Feelin’ Spooky: Carrie (1976)

By Christian DiMartino

Carrie was the first novel Stephen King ever concocted, of many. Brian De Palma’s Carrie was the first big screen adaptation of King’s works. To this day, it’s still one of the very best. As someone who has read shockingly few of King’s works, I can say that sometimes the translation from page to screen doesn’t always mesh. Sometimes a filmmaker can work wonders with King; other times it can be a glorious failure (if you have not seen Dreamcatcher, whew). De Palma’s film is immaculate, and one that has surpassed the test of time.

This is a film that works for a number of reasons. I think it’s because, in its own supernatural way, King’s story really resonates. Not that we can fully relate to what’s happening to Carrie White, but the idea of a teenager going through a living hell is something that’s relatable. That’s just the magic of King though: he’s always been one to think outside the box. Take a concept like the one in Gerald’s Game. Who thinks of that? With Carrie, he and De Palma essentially take a bullied teenager and they turn that idea on its head. The idea being, what if they snapped? But this is of course more than just that though, considering Carrie White has telekinesis, and when we first meet her in Carrie, she’s kind of learning how to control those powers.

Sissy Spacek plays the titular role here, and she’d been in a few things by this point, such as Terrence Malick’s Badlands. But this was the one that sent her on a skyrocket, and for good reason. Spacek actually earned a much warranted Oscar nomination here, and the more I watch Carrie the better this performance becomes. Part of it I think lies in Spacek’s appearance, which is an odd way to judge a performance. But Spacek has a really striking face; she’s pretty, and yet you can see how others might find her creepy. She doesn’t LOOK like many other people, so she truly fits the role of an outcast like the glove, even though she’s obviously not. She also really gets us to empathize with her early on. Having seen this movie many times, we know what she’s capable of. Yet we know that she’s a gentle soul who can only be pushed so far. She makes us like her to the point where when she does unleash hell, it’s more than earned.

That’s also of course a testament to De Palma’s direction here. Here is maybe the best director that has never fully gotten his due. Those of us who know his movies know his greatness, and yet he still feels underrated. Carrie is certainly in the pantheon of De Palma’s best works, because of the the performances he conjures, the cinematography that he orchestrates, and really just the feeling of dread that he helps spread throughout the entire movie. Carrie White leads a truly miserable existence, and he makes us feel it.

Adding to the miserable existence is none other than Carrie’s mother, who is played by Piper Laurie. Laurie also garnered an Oscar nomination here. I’m not sure who won, but they should’ve just handed it over to her. Because what Laurie is doing in this movie is cuckoo-bananas, bonkers, and weird… but it’s also truly frightening and unforgettable. Mrs. White is essentially the cause of her daughters’ torment; all of the kids at Carrie’s school, particularly Chris and her boyfriend Billy (Nancy Allen and John Travolta), harass Carrie because they think she’s a freak, and they think she’s a freak because of her mother. Her mother is a Jesus freak, and also more, who shelters Carrie from normal society.

The bulk of Carrie is really just laying out the groundwork for its climax, which is as riveting as they come. The film opens with Carrie having her period in the middle of gym class, and she’s completely horrified because she has no idea what it is. From then on, we’re off, and we pretty much get to endure the high school hell that she is subjected to. Nearly everyone is against her, such as the people previously mentioned. But not everyone. Sue (Amy Irving) sees Chris’ bullying as wrong, and stands up to her.

The gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) also has no trouble putting Chris in her place. This of course pisses Chris off, and her and Billy devise a plan to exact revenge on Carrie (wouldn’t you target the people who actually did you wrong? I digress). Sue, feeling empathy for Carrie for her years of torment, urges her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to ask Carrie to the prom. Carrie, despite her mother’s unbearable warnings (“They’re all gonna laugh at you!”), goes to prom, has the night of her life, and then… well, if you know this movie, you know. But I have to say, the tension and suspense that De Palma cooks up in those moments is crackerjack.

I don’t know what there is really left to say about Carrie. What can be said that hasn’t been said by countless others? I guess I do have a gripe with it though, and it’s minor. But when s**t hits the fan, why does Mrs. Collins laugh? Mrs. Collins had rooted for Carrie and cared about her the entire movie, and then in that moment she snaps and meets her demise. I haven’t seen the Chloe Moretz/ Kimberly Pierce remake in a few years, but I do recall that they righted that wrong. Otherwise, De Palma’s film is an absolute jewel. A horror classic that has persisted for over 45 years, and you know what? It’s not going anywhere.

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