One week a month, Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres. This week: With the Academy Awards a few days away, we look back at some of the unlikeliest Oscar nominees, picking a different major category every day.
There’s an argument to be made for Academy bias against all sorts of genre filmmaking, as fans of comic-book movies know all too well. But while horror films have received marginally more respect from Oscars voters than their superhero counterparts over the years—as in, a horror movie that is arguably really more of a crime thriller won Best Picture once—it’s still exceedingly rare for a scary movie to be recognized. And, perhaps because they often focus on female protagonists, Best Actress is one notable area in which horror movies have crept out of the makeup ghetto and into the big awards. Kathy Bates won for her role in Misery, for example, and Jodie Foster took home one of Silence Of The Lambs’ five Oscars in 1991.
But only twice in the history of the Academy Awards have two women been nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting actress Oscars for the same horror movie, and both times, they played mother and daughter. The precedent was set by Ellen Burstyn and Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973), and then in 1976, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie repeated the feat with Carrie. The dynamic is a fertile one for horror: There’s no more primitive bond than that between a mother and child, and no betrayal more profound than when that bond is twisted.
Those universal fears are taken to grotesque extremes in the story of telekinetic teenage outcast Carrie White (Spacek) and her abusive mother, Margaret (Laurie), whose religious fervor has hardened into a clear-eyed madness. Margaret considers Carrie the living embodiment of her sin of enjoying a sexual relationship with Carrie’s father, who then left them for another woman; in Margaret’s eyes, Carrie’s whole existence is tainted, justifying her abuse of the girl as essentially beating the evil out of her, especially after Carrie begins showing signs of supernatural abilities. The first time we see the two together on screen, Margaret hits a weeping Carrie in the face with a prayer book as a punishment for the “sin” of getting her period, reciting, “If she had remained sinless, the curse of blood would never have come on her,” in the grandiose intonation of a preacher delivering a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon.
Laurie’s performance as Margaret White hasn’t aged as well as some other aspects of the film, her Southern accent and black cape long since having crossed over into camp. Or maybe time has just caught up to Piper Laurie: When she first received the script for Carrie, she interpreted it as satire and didn’t realize that it wasn’t until director Brian De Palma told her to tone it down a bit. Still, her initial interpretation informed the character, and as she told NPR in 2013, “I laughed so much during the whole making of this movie—I can’t tell you—at how preposterous I was.” And underneath her melodramatic line readings and theatrical gestures, there’s an unsettling calm in Laurie’s face that lets the audience know that Margaret White actually believes her cruel delusions, giving her relatively small role an outsize impact.
Meanwhile, Sissy Spacek as Carrie is the kind of controlled performance Oscar voters love, not least because of her intense method of getting into character. As Spacek wrote in her 2012 memoir, she deliberately isolated herself from the rest of the cast on set, instead holing up in her dressing room and studying religious etchings. She would then copy their body language, incorporating the tortured postures of martyrs and demons into her performance. At the beginning of the film, Spacek’s body language is very closed off, her head down, shoulders slumped, and hands folded as if she’s trying to take up as little space as possible. When she does speak, she either murmurs or shrieks in terror. As the film goes on and Carrie begins to develop her powers, Spacek starts to slowly unfold, putting her head up and shoulders back as she tries on that fateful pink prom dress and lipstick. But her confidence has a tragic edge to it, thanks to her utter naïveté; she’s so easily duped that we feel sorry for her as she clings to her prom date, Tommy (William Katt), for dear life.
That all changes, of course, in the film’s famous climactic sequence—if you don’t know what happens at the end of Carrie, we won’t spoil it for you here—when suddenly, a shy girl who was shaking like a frightened rabbit just a few minutes ago transforms into a hissing cat with its back arched and its claws out. Spacek removes all softness from her performance in these final scenes, bulging her eyes out and standing stiffly with her shoulders thrown back, muscles clenched tight, and limbs thrown out in unnatural, angular postures. Blood may be a bit on the nose as far as coming-of-age symbolism goes, but Sissy Spacek’s total physical transformation gives the story an elemental quality. Her version of Carrie White can’t control her body, any more than she can control the way her mother or the kids at school treat her. Her committed, sympathetic performance lifts the movie above your typical horror fare, and the Academy was right to take notice.
Availability: Carrie was recently released on a collector’s edition Blu-ray that you can buy on Amazon, and it can be rented on DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major streaming outlets.