Many words have been used to describe Brian De Palma over the years. Words such as talented, overrated, offensive, gifted, underrated, and so on, have told the tale of a career, which has seen its ups and downs. And while his contemporaries, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Martin Scorcese have gone on to fame and fortune, De Palma has remained a controversial figure in Hollywood. But, it now appears that the digital revolution may bring Mr. De Palma the credit he deserves, as five of his films are set to hit DVD in the next few weeks. Of these, is what is arguably De Palma’s most famous film, "Carrie", which is receiving the Special Edition treatment from MGM Home Entertainment.
Based on the first novel by horror-master Stephen King, "Carrie" tells the story of the ultimate high-school nightmare. Sissy Spacek stars in an Oscar-nominated turn as Carrie White, a thin, pale, shy, awkward girl who no one in school seems to like. The film opens with a chilling scene in which Carrie is taunted and berated by her classmates in the locker room. Following this ghastly scene, Sue (Amy Irving), Chris (Nancy Allen), and Norma (P.J. Soles) are all placed on detention by gym-coach Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). This leads Chris and Norma to swear that they’ll get revenge on Carrie. Meanwhile, Carrie returns home to her mother, Margaret (Oscar-nominee Piper Laurie), a religious fanatic who thinks that Carrie’s blossoming womanhood is a sign of sin and punishes Carrie. All of this stress leads to the emergence of Carrie’s telekinetic powers, which she doesn’t understand and can’t really control. As if Carrie’s life wasn’t chaotic enough, Sue sets a benevolent plan into motion so that Carrie can attend the prom, which Chris, aided by her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) begins a scheme to humiliate Carrie in front of the whole school. These events culminate in a prom that no one will ever forget!
"Carrie" is one of those rare films, which combines an intriguing story with a visionary director. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (not be confused with Larry Cohen of "It’s Alive!" fame) has stripped King’s source novel down to its bare elements, doing away with the "documentary" style of the book. Carrie is a character who’s easy to latch onto, because we’ve all known someone like her. The same goes with the petty jealousy and snobbery that occurs with the character of Chris. Yes, on one level the characters in "Carrie" are one-dimensional, but this only serves to draw the viewer into the film, so that the fantastic story of a girl with supernatural powers can get under way. De Palma, who would come to be known for being over-the-top, lets the story unfold at a natural pace and then unleashes its savage fury in the final reel. Also, Cohen and De Palma made the wise choice of changing the ending of the film, which worked fine in the book, but would have been far too subtle on film. Most of the performances in "Carrie" are good, with the obvious Spacek and Laurie standing out above the others.
As unique (for its time) and compelling as the story of "Carrie" is, it’s Brian De Palma creative visuals and confident directing style. Any film opening with a scene as shocking as the beginning of "Carrie", shows that the filmmakers are going for broke and makes the audience unsure of what could happen next. The man who would come to be known for his insanely long Steadi-Cam shots in films such as "Snake Eyes" and "The Bonfire of the Vanities", first flexed those muscles here with the opening crane-shot and the two long shots which take place during the prom. And of course, the shot of the fire starting behind Carrie is a classic. De Palma’s use of the split-diopter lens also helped to create a sense of atmosphere, placing one object in a dominant position in the foreground and another off in the distance. The gothic design of the White’s house, along with De Palma’s creative framing (check out the "Last Supper" shot), helps to heighten the relationship between Carrie and her bigot mother.
MGM Home Entertainment is releasing a new Special Edition of "Carrie" to replace their previous DVD release from September 1998. It would seem that the best way to review the new "Carrie" DVD would be to compare it to the old one. As with the previous version, the film is presented in a letterboxed format with an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. But, this newer DVD has been enhanced for 16x9 TVs. This new enhancement has created some slight, but noticeable improvements in the image. Let it first be said that due to the way that "Carrie" was shot, some of the scenes, especially the prom and the finale, are always going to appear a bit soft, no matter what means of transfer is used. The image here is very sharp and clear throughout, appearing somewhat sharper than the previous version. Also, there are less defects from the source print present. The colors are a bit more prominent on this new transfer, as the first one looked a little washed-out. The fleshtones appear natural, and the contrast of light and dark (the light outside with the darkness of the White’s house) works very well on this transfer. There are no obvious defects from artifacting or compression. Overall, this is a very competent transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 channel soundtrack on the Special Edition DVD doesn’t sound very different from the 5.1 track which was featured on the previous incarnation. The only noticeable difference is that this new track is slightly louder. Both tracks offer an impressive sound field and a creative use of surround sound. For an example of this, look no further than Chapter 27, where the medley of the voices of those who’ve taunted "Carrie" swirl around the room, heightening the effect of Carrie’s madness. The musical score by Pino Donaggio gets the treatment it deserves with this rich soundtrack. For you completists, the original Mono soundtrack is available on this DVD as well.
The two "Carrie" DVDs totally diverge when it comes to special features. Whereas the first release was bare-bones, this Special Edition offers many unique features. The highlights of these extras are two documentaries, which explore the making of "Carrie". The first is a 43-minute documentary entitled, "Acting Carrie". This features interviews with director Brian De Palma, actors Sissy Spacek, William Katt, Nancy Allen, Piper Laurie, P.J. Soles, and Betty Buckley, as well as Art Director Jack Fisk, who was married to Spacek when the film was made. Through interviews and behind-the-scenes photos, the participants describe the casting process for "Carrie" and what the atmosphere was like on the set. There are many interesting anecdotes told in this feature. The second documentary is called, "Visualizing Carrie", and it offers more comments from De Palma and Fisk, with the addition of editor Paul Hirsch and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen. This 40-minute feature explores the filming of "Carrie" and how De Palma was able to translate his highly detailed storyboards to the screen. There are stills from a scene, which was shot but never used and De Palma reveals, which cinematic trick he now regrets using. Those who are disappointed by the lack of an audio commentary on this DVD should rest assured that these two documentaries will answer most any questions which pertain to the making of "Carrie". (Those of you who read the "Carrie" retrospective in the recent issue of PREMIERE may find some of the information in the documentaries redundant.)
The most disappointing feature on this new DVD is the "Carrie the Musical" segment, which describes the ill-fated Broadway production of "Carrie". Through interviews with Cohen and Buckley, we learn about the play, but there are no pictures or video of the production, so this turns out to be a "talking-head" only segment. The most unique extra is a text-only segment discussing the Stephen King novel "Carrie". This feature explores the origins of the novel, how it made it to Hollywood, and then lists specific differences between the book and movie. (Every film based on a book should do this!) There is a still gallery with many production stills from the film. The theatrical trailer for "Carrie" is included, and has been letterboxed at 1.85:1.
The Special Edition of "Carrie" is one DVD, which is certainly worth asking to the prom. The new anamorphic transfer looks fine and the Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is as good as ever. The comprehensive extras offer the viewer an inside look at the making of the film. Trust me, if you get this DVD, no one is going to laugh at you.