Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s seminal debut novel Carrie is rightfully remembered as one of the preeminent horror classics of the 1970s. Personally I believe this is in part thanks to De Palma eschewing what Stanley Kubrick would do four years later with The Shining, De Palma’s Carrie follows King’s narrative to a T. Beat for beat we see the savagery of adolescence as it rages through outcast Carrie White, driven into a repressed puberty due in part to the religiosity of her mother Margaret. This builds to an explosive climax, seared into film history, as a stone-faced Carrie takes revenge on everyone she feels betrayed her trust. And while the blood red finale, compounded by Piper Laurie’s chilling turn as the matriarchal White, are rightfully highlights of a powerful film, it’s Sissy Spacek’s quiet meditation on teenage loneliness that makes her Carrie so realistically frightening.
Entertain The Elk’s new video essay “What Makes Carrie So Scary” puts a spotlight on Spacek’s performance, and specifically her usage of physicality, as to why Carrie is such a terrifying classic.
The video focuses on how actors can physically transform for a role. This emphasis on physicality can reinforce the darker, mysterious quality of horror. But frankly, I find there is just something inherently eerie about seeing an actor disappear into a role as Spacek does into Carrie.
Before he was known as Batman, Christian Bale pushed his body to the limit and dropped 60 pounds for his role in Brad Anderson’s The Machinist. This was at a time when we knew Bale mainly as the paragon of muscular definition in American Psycho. Seeing his character’s body mimic his mind as it slowly disintegrates is as haunting as anything else in this story of tragedy and guilt. And this is because the physical body doesn’t just convey emotion, but it can beckon it. Michael Chekhov created a series of poses to illustrate his psycho-physical acting technique in his book “To The Actor”. The abstract poses connected to a range of emotions that the actors could then use in conjunction with their sense memory to create realistic gestures electrified with energized physicality. You can see these types of abstract expressive forms as the video essay emphasizes how the era of Romanticism in visual art inspired Spacek.
Sissy Spacek, thanks in part to her husband Jack Fisk who was a production designer and collected the religious iconography for the film, found inspiration within the religious imagery, especially “The Stoning of Stephen” and “The Martyrdom of St. Stephen” by Gustave Dore. Looking at these two works of art, the parallels to Carrie are plain as day. Both paintings feature the titular Stephen as a crowd assaults him with stones. This echoes our introduction to Carrie White as she is pelted with tampons and pads by the mob of teenage girls. But it’s also the twisted body and anguished expression on Stephens’ face that harkens to Spacek’s nervous bubbling over energy.
The video also mentions minute acting choices like Anthony Hopkins unblinking stare as Hannibal Lecter as a nuanced way an actor can layer physical subtext into their performance. But something that I think is not mentioned is that these ticks, these choices, feel good to the actor. When I was in a production of the musical Sweeney Todd playing the titular demon barber, I constantly had a handkerchief in my pocket that I would smell periodically on stage. It was my Todd’s tick, his psychological gesture. For the audience, this could have been seen as just one of the many choices I made during my run, but for me, this was the last remaining vestige of Todd’s long thought dead wife. In this swatch of fabric was my motivation, my drive, and most importantly: a secret. An early lesson every actor learns is that you should always carry with you a secret when performing, something that’ll keep you one step ahead of the audience, but also give audiences something to mine for. While Carrie’s telekinetic powers are not necessarily a surprise in the film, the force of her powers is.
Sissy Spacek effortless performance in Carrie garnered her first Academy Award nomination for actress, and she achieved this by constantly pushing against the performative grain of her character, imbuing Carrie White with utter authenticity. She counterbalances this authenticity with her striking use of physicality to convey the large religious motifs layered into Brian De Palma’s film. While this video essay highlights what makes Carrie so scary, I think it’s also what makes Sissy Spacek so special. On working with Terrence Malick in his debut feature Badlands Spacek said, “The artist rules. Nothing else matters.” Spacek is an actress, but first and foremost she is an artist. One who uses her body, rather than a canvas, to convey the truths inside us all.