In 1975, Jaws sounded like your a typical B-movie premise. However, the main focus in this horror/thriller blockbuster is the humanity behind our three heroes while going out into the Atlantic Ocean to kill a great white shark. Not only did it make audiences scared of going in the ocean, it also changed the face of horror forever. Meanwhile, before directing Scarface, Brian De Palma got his hands on a hardcover book by an unknown (at the time) author named Stephen King. The book is Carrie.
Carrie (1976) was certainly ahead of its time. It became the first adaptation by King, eventually helmed as “The King of Horror”. Many of his books and short stories have been adapted into wonderful films (Stand by Me, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) as well as some bad ones (The Mist). 40 years to the day, it still guarantees to frighten generations of filmgoers. While the movie can be viewed as a supernatural horror film, it also can be viewed as a high school film and a film about adolescent angst. De Palma is the only master filmmaker to create such a work of art!
It’s hard not to write about Carrie without giving spoilers. Make sure you have seen the movie.
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a shy and lonely girl. She’s a senior at Bates High School—one of many homages to Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho—who is always getting picked on or ignored by her peers. At home, she gets abused by her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie, who came back under the spotlight 15 years after The Hustler), a religious freak who goes out of her way to use her beliefs on her. One day, Carrie gets invited to the upcoming senior prom by Tommy Ross (William Katt), despite the dismay of her mother. No one knows, besides her mother, that she has telekinesis, the power to move things with her mind. She has no idea what she is in for at the prom.
Stephen King wrote Carrie in an epistolary style—telling the narrative in the form of letters, newspaper articles, magazine editorials, and investigative reports. Lawrence D. Cohen kept the book’s nature in his screenplay; however, he decided to get rid of the novel’s structure and tell the movie’s narrative in a straightforward fashion. A few changes from the book have been made, such as the shocking ending (in which Stephen King loved) and a scene where it would have been too dangerous and over-the-top. Unlike the book, the audience sympathizes with Carrie from the opening scene where she and her classmates are taking a shower and changing up after gym class. A long tracking shot (in slow-motion) moves through the locker room where the girls are in the nude and ends on Carrie taking a shower. All of a sudden, she has her first period. Without having an idea what to do, her classmates–queen-bee Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), Sue Snell (Amy Irving), Norma (P.J. Soles, who would go on to star in John Carpenter’s Halloween) and others begin to throw tampons at poor Carrie chanting “Plug it up!” until Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) breaks up the commotion. Later, her mother convinces Carrie that menstruation is a sin, and locks her in a closet with Catholic imagery (including an eerie-looking figurine of St. Sebastian) to pray “and ask to be forgiven”.
A year after her stunning performance in Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Sissy Spacek worked as a set designer with her husband Jack Fisk (who also worked as the set designer for Carrie) for De Palma’s cult hit Phantom of the Paradise (1974). In her autobiography, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life, she described her experience as “the hardest job I ever did.” After making a mess with one of the sets, De Palma went as far as calling her “as the worst, no-talent set decorator he’d ever worked with.”
But, Spacek impressed the hell out of De Palma at her audition where she walked in with Vaseline in her hair without washing her face, and feeling bad for herself. Everybody, including some the cast of Carrie, auditioned for Star Wars (William Katt auditioned for Luke Skywalker before being cast as Tommy Ross). Spacek captures the frustration and optimism of Carrie to perfection. I can relate to her struggle with my own experiences with bullies in middle school and my early years of high school. She and Piper Laurie received Oscar nominations for their performance, which is unusual and surprising for a horror film. As amazing as Spacek’s performance in Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), the fact that Spacek got snubbed for her first Oscar is actually depressing. Along with Laurie (who described the movie as a dark comedy due to her terrifying, over-the-top performance), Spacek is absolutely electrifying!
As mean-spirited as Carrie is, De Palma does deliver with its moments of dark humor and tender moments. Carrie sees Miss Collins as her only positive role model. When Carrie tells her Tommy invited her to the prom (because Sue felt guilty for becoming a part of the shower incident, she decided to make it up for it by doing her boyfriend a favor to take her), Miss Collins becomes ecstatic. “I know who he goes around with, he’s just trying to trick me again,” Carrie says. Miss Collins convinces her how beautiful she is.
Meanwhile, after being banned from the upcoming prom for ditching detention, Chris and her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta, in his first major film role, where he, at one point in the film, comes up with Larry the Cable Guy’s catchphrase) decide to go out of their way to humiliate Carrie at the prom. They decide to make her Prom Queen and dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her. The prom sequence is where Brian De Palma showcases his talents.
Early on in the prom, Tommy and Carrie decide to share at least one slow dance together. The scene is set up with a camera spinning around them while they are dancing. It starts off slow and picks up speed to the point of going out of control. This is the only moment in the film—if not, her entire life—where Carrie has experienced true happiness. At the same time, however, it hints at what is going to happen to her next. De Palma uses the slow-motion technique as a way of making the sequence as a fantasy before making the shift to the cruel reality, especially in the sequence where Carrie is announced Prom Queen before eventually having her “Cinderella moment” ruined after having her baptismal bloodbath (“You’re a woman now,” Carrie’s mother says to her earlier in the film).
At this moment, Carrie releases her telekinetic powers upon the senior class and faculty. Unlike the 2013 remake (I’ll talk about it some other time), where she uses her powers like an X-Men mutant, she uses her powers through her emotions. Case in point, in the film’s most iconic sequence, she gets really pissed off (take notice of the blood-red lights). With the use of the split-screen, she uses her powers to her full advantage with her eyes wide open. Her presence on the stage sends shivers down my spine.
It’s rare for a horror film, like Carrie, to have so much humanity. Brian De Palma and his team manage to make a film superior to Stephen King’s first novel. With the 2002 television remake and the 2013 theatrical remake, neither compare to the magic of the 1976 classic. It’s such a shame Brian De Palma didn’t have a great filmmaking career after Mission: Impossible (1996), which led him to eventually retire. Nevertheless, Carrie is one of those horror movies that I will continue to watch for a long time.
 Sissy Spacek, My Extraordinary Ordinary Life. p. 156, 158.