Carrie is full of important firsts. It was the first film adaptation of Stephen King’s work, sparking an interesting in making movies and television productions out of his work that has continued for forty years. It was the first big hit for director Brian DePalma and arguably made his Hollywood career possible. It was also either the first movie or first major role for a lot of its youthful cast. However, there’s more to this film than firsts. It’s not only one of the best King adaptations but one of the finest horror films of the ’70s, period.
The plot is built around the title character (Sissy Spacek), a teenage girl who is an outcast to her peers and also has to contend with an abusive, fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie). She experiences her first menstruation in the gym shower and panics, not knowing what is happening because mom never told her about it. The other girls ridicule her, earning a brutal round of detention from gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley).
One of Carrie’s tormentors, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), repents and talks her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) into asking Carrie to the prom. Unfortunately, mean girl Chris (Nancy Allen) wants revenge on Carrie for the punishment and plots a vicious prank that will go down at that prom. What no one knows is that Carrie has growing powers of telekinesis – and when she gets pushed too far, everyone will pay for her years of torment in operatically grisly ways.
Simply put, Carrie is the ultimate expression of the “worm turns” concept in horror cinema. Screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen pulled off a minor miracle here, taking a novel that is told in a fragmented style via news articles, investigative reports, etc. and transforming it into a linear yet intricate ensemble piece. The script captures both the daydreams and the social Darwinism at play in high school life, creating a relatable and believable setting for the horrors emerge from. It often has a fairytale quality, like a telling of “The Ugly Duckling” that goes awry and explodes in an apocalyptic finale.
It’s also worth noting that at a time when women were primarily victims in horror films, Cohen and King managed to create a narrative where all the prime movers of the story are the female characters. Better yet, all of those characterizations are layered and carefully drawn.
Carrie does well by those female characterizations by utilizing an excellent cast to bring them to life. Spacek is transcendent as the tormented heroine, running a gauntlet of dark situations yet retaining a core of fragile, beautiful humanity that makes it easy to root for her. Laurie gives a big, broad performance as the mother that lives up to the Tennessee Williams-ish conceit of her characterization yet it never feels overdone: the intensity and conviction she brings to the role makes her as frightening as she is outrageous – and Laurie even finds moments that make the character pitiable. Cohen gives these actors some powerhouse dramatic moments to play together and the tension between Spacek’s low-key naturalism and Laurie’s operatic fervor makes them as gripping as any of the scares in the film.
Similarly, there’s an interesting push-pull relationship between Irving and Allen: Irving brings a quiet dignity to a character who feels shame and genuinely wishes to atone for her actions while Allen is delightfully nasty as an unrepentant mean girl who can only think of a situation in terms of maintaining her queen-bee power. Buckley occupies an interesting middle ground as the gym teacher, alternately tender and tough in an ambiguous role (is she concerned for Carrie or does she want to reassert control?). Though the men are minor players in this tale, it’s worth noting that Katt shows an instantly likeable charisma as the good-guy beau and Travolta steals every scene he’s in with his darkly comic turn as Chris’s piggish boyfriend/ co-conspirator.
That said, an effective tale of supernatural revenge needs a master manipulator at its helm – and DePalma does a brilliant, thoroughly inspired job here. There’s a long time before the big horrors kick in so the film relies on his ability to stylize the melodrama in a way that makes it feel suspenseful and laden with atmosphere. He pulls this off, using sleek photography by Mario Tosi and a melodic, emotionally charged score from Pino Donaggio to comment on the big emotional stakes of Carrie emerging from her shell as she is plotted against. DePalma’s underrated skill for directing actors gets a great venue during this section of the film.
Once it’s time for the prom, the director gets to dig deep into his bag of tricks and the resulting display of cinematic pyrotechnics is awe-inspiring: he gets to deploy slow motion, split-diopter shots, elaborate tracking shots and what might be the finest use of split screen in any movie. From there to the coda, he finds an ideal balance between the visceral and the stylistically graceful that few filmmakers are capable of achieving. Without giving too much away, he also summons up a shock coda for the ages.
In short, Carrie ranks with The Dead Zone and Stand By Me as the best films to emerge from the ever-growing ranks of Stephen King adaptations. It’s also a must-see for anyone interested in DePalma’s career or great horror films from the ’70s. Commercial horror fare doesn’t get better or more artful than this.