Wrap Shot: Carrie (1976)

Cinematographer Mario Tosi, ASC poses between his two leading ladies — from left, Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek — while shooting the stylishly suspenseful supernatural horror classic Carrie (1976), based on the novel by Stephen King and directed by Brian De Palma. (Spoiler Alert: Amidst the bloodstains, you’ll notice a large kitchen knife protruding from Laurie’s abdomen.) 

Both actresses earned Academy Award nominations for their work in the box-office hit — a rarity in genre films. 

Born in Rome during World War II, Tosi dreamed of working in the movies and managed to learn the basics of cinematography while working on various productions in Italy and South Africa. After moving to Los Angeles, he soon discovered that joining the camera guild was essential to success, and focused on learning his craft by assisting other DoPs and doing his own camera and lighting tests when he could. 

After shooting several biker movies and exploitation pictures (including The Glory Stompers, Frogs and Legends of Horror), Tosi finally got the opportunity to shoot a low-budget romantic drama and later got into the guild. He established his career as a union cinematographer while building an enviable career in television, shooting TV movies and commercials. He then gained notoriety with the horror hit Carrie, which was an excellent showcase for his talents. 

As troubled teen with telekenic powers Carrie White, Spacek earned an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, while Laurie earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her portrayal of White’s evangelical (and homicidal) mother.
Tosi's subtle blend of color temperatures in this scene suggests the characters' brewing conflict, while remaining somewhat naturalistic until Carrie strikes back with her supernatural powers.

De Palma began the modestly budgeted production with Isidore Mankofsky, ASC behind the camera, but the two did not see eye-to-eye, leading to Tosi joining the show. The picture was shot over 50 days in the summer of 1976 primarily on locations in and around Los Angeles, with stage work done at Culver Studios.

While De Palma made great use of split-screen compositions created via optical printing in post — particularly in the horrifying prom sequence — he and Tosi also artfully used split-field diopters throughout the shoot to carry focus between different subjects in the same frame. The director would use this technique on numerous other pictures to great effect, including Blow Out, Body Double and The Untouchables.

As De Palma told Cinefantastique magazine in 1976:

I felt the [prom scene] destruction had to be shown in split-screen, because how many times could you cut from Carrie to things moving around? You can overdo that. It's a dead cinematic device. So I thought I'd do it in split-screen. I spent six weeks myself cutting it together. I had 150 set-ups, trying to get this thing together. I put it all together and it lasted five minutes and it was just too complicated. Also, you lost a lot of visceral punch from full-screen action. Then my editor [Paul Hirsch] and I proceeded to pull out of the split-screen and use it just when we precisely needed it.”

For Tosi, this approach was over-the-top, commenting in a 40th anniversary oral history on the production: “I guess [split screen is] effective story-wise. I don’t think — to me, I think… it’s a little too gimmicky. But I guess it’s effective for the story, so I have nothing to say about that. Because that’s all done in editing.”

However, the cinematographer added: “Today, after 40 years, after 40 movies and more that I did, experimenting with soft light and bounce lighting… I would have probably done it differently. But, 40 years ago, I would say that I was brilliant in what came out.”

Tosi is also known for his work in such films as MacArthur, Hearts of the West, Sybil, The Betsy, The Main Event, Resurrection, Whose Life Is It Anyway? and The Stunt Man.

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