by Heath Holland
Piper Laurie freaks me out. Well, to be more specific, it’s her performance in Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version of Carrie that really gives me the chills. I mean, I know she’s an actress who did an incredible job of realizing a character, but there’s a part of me that sees her AS her character.
I suppose what bothers me the most about Laurie’s performance as Carrie’s mother Margaret White is that she plays a character who is only slightly outside the world in which we live. Margaret White is the most pious and zealous of Christians, quick to condemn and full of arrogance and superiority. When Carrie says or does something that doesn’t fall in line with Margaret’s own twisted morality, she’s sent to a dark closet with a light-up Jesus and a bible so that she can repent and pray until atonement has been made.
This is the starting place from which Piper Laurie seems to build her performance: Margaret White is just such as person, full of her own answers. The world is evil. Her daughter is evil. And apparently, hair conditioner is evil. Clearly all is not well in her head, and she has taken such a manipulative and controlling position in Carrie’s life that she has become the sin that she believes she stands against, failing in even the basic functions of being a mother in the belief that she is saving her daughter’s immortal soul from the fires of hell.
The Mist, Piper Laurie plays a broken person who seems to have lost everything except religion and now spews fire and brimstone in place of compassion and humility.
Laurie’s note-perfect performance and understanding of what makes the character scary bring the role off the page and into real life. It’s chilling. It’s subtle and quiet at times, then full of justified rage at others, but at no point does it ever cross into parody. It’s always grounded in reality, in the people that we interact with in our own lives.
That believability is what gives the performance its power. Because Margaret White starts from a place of spiritual superiority, which is absolutely something many people feel, she is able to stretch that role into the fringes of sanity. The implication of the performance is that these people could be all around us and that the minute someone crosses the line, another Margaret White can be born.
Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie were nominated for Academy Awards, which speaks to the power of Carrie. Horror is notoriously overlooked each year during awards season. Clearly, Carrie transcends traditional boundaries because of the sympathetic nature of the story, Sissy Spacek’s innocence and the chilling performance given by Piper Laurie.
More Great Horror Performances:
JB on Anthony Perkins in Psycho