Carrie is considered to be one of the best horror films of all time, a mini-masterpiece that has actually (and somewhat surprisingly) aged rather well since its release in 1976. It’s definitely one of the better Stephen King adaptations out there, thanks to Brian De Palma’s stylish direction and Sissy Spacek’s truly excellent performance as the tormented girl who finally snaps (and snaps hard).
There are many memorable moments throughout the film, though the most iconic sequence — one that has rewarded repeated viewings over the years and one that always gets the slumber party riled up — is the prom. You remember it well: Carrie is yet again the target of her classmates’ cruelty as she’s covered in pig’s blood (which came from above — is God laughing at her, too?) shortly after she’s crowned the Prom Queen. She then releases the rage and commences with a roaring rampage of revenge, using her psionic powers to destroy her tormentors (and more or less the entire school building itself, at that).
So how did they go about creating this amazing scene?
Well, as you probably guessed, they didn’t shoot it in an actual high school gym (though a few other scenes taking place at Bates High School were shot on location at Palisades High in California). The gymnasium was built on a sound stage at Culver City Studios. The set had no ceiling, which is why you never get a good look up there. There was also at least one corner of the room that didn’t feature any set decoration or even a wall – that’s where they put the crane. And there were a lot of crane shots to shoot.
Production designer Jack Fisk (who was also Sissy Spacek’s husband at the time) had the challenge of filling the very large space and went with the sparkly stars and crepe paper hanging from the (non-existent) ceiling. It was also a “repetitive” set — one side of the gymnasium pretty much looked like the other, so you could sometimes just move the tables and actors rather than the lights and equipment to portray a different area of the room. This saved a lot of time, though the scene still had its challenges.
The most complicated crane shot in the whole scene (and perhaps the whole film) was what De Palma referred to as the “Figure 8 shot.” It follows Norma (PJ Soles) as she goes from table to table, collecting the ballots from the other students — the camera then travels to behind the stage to reveal the evil Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta), then going above their heads to reveal the bucket of blood. De Palma rehearsed the shot for the better part of a day and didn’t do an actual take until after 4PM. The shot would take a total of 35 takes.
The pig’s blood was actually Karo syrup and food coloring, which was ideal because it didn’t have a bad smell like some other “fake blood” recipes. The only real problem was that it got pretty hot when applied to a heat source — like, say, raging fire about 12 feet away. But we’ll get to that.
After Carrie unleashes her mighty powers, the crew had the pleasure of completely destroying the set. The destruction was done with primitive effects — gas jets, water hoses controlled by monofilament wire, rigging tables and chairs with wire so they could flip over. Most of the set was covered in rubber cement for the destruction sequence — rubber cement, according to Jack Fisk, makes for “beautiful” flame. Sissy Spacek was in the middle of it all, very close to the fire most of the time, and all that syrup on her was getting pretty hot, but she was determined to be in every shot.
De Palma originally envisioned that the entire destruction sequence would be done with “split-screen” and shot it with the idea that there would be two parallel actions going on at once. The director later regretted this decision in the editing room, as he felt the gimmick didn’t work for such an action-heavy scene — it removed the audience too much. Vengeance, he felt, should be direct and without any “tricks.” While he still kept some of the split screen in the film, there ended up being a lot less than he originally intended.
And so Bates High School came to its tragic end. Carrie still had more to do that night — but that’s a story for another time, kiddies.
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