcock, is enough to make Eye of the Cat a must-see. 
To clarify, said “little old lady” in the film is three-time Oscar-nominee, Eleanor Parker, who was just 46 at the time. Although unfamiliar to me then, Parker, just four years after The Sound of Music, was another talented actress "of a certain age" (a la Jennifer Jones, Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Bette Davis, and Tallulah Bankhead) who found herself prematurely relegated to “horror hag” roles in youth-centric 60s thrillers that took as a given audiences finding women over the age of 30 to be as grotesque as Hollywood apparently did. Eye of the Cat, which has never had a DVD release and seems to have disappeared from the face of the earth, was one of the earliest films to exploit the subtle malevolence and flagrant creep-out factor of amassing animals; a trend that blossomed into a full-blown horror sub-genre in the 70s with films like Willard, Empire of the Ants, Kingdom of the Spiders, and the laughably non-threatening Night of the Lepus (giant bunnies!). I saw Eye of the Cat at San Francisco's Embassy Theater on Market Street, the first show of its first weekend in release. Not being much of a fan of cats (that has since changed) the movie fairly gave me the willies and in short, scared the hell out of me...but that didn't stop me from sitting through it three times.
Gayle Hunnicutt as Kassia Lancaster
"Just another beautiful girl with all the wrong values."
Michael Sarrazin as Wylie
"In good mirrors you can see that once I was disastrously beautiful."
Eleanor Parker as Aunt Danielle (Aunt Danny)
"Nowadays you can't depend on natural causes."
Tim Henry as Luke
"It's not a good idea to take cats lightly."
Joseph Stefano, screenwriter of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, penned this original screenplay about feline seductress Kassia Lancaster (“It sounds like a cell door slamming shut.”) and her plot to secure the fortune of an ailing San Francisco matron (Parker) by returning to the lonely dowager her beloved derelict nephew, Wylie (Sarrazin), and arranging for her subsequent murder once her will has been altered in his favor. Danielle (or Aunt Danny as she's affectionately/derisively known) is a near-invalid suffering from acute emphysema and lives in a cavernous San Francisco mansion with Wylie’s younger brother, Luke (newcomer Tim Henry), who waits on her in apathetic servitude, and roughly a hundred overprotective cats, the sole benefactors of her will. Kassia's diabolical plan hits a major snag when it's discovered that Wylie, the linchpin of the whole operation, is plagued by crippling ailurophobia (a deathly fear of cats).
In addition to this feline homage to Psycho, Eye of the Cat features a wonderful score by Lalo Schifrin (Cool Hand Luke) with obvious Berrnard Hermann overtones.
Eye of the Cat is not really the “When Good Animals Go Bad” creature-features thriller its title would suggest (a plus, I might add) but rather an intriguing attempt to modernize those murder and passion crime thrillers that once typified film noir (Gayle Hunnicutt, with mounds of big, 60s hair, is a terrifically ruthless femme fatale) combined with the supernatural chill-thrill of say, classic horror of Val Lewton (Cat People). I’d like to report the experiment was wholly successful, but it kind of loses steam in the middle only to end just as it’s becoming the shuddery thrill ride it should have been all along. Perhaps in more resourceful hands than those of director David Lowell Rich (The Concord… Airport ’79, need I say more?), Stefano’s somewhat colorless script could have lived up to the promise of the film’s sensational (silent) pre-credits sequence.
Eye of the Cat gets off to a very winning start by way of a stylish expository pre-credits sequence that mirrors the multi-image / split-screen opening sequence of The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and effectively predates Brian De Palma's subsequent appropriation of the device.
The raw material is certainly there: an enigmatic villainess; the San Francisco setting (a wonderful city for thrillers—the picturesque angles of all those hills never fails to unsettle); the misleadingly simple murder scheme; the probable subterfuge and concealed motives behind virtually each action engaged in by every character at all times; and the fascination of cats and their inherent mystery. But it's precisely there being such a rich mine of chiller material to vein that makes one wish Joseph Stefano's script were more up to the task set forth by the premise. Luckily, Eye of the Cat's gratuitously cryptic dialog is delivered by a better-than-average cast, all of whom appear gleefully game for this kind of psyco-fright stuff; and the enjoyably peevish malevolence at the heart of the story greatly mitigates Mr. Stefano's penchant for trying to generate mystery by leaving his characters and their motivations underdeveloped and unexplored to a maddening degree.
That's Mark Herron there in the mint green Nehru smock, Judy Garland's 4th husband (her 2nd gay husband). He has a small role as Belmondo (one name only, please), owner of an elite San Francisco spa.

Any dog can be scary in real life, but for me to be made afraid of one onscreen, it has to be one of those ugly, aggressive breeds like a Rottweiler or a Pit Bull or at least a rabies-infected killing machine like Cujo (who was, on the whole still pretty cute,). Cats, on the other hand, merely have to be themselves. Cute or creepy, cats introduce an element of uncertainty just by showing up and they always appear to be operating under their own mysterious, sinister agendas. (This calls to mind a Night Gallery episode I once saw that made use of a quote from Samuel Butler’s novel, Erewhon: “Even a potato in a dark cellar has a certain low cunning about him which serves him in excellent stead.” If ever two words perfectly summed up my impression of cats, it’s the words “low cunning.”)
Pussy Galore
The trainer for the armies of cats used in Eye of the Cat was the late Ray Berwick, who also served as bird trainer on Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. He shared his feline training techniques in a well-received book published in 1986.
My long-held distrust of cats played into the effectiveness of Eye of the Cat the same way a childhood spent in Catholic schools played into my enjoyment of Rosemary’s Baby the year before: it wasn't compulsory, but it helped. And what I like about both films is that in their basic structure, they work perfectly fine whether one buys into the supernatural angle or not.
Eye of the Cat generates genuine tension as a crime caper thriller, keeps you guessing as a psychological suspense flick, and works your nerves as a supernatural horror film about potentially pernicious pussycats (hee hee). With so many plots to juggle, Eye of the Cat can perhaps be forgiven the mood-killing miscalculations of throwing in an obligatory 60s party scene and a lengthy “love montage.” (For some reason, the 70s was the era of the romantic montage. This cheap and economic go-to device for writers unable to plausibly convey a developing romance has ground many a promising film to a grinding halt. Perhaps the worse offender being Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, in which a pretty good suspense thriller takes a 20-minute nap while Clint gives us a Carmel, California travelogue and an infomercial for The Monterey Jazz Festival.)

What's New, Pussycat?
As a longtime fan of glamorous tough broads in movies, it’s unlikely Gayle Hunnicutt’s Kassia Lancaster wouldn't emerge my favorite character in the film. She states early on, “I’m not afraid of anything!” and spends the rest of the film proving it. Dangerous, self-assured, authoritative, and without a doubt the strongest, smartest character in the film; female characters of her stripe would become extremely rare in the 70s as male-dominated “buddy films” grew in popularity. The fantastic-looking Gayle Hunnicutt gives an assured performance whose measured severity plays nicely off of Michael Sarrazin's more easygoing style.
I love that the first time we see Kassia, she's shown licking her fingers and grooming herself like a cat.  
Eleanor Parker looks wonderful and is very good in an underwritten part that casts her unsympathetically with little foundation. Cast as a salacious older woman, Parker certainly doesn't embarrass herself as Jennifer Jones did in a similar role in Angel, Angel, Down We Go that same year, but in having already played a horny older woman in 1965's The Oscar, one wishes the eternally classy actress found something else to do if this was the only kind of role Hollywood was throwing her way.
The loss of two-thirds of her lung tissue barely puts a crimp in Aunt Danielle's libidinous urges. Here she's seen languishing in an oxygen tent in what is apparently the bed from Love, American Style

I love a thriller that keeps me guessing, and Eye of the Cat is splendid at throwing so many red herrings and false clues into the pot that no matter where you think the film is headed, it veers elsewhere. But as good as a film as it is and as much as I found it scary and suitably creepy as a pre-teen, I'd be lying if I said that the prodigious amount of male flesh on display in Eye of the Cat didn't in part inspire those three viewings at the Embassy in 1969.
Perhaps in an effort to convey his character's freewheeling ways, Michael Sarrazin spends a great deal of the film shirtless or with nudity artfully concealed. Similarly, dreamboat material co-star Tim Henry (bottom pic with Eleanor Parker) adds a touch of homoerotic interest to a film that already overflowing with adultery, promiscuity and possible incest. Hooray for Hollywood in the 60s!

One of the reasons I wish Eye of the Cat would get a legitimate DVD release is so that I can relish the San Francisco locations, digitally enhanced. The film had lots of great location shots that establish a wonderful sense of time and place.
A process shot, to be sure, but behind Sarrazin's head can be seen San Francisco's Paris Theater on Market Street.

At the top, the corner of Octavia and Washington in San Francisco as seen today. To the left is the exterior of Aunt Daniell's cat-filled mansion, to the right, the hill that features so prominently in the plot (below, the site in 1969).
Eye of the Cat is no classic, but it's a dynamo of a thriller that doesn't deserve its obscurity. It certainly holds up for me after all these years and still packs a punch despite my having overcome my own youthful antipathy toward cats.
"They do come back..."

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Sunday, December 16, 2012


My introduction to Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music came in 1973 when I blindly purchased the Original Broadway Cast LP solely on the strength of my passionate adoration for his timeless scores to the Broadway shows, Company and Follies. I say blindly because, despite my mini-fandom of Sondheim (that same year I’d dragged my family to see The Last of Sheila simply because I’d heard Sondheim collaborated on the script with actor, Tony Perkins), I really knew nothing about A Little Night Music at all. I was unaware of the 1955 Ingmar Bergman film upon which it is based —Smiles of a Summer Night; I didn't know anything about its content or structure, or whether it was a dramatic musical or comedy; and of course, I hadn't heard a note of the of the music (I know it’s hard to imagine now, but there was actually a time when not every man, woman and child had a recording of Send in the Clowns in release).
A Little Night Music sets the proper fairy tale tone by using a theatrical staging of the musical as a framing device that casts the principals in the evening's romantic roundelay as "players" in a turn-of-the-century operetta. Careful attention paid to the myriad couplings and uncouplings in Patricia Birch's gloriously gliding waltz choreography reveals the entirety of the film's plot. 

But here is an instance of ignorance most assuredly proving to be bliss, for in purchasing the cast album without benefit of foreknowledge, I was granted the ultimate gift of being introduced to A Little Night Music as a purely musical experience. And for a Sondheim fan, what could be better? As a show, A Little Night Music is a perfectly charming little sex farce, perhaps one of the best of its stripe; but for me its strongest suit has always been Sondheim’s lushly romantic score. Consisting entirely of intricate waltz-time melodies with witty lyrics full of astoundingly clever wordplay, Sondheim’s compositions for A Little Night Music are among the best of his illustrious career.
By the time the film adaptation of A Little Night Music opened for a limited engagement at San Francisco’s Castro Theater in 1977, I had not as yet seen a stage production (that wouldn't be until some 30 years later) but having all but worn out the grooves on my Broadway cast LP and committed the entire score to memory, I would say that I was more than primed for the event. 
Elizabeth Taylor as Desiree Armfeldt
Diana Rigg as Charlotte Mittelheim
Lesley-Anne Down as Anne Egerman
Hermione Ginglod as Madame Armfeldt
Len Cariou as Frederick Egerman
Laurence Guittard as Carl-Magnus Mittelheim
Like an intricate waltz in which the participants continually and imperceptibly change partners, A Little Night Music is a lyric dance of desire in which lovers, paired by fate, and with varying degrees of success, try to manipulate the circumstances of their lives. In turn-of- the-century Austria, stage actress Desiree Armfeldt (Taylor), wearying of her life on the road away from her daughter, Fredericka (the superb Chloe Franks), hatches a plot to marry former lover, Frederick Egerman (Cariou). Obstacles: Frederick has recently wed the beautiful but slightly shallow Anne (Lesley-Anne Down), his 18-year-old love who, after 11 months of marriage, still guards her virginity; Desiree herself is the mistress of the jealously possessive and much-married military dragoon, Carl-Magnus (Guittard), whose shrewd and embittered wife (Diana Rigg) is Anne’s old school chum; and,adding to the mix, Erich Egerman, Frederick's son from a previous marriage (Christopher Guard) is tortuously in love with Anne, his stepmother.
An orchestrated string of comic contrivances results in this amorously antsy group (which also includes a randy housemaid and a handsome manservant [Lesley Dunlop & Heinz Marecek]) converging for a weekend at the country estate of retired courtesan Mme. Armfeldt (Gingold) who just also happens to be Desiree’s mother.
Self-serious seminary student Erich Egerman struggles to resist entrapment in one of "the devil's snares" in the form of Petra, the housemaid. Ironically, in real-life actors Christopher Guard and Lesley Dunlop became a couple after meeting on this film.
A Little Night Music is the stuff of classic romantic farce played out with considerable charm and wit by an engaging cast in eye-poppingly sumptuous costumes and surroundings. And interwoven amongst the sometimes heartbreaking follies of these lost and searching fools whom the summer night is hoped to smile upon, is Stephen Sondheim’s breathtaking music (lushly orchestrated to Oscar-winning effect by Jonathan Tunick who appears briefly as the conductor for the operetta that opens the film).
In the 1978 Harold Robbins camp-fest, The Betsy, British actress Lesley-Anne Down displayed her versatility in taking on a role the polar-opposite to that of child-bride Anne Egerman in A Little Night Music. Personal fave: 1981's Sphinx, where Down plays the screen's most improbable Egyptologist.
Translating a beloved stage musical to the screen is largely a thankless job, for you’d have to attend a comic book convention to find fans more vociferously persnickety and proprietary than theater geeks. And while I've suffered my share of gut-wrenching disappointments at seeing some beloved stage show bowdlerized on the screen (cue Sir Richard Attenborough’s lame-legged, A Chorus Line), I always concede to the fact that film and stage are entirely different mediums and a movie musical has to stand on its own distinct merits, not on how faithfully it translates its source material. I’m in a small camp on this one, I know, but I find A Little Night Music to be a marvelous movie musical. One that I'm well aware fans of the stage show consider to be a disaster. I'm not denying its flaws (even the filmmakers concede that pressures of time and budget made certain compromises necessary), but for pure screen pleasure and taking delight in wonderful actors, beautiful music, and a sharp, funny screenplay, A Little Night Music is a most diverting and glorious entertainment.
The night smiles three times at the follies of human beings: First for the young who know nothing; the second, for the the fools who know too little; and the third, for the old, who know too much.
My lack of a theatrical frame of reference no doubt played a large part in why I fell so hard for this flawed, but thoroughly delightful film, just as did the circumstances of my seeing it (The Castro Theater was packed, the film was shown with an intermission, and applause followed almost every number). Hoping just for a chance to see what I had missed in never seeing the show onstage, A Little Night Music as a film actually exceeded my expectations in terms of cinematic style, performances, and overall panache. It succeeded at being bitchily witty, moving, romantic, and at times, just gorgeously opulent and lovely. This kind of light, frothy entertainment is exceeding difficult to carry off, but for me, A Little Night Music hit the perfect key. An odd choice of words, I know, given Elizabeth Taylor’s touchingly hesitant vocalizing of Send in the Clowns (a friend of mine adored one critic’s summation of Taylor’s rendition as, “No chart-buster”).

Well-suited to portraying a diva of advanced years who knows a thing or two about how to get a married man to leave his wife, Elizabeth Taylor is at her latter-career best in A Little Night Music. Not only is her much-commented upon, well-upholstered figure perfectly suited to Florence Klotz’s Oscar-nominated period costumes (although in some scenes one might wish cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson had made more of an effort to photograph her flatteringly) but is quite winning as she effortlessly glides from slightly overplayed comedy to genuinely touching drama. She’s marvelous and brings an appropriately regal star power to the film, but in all of her triumphs, it’s Diana Rigg who walks away with the picture.
The Ladies Who Lunch
Everyone references Send in the Clowns when speaking of A Little Night Music, but my favorite song in the entire show has always been the plaintive Every Day a Little Death. This duet by the two deceived wives is movie musical magic for me. I fall apart, it's just that gorgeous.
Listen to it Here
To paraphrase a lyric from one of the show's Second Act songs, “The woman is perfection.”  Diana Rigg, whose talent for high-style bitchery is rivaled only by perhaps Maggie Smith, is everything that a film like A Little Night Music needs. She's an urbane and spirited actress with a way of commanding the screen no matter whom she shares it with. Hers is a sharp performance that gives the film much-needed zest and fire. Adding to this is the brilliant Hermione Gingold who, though sadly underutilized (and denied her lovely song, Liasons), enlivens each of her scenes with her trademark droll delivery. The contributions of these two actresses is invaluable in making A Little Night Music such an enjoyable experience.
Laurence Guittard and Len Cariou recreate the roles they originated in the Broadway production. As fine as they are in their roles, both actors lack that intangible "something" that' translates on film. They recede into the background and nary make an impression.  The women do all the heavy lifting in A Little Night Music.
I’m not overly fond of the arbitrary, often unimaginative “opening up” that occurs when theatrical properties are adapted to the screen, but I love it when directors discover an authentic cinematic language for a show that justifies it being transferred to another medium. The Glamorous Life is an ingeniously economic number that conveys a great deal of backstory, plot exposition and character information in a montage of silent and sound images that recall the sensation of leafing through a scrapbook.
The Glamorous Life
Sondheim's brilliant song begins as a young girl's boastful paean to the life of her actress mother and ends up being a self-convincing denial of loneliness
Even people who don't much like the film express nothing but praise for the handling of the number, A Weekend in the Country, the film's centerpiece. Shot in a series of escalating cross cuts that mirror the mounting anxieties of the two parties set to merge at the Armfeldt estate, its a bouncy and amusing number well-played by all and very cinematic. It's a real highlight. Fans of Downton Abbey should really discover A Little Night has a wonderful look.
Considering how many people involved in the original Broadway production were involved in bringing A Little Night Music to the screen (Sondheim, director Harold Prince, choreographer Patricia Birch, screenwriter Hugh Wheeler, costume designer Florence Klotz) it's surprising the finished product pleased so few. The filmmakers cited crunched schedules, unstable financing, and the legendarily bad health of Taylor as the reasons for the many compromises undertaken.
True or not, I think all that focusing on what could have been clouds a fair appreciation for what was accomplished, which for me, a man who returned to the Castro Theater three more times to see A Little Night Music during its initial engagement, is something pretty special.

(Incidentally, these days, what with all those kids from Glee butchering one Broadway standard after another, I'm beginning to look more kindly on ol' Liz's  "no chart-buster" version of Send in the Clowns.)
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Monday, December 3, 2012


Joan Rivers: "I wasn't invited to the prom. I invited the guy and I had to buy my own orchid. Carrie had a better time at her prom than I did." 

That Carrie can be referenced in the punchline of a joke without benefit of clarification is a testament to how deeply rooted in our cultural consciousness Brian De Palma’s 1976 film (vis à vis Stephen King’s 1974 novel) has become. Indeed, contrary to the circumstances of her character in the film (she’s such a non-entity at her school that the principal repeatedly misidentifies her as “Cassie”) and the teaser ads for the forthcoming sequel (You Will Know Her Name); I'd say that by now, everybody knows exactly who Carrie is.
Sissy Spacek as Carrie White
Piper Laurie as Margaret White
Betty Buckley as Miss Collins
Amy Irving as Sue Snell
William Katt as Tommy Ross
Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen
John Travolta as Billy Nolan
I was just starting college the year Carrie was released and (cinema snob that I was) I really couldn't have been less interested in it. 1976 was an absolutely amazing year for movies, and the films that preoccupied my mind, my time, and my interest were the more high-profile releases: Taxi Driver, The Man Who Fell to Earth, Hitchcock’s Family Plot, Fellini’s Casanova, Marathon Man, Rocky, King Kong, A Star is Born, Polanski’s The Tenant, Network, The Last Tycoon, Burnt Offerings, Sparkle, Lipstick, Logan’s Run, Bertolucci’s 1900, Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians, and Bergman’s Face to Face. I hardly saw daylight the entire year!
And then there was the woefully under-hyped Carrie. Here we had a film by a director whose only other work I’d seen at the time hadn't exactly swept me off my feet (Phantom of the Paradise), and whose sole marketable cast member, John Travolta, was a fledgling teen idol from the execrable sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, and whose whispery pop single, “Let Her In,” had turned summer of ’76 radio-listening into an absolute nightmare. Everything about Carrie, from its no-name cast to its over-explicit poster art, gave me the impression it was strictly drive-in fare; a movie suitable for a double-bill with one of those low-budget releases from AIP or Crown International about Bigfoot or redneck serial killers.
Eve was Weak
Margaret White's religious fanaticism adds an effectively ominous overlay of sin, sacrifice, and retribution to the story of a awkward teen and the coming-of-age awareness of her powers of telekinesis.
It was only through the persistent badgering of my best friend that I even came to see Carrie at all. My friend, a sci-fi / Dark Shadows buff, had already seen Carrie and used the excuse of wanting to see it again as an opportunity to call in his marker for the time I’d pestered him into attending a screening of Barbarella with me. As I took my seat in the packed San Francisco movie theater where Carrie was playing, I seethed with resentment over what I perceived as my friend extracting a particularly mean-spirited payback for what, the heinous crime of exposing him to the sight of a naked, zero-gravity Jane Fonda? However, some 98 minutes later I emerged from the theater, red-eyed (from crying- that Sissy Spacek really gets  to me in this movie...even today) and overwhelmed. Wow! I had NOT been expecting that!
Macabre Martyrdom
Anticipating at best a run-of-the-mill horror movie, what I got was a surprisingly sensitive character drama that morphed into a kind of a nightmarish Grimm's fairy tale. A blood-splattered religious allegory of sin and redemption that's a near-poetic parable on the inability of a legacy of pain and cruelty to beget anything other than more pain and cruelty. Just out of high school myself (an all-boys Catholic School, but let’s face it, high school is high school) it felt more than a little cathartic to see a film that depicted everyday schoolyard torments with the graveness of Greek tragedy, meeting out suitably catastrophic retribution to the guilty.
I was sold by Carrie’s first five minutes (the volleyball game and the gym shower), both of which established: a) the atypical horror film setting of a high school; b) the female-centric thrust of the story, wherein the concerns, actions, and motivations of the women in the film appeared essential to propelling the plot forward; and c) the obvious subjective perspective the film was going to take regarding Carrie herself. Carrie absolutely floored me. I saw it three more times that month, and it has since remained one of my all-time favorite movies. A motion picture I’d readily list among the best horror films ever made.
Brian De Palma is known for his employment of the literal split-screen, but Carrie is also full of sequences in which the natural framing of a shot encourages the audience to take note of the dual /conflicting experiences of the characters as they occupy the same space.

Given that adolescence was a living hell for the vast majority of us, there’s something conceptually ingenious about a horror film set in an American high school—a “house” as haunted by the ghosts of the tortured and suffering as any European Gothic mansion. The hierarchy of school cliques and the day-to-day cruelties teens inflict upon one another seem to me perfect subjects for a meditation on the banality of evil; a concept explored in many of the films that have proved most influential in the horror genre (Rosemary’s Baby, The Stepford Wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers).
School Days, School Days
Carrie was made at a time when "bullying" was largely seen as kids-just-being-kids behavior.  
Unlike Stephen King’s novel which expands the scope of Carrie to include news and science investigations into what happened at the prom, De Palma’s film wisely maintains a much narrower subjective tone (few things happen outside of the scope of the high-schoolers), heightening our identification with and empathy for Carrie and her rather tragic life. I’m reminded of a review of Carrie that smartly observed how it was so fitting for Carrie to have only destroyed her high school in the film (as opposed to half the town in the novel) because to an adolescent, high school IS the entirety of a teenager’s world. I honestly think the intimate scale of De Palma's Carrie is what makes it work so well. Carrie's nightmare is merely every adolescent's anxieties (public humiliation, social ostracism, the desire to fit in) writ in blood.
Adolescent trauma meets Grand Guignol
Defying accepted Hollywood logic that holds horror films don’t get Academy respect, the two (and only) Oscar nominations afforded Carrie were for the impossible-to-ignore performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Taking wildly divergent acting paths—Spacek playing her keyed-up naturalism off of Laurie’s idiosyncratic stylization—the actresses share a symbiotic chemistry in their scenes together that elevate Carrie far beyond what is usually considered possible in a horror film. Spacek's Carrie doesn't amp up the cliche acting signals that would indicate an outcast character. Rather, Carrie's awkwardness appears to emanate not out of any innate strangeness (she's actually better adjusted than most of her peers) but out of perhaps feeling too much and having been deprived for too long of any outlets of expression. Carrie's slowly developing telekinesis is a perfect metaphorical representation of what happens when rage is repressed.
Born Into Sin
And Piper Laurie...I can't say enough about the amazing risks she takes with her role and actually makes them work! It seems as if by grounding her character in a reality deeply felt and understood by her mentally unstable character, she allows herself to inhabit this monster of a woman and prevents herself from regulating any part of her performance by external "sane" standards. Laurie makes me believe in this broadly-drawn woman, and, more miraculously, she terrifies me even when she's making me laugh at her (as Ruth Gordon did in Rosemary's Baby).
One of the great unsung performances in Carrie is that of Betty Buckley as the sympathetic gym teacher. De Palma must have really appreciated her incisive portrayal, because he always seems to leave the camera on her just long to capture the brief flickers of emotion that play across her face at the end of scenes where she's forced to be tougher than she'd like to be, or when she's saying something she hopes to be true, but doesn't really trust in.  Ironically, the sweet-natured Buckley assumed the role of Carrie's mother in the ill-fated 1988 Broadway musical of the film.

The trademark Brian De Palma bag of tricks (slow motion, swirling camera, split screen, complex tracking shots, subjective sound, Bernard Herrmann-esque scores, Pino Donaggio's sensual music used as violence counterpoint, copious bloodletting) have never been put to as effective use as in Carrie. And no sequence in Carrie better illustrates the seamless blending of visual style with narrative theme than the bravura prom sequence. One of the most amazing bits of film as storytelling as you're ever likely to see.
Last Dance
A tour de force sequence that conveys tenderness, romance, joy, pathos, suspense, and terror in a seamless flow that's close to operatic. Like my favorite scene from Hitchcock's The Birds (the Tides Restaurant bird attack) the climatic prom at Bates High School is a sequence I never cease to marvel at, no matter how often I see it.
Contemporary filmmakers (especially those enamored of the excesses tolerated by the horror genre) who strive to blow us away with empty violent spectacle and CGI nonsense can take a lesson from De Palma here. If this sequence were all about the destruction and blood, Carrie would have gone the way of obscurity long ago. Carrie endures as a horror classic because De Palma takes the time to bring us into Carrie's dream come true before he turns it into a nightmare.
Grand Grotesquery 
The eruption of the "curtain of fire" is one of my favorite film moments. It is so horrifically beautiful...I recall getting goosebumps when I saw it on the big screen.

In speaking of Rosemary's Baby, director Roman Polanski is fond of saying that his intent was to make a horror film that looks like a Doris Day movie but reveals itself to be something sinister. To me, Carrie works in much the same fashion: it starts out like one of those teen-empowering After School Specials (a series of TV movies targeted to adolescents in the 70s and 80s) and then throws us a nasty curve as the heretofore reassuring ugly-duckling wish-fulfillment fantasy turns into a nightmare. It's brilliant.
I wish the 2013 remake a lot of luck, but just as Mia Farrow is and always will be the one and only Rosemary Woodhouse, Sissy Spacek's touchingly raw performance assures that there can only be, and only ever will be, one true Carrie.
"If only they knew she had the power."
Movie poster tagline

Copyright © Ken Anderson