Movie review: “Carrie” (1976)

“Well, who should we vote for? They’re more your crowd than mine. (she thinks) I don’t even have a crowd.”

“Why don’t we vote for ourselves?”

“No!”

“Why not?”

“Please, don’t vote for ourselves!”

“Carrie. (smiles at her reassuringly) C’mon. To the devil with false modesty.”

(she thinks, finally smiles in return) “To the devil.”

I read Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie over the course of a single, white-knuckle weekend back in high school and haven’t revisited it since. Neither of those statements is particularly surprising in retrospect. King was my first, second, and third favorite author growing up. Whereas typical kids can be counted on to occasionally skip schoolwork to indulge in unconstructive extracurriculars, I too often found myself immersed in choice cuts from Night Shift or Skeleton Crew instead of my own assigned reading. The breadth of King’s literary domain has rendered his lesser tomes somewhat disposable, and Carrie certainly isn’t one of his best. Structured largely as a series of small town newspaper articles covering the aftermath and, retroactively, the background and lead-up to a sensational local tragedy, it reads like the growing pains of an ambitious first-time author manifesting in real time. The pathos of young Carrie White’s tortured, miserable existence, which would culminate in an unimaginable bloodbath at her high school prom, were diluted if not swallowed whole by the detached, clinical nature of King’s gimmicky narrative. This is both a shame and a missed opportunity, for Carrie features arguably among the most potent of all central King conceits in a career that has been lousy with them: what happens when the entitled mob finally picks on the wrong person and pushes them too far? Not simply “what happens”, but “what’s the worst that could happen?” We’ve always subconsciously depended on Stephen King to provide such forbidden answers to deliciously taboo questions. Bless him.

Many King works, let’s face it, do not exactly cry out for film adaptation, though market realities tend to make things inevitable. This wasn’t yet the case in 1976. Brian DePalma’s movie version of Carrie, a certifiable horror classic in every sense of whichever of those words you choose to emphasize, ended up establishing not just the market but the standard for all future King adaptations, and, I would argue, was every bit responsible for making the author’s name (not to mention DePalma’s own) as the excellent parade of best sellers (The Shining, Salem’s Lot, The Stand, et al.) that initially set his reputation. DePalma, who already had a reputation as a stylistic hot shot in the years before Dressed to Kill and Scarface would push him over the top, grasped the full dramatic potential of what King had hinted at and wisely chose to dial back his customary excesses and focus only on the character that truly mattered. Not so much played as embodied by Sissy Spacek as an overtaxed nuclear reactor approaching meltdown, Carrie White, the timid and repressed teenage daughter of a notorious religious zealot, shuffles through the stations of her life like a walking target, a magnet for abuse both at school and at home, where things somehow seem to go from reliably awful to even worse. The performance earned Spacek the first of her six Oscar nominations, and such is its overwhelming power that, despite a distinguished career spanning five decades, I still can’t easily picture her in any other role, nor anyone else in this one. 

DePalma’s typically hyperactive camera today floats as if in a dream through a crowded high school locker room, passing girls half-clothed and unclothed, enveloped in a strange Moorish fog and engaged in gossip and conspiratorial giggles. There is nary a care in their collective heads beyond the possibilities and implications of impending Prom season. Closer inspection in slow motion reveals the fog as so much mist wafting from running communal showers, and the crowd recedes to reveal Carrie White where she can always most reliably be found, isolated an arm’s length or more away from everyone, utterly alone. It is for her a rare, if fleeting, moment of purely contemplative peace. This, we will learn, is a child in the process of becoming a young woman who was never prepared for what that would entail, and so when, lost in thought, she looks down and notices blood streaking her soapy hands, she is shocked and terrified. She staggers out of the showers in a desperate search for help, her terror exploding into outright hysteria, as her surprised classmates greet her animal cries with even more authentically inhuman jeers, cackling with laughter as they taunt her with chants and pelt her with tampons. The horror genre had by this point already long used the camera’s point of view to unsubtly intertwine the perspectives of viewer and killer; here, DePalma uses it to force his audience into uncomfortable identification with this shrieking, surrounded girl – only the torches and pitchforks are missing – while Spacek’s frenzied reactions spray shrapnel in all directions. It’s a definite tone setter.

This is an iconic ‘70s horror moment on par with Leatherface’s introduction, or the stomach-turning climax of Kane’s “get well” dinner in Alien, yet it seems almost entirely plausible, however heightened the emotions. But then, as well meaning gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) wades into the fray in an attempt to de-escalate hostilities, a light bulb in the ceiling suddenly explodes, and everyone is rendered speechless. From such inauspicious beginnings, Carrie unfolds as a series of extended slice-of-life intervals that would likely still fail in their aim to reassure a traumatized audience even if they weren’t regularly punctuated by scenes of searing, unsettlingly intimate horror. Carrie White’s personal life hides multiple secrets, you see, and she is rightly scared of all of them. The longer we occupy her headspace, and the cheerless home she shares with her mother, the more we are forced to agree. Piper Laurie almost defies description as browbeating religious ecstatic Margaret White, not merely owning but dominating every second of screen time she occupies.* No matter how fraught and besieged her daughter’s days at school may be, Margaret is the real stuff of Carrie’s nightmares. And, by extension, ours. Rarely can I remember having such a visceral negative reaction to a mere movie character. Margaret is clearly wary of the woman Carrie is becoming, of the first hint of agency awakening within her, and seeks to preemptively snuff it out. As Carrie begins manifesting telekinetic abilities that channel her frustrations in increasingly portentous ways, factions develop at school among her tormentors and peers, some proactive and penitent, some unapologetically spiteful. 

*In maybe ten combined minutes, Margaret nevertheless earns her place in the cinematic pantheon of feminine evil alongside Eleanor Shaw, Nurse Ratched, Cruella DeVil, and fellow King creation Annie Wilkes. I’d take high tea with any of the others before her.

The story of how Carrie White, moved like a chess piece by forces beyond her control, is crowned prom queen as the elaborate setup to a humiliating prank, is almost incidental. Best to leave it that way. I’ve never fully bought into the motives pushing Susan Snell (Amy Irving) to selflessly sacrifice her own spotlight (and loan out her bemused, if well-meaning, boyfriend) for Carrie’s benefit, any more than I, even with a general skepticism of human nature informed by my own turbulent middle/high school years, can embrace the seeming obsession of scorned queen bee Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) to utterly crush her. What’s important is that once the mechanisms of prom and the cruel joke at its heart are introduced, DePalma treats them as a fait accompli that he can use against his audience. Cinderella arrives at the ball full of hope and the night unfolds magically, but it’s hard to ever bask in her budding happiness. Something bad is going to happen here, we can’t help/stop thinking, and then something bad is going to happen here. The justifiably famous interlocking split-screen climax where Carrie rains down indiscriminate telekinetic vengeance on her classmates is arguably the single greatest thing DePalma ever committed to film, but that shouldn’t overshadow the brutal suspense of its clockwork lead-up, as Sue Snell sneaks in to witness the fruits of her handiwork while Chris hides beneath the stage poised to strike. The sequence lasts barely fourteen minutes – surprising, unsettling, pitiless – from the moment Carrie marks her fateful ballot to her exit, bloodspattered and walking as if in a trance. The gym door closes on its own behind her. 

The Carrie of King’s seminal novel was a riveting tragedy imperfectly told, with basic human dynamics that would have teetered on the edge of outright horror even without its creator there to give it a nudge. Without its overt horror trappings, the filmed Carrie would still be well worth seeing based on its underlying premise and the power of its central performances, which I frankly cannot praise enough. Imagine this as an evolving dialogue between a bullied wallflower discovering untapped inner strength and the mother whose rigid severity irrevocably shaped her. Vulnerable and yearning, Spacek pulls the viewer in magnetically, even as Laurie, self-possessed and unbending, repels. Both richly deserved the acting Oscar that neither won. That hypothetical dialogue is necessarily cut short by DePalma for expediency’s sake with no appreciable degradation to the finished product – indeed, he shows an unexpected gift for closely observed emotional moments, big and small – and the result is one of the greatest movies in horror history. Carrie White sees the world as a terrible trap she might never escape. Margaret White sees her only child as a wayward soul on her best day and, on her worst, a witch. Neither is entirely wrong. The film never stops sympathizing with Carrie, even as she snaps and unleashes the dread potential of her powers on friend and foe alike. She ends as both predator and prey. The soul of Carrie’s tragedy lies not in its famous climax, or ultimate reckoning between mother and daughter, or iconic, genre-defining final jump scare, but in its namesake’s grim duality. 

We watch, terrified and transfixed. Because Carrie never asked for this.

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