Here’s one sign that you may be a horror movie obsessive: You remember Carrie White’s senior prom better than your own senior prom. Then again, you probably didn’t have the benefit of Brian De Palma choreographing the biggest night of your high school life. Scene-for-scene, Carrie, the director’s beloved 1976 adaption of Stephen King’s debut novel, is one of the finest page-to-screen translations in contemporary cinema history, never more than in its climactic dance sequence, which closes out the title character’s horrific, yet also disturbingly cathartic, journey from bullied wallflower to blood-soaked avenger in grand (guignol) fashion.
When she first enters the gymnasium at Bates High School — a cheeky Hitchcock reference that stands in for Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School in King’s book — on the arm of the most popular boy in school, Tommy Ross (William Katt), poor put-upon Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is living out her dream of the perfect prom night. But as the evening unfolds, her dream gradually, and irreversibly, morphs into a nightmare orchestrated by her high school nemesis, Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen). Thankfully, the atmosphere was far more festive behind the scenes; when Yahoo Entertainment spoke with Spacek’s onscreen date in 2014, Katt described the experience in glowing terms: “I remember mostly that it was just a ball having everybody there, because the shots would take so long to set up. And there we were, all young 20s guys and girls, and we just had a great time.”
In a recent interview with the Oscar-winning star of Coal Miner’s Daughter and The Old Man & the Gun, Spacek echoed Katt’s rose-colored memories of what’s better known in King mythology as the Black Prom. “I loved the challenge of making those crazy shots work,” the actress says, referring to the rich mélange of camera tricks that De Palma employs throughout the 20-minute set piece. Take Carrie’s dance with Tommy, for which the actors stood on a platform that rotated, while the camera revolved around them on a dolly track in the opposite direction. “We were going one way, and the camera was going the other way,” Spacek remarks, chuckling at the memory.
Some performers might get frustrated with the technical demands of such a shot, but Spacek emphasizes the freedom she felt even if her movements might have been restricted by the prospect of falling off of a spinning platform. “One of the things I loved about working with Brian is that he knew the parameters [of the shot], but you do anything you wanted within those parameters that were important to him. Every director’s completely different, and you have to change your process to work with the style of each director — that brings out different things in you.”
Some of De Palma’s intricately designed stagings required hours, sometimes even days, to plan and film. Not so with the prom’s most famous moment: when a resplendent Carrie is marveling at being crowned prom queen, only to be doused from overhead with a bucket of pig blood — a final humiliation that goads her into unleashing the full force of her telekinetic powers against her schoolmates. “We only did that twice,” Spacek says, chalking it up to the side effect of the extensive cleaning process required in between takes. (It’s worth noting that De Palma reportedly said it was captured in a single take.) Despite — or maybe because of — those constraints, the director made sure to vocalize his parameters for the shot to his star. “Brian would say, ‘Open your eyes wider,’ after I was in the blood,” Spacek says, laughing. “That was very effective — thank you, Brian!”
In case you’re wondering what it might feel like to take a bath in pig blood — or, in this case, Karo syrup and food coloring — Spacek describes the sensation as feeling like “a warm blanket falling over me.” Funnily enough, that “blanket” was poured on her by her husband and the film’s production designer, Jack Fisk, whom she met earlier on the set of her breakout film, Badlands. According to firsthand accounts, Fisk carried the bucket up a ladder and tipped its contents over when De Palma shouted, “Action.” “They warmed it up beforehand, and both times I remember it feeling like a warm blanket. It’s wonderful when you can just play a scene where something happens to you and you just go with it. And Brian always seemed to have the camera in the right spot!”
Spacek also reveals that, besides dousing her in blood, her husband literally dug her grave during the making of Carrie. The movie’s iconic and oft-imitated kicker shot is of Carrie’s hand shooting out of her final resting place and grabbing ahold of Amy Irving’s Sue Snell — the prom’s sole survivor — who then jolts awake, screaming. “[Jack] dug that hole and then they put plywood over it,” Spacek remembers. “It wasn’t very deep, but I had to push my hand up through this thing that was covered in pumice rocks. So my hand was getting very raw from doing that!”
Not that there was any question in her mind of using a stunt double for that scene. “I do all my own hand and foot work,” Spacek jokes, adding that a little irritated skin was a small price to pay for the joy of watching that moment with a packed crowd. “Jack and I used to go to the movie theater for the last five minutes just to see the whole audience come out of their seats!” Sounds like a dream date night for horror lovers.
Carrie is available to stream on Amazon Prime.
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