Brian De Palma’s Carrie is an anxious champion of cinematic storytelling. The film wastes no time tinkering with conventionalized scares, instead choosing to cultivate terror through the intimate examination of a tormented young woman and the unforgiving environment she’s forced to endure. Based upon the widely popular novel that first propelled Stephen King toward global stardom, the film focuses on a nervous high schooler named Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) and her miserable, disastrous, blood-drenched coming of age.
Carrie is a teenager much like those we all knew in our own glory days. She’s a shy, intelligent, beautiful girl, but an unfortunate lack of social finesse has made her a pariah. The bulk of her awful torment comes from female classmates, most notably portrayed in a locker room scene at the beginning of the film. The camera glides along in slow motion, establishing a dreamlike, pseudo-erotic atmosphere as the view lands on Carrie standing in the shower. As she carefully washes her body, Pino Donaggio’s music is delicate and gentle. It soon fades away as she gets her first period. She stares at a handful of blood seeping between her fingers as an even flow courses down her legs and spirals into the shower drain. Possessing no knowledge of the female reproductive system, she immediately suspects something terribly wrong with her body. Hunched over, naked, and screaming, she shuffles among the crowd of girls dressing after gym class, begging for someone to save her. They giggle and howl at Carrie’s ignorance and tribally pelt her with a barrage of tampons while shrieking “plug it up, plug it up” like maniacs chanting a ritualistic mantra.
The suffering only intensifies at home. Her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) rules the house with a violent, perverted religion. She callously beats Carrie and locks her in a tiny closet to pray away her filthy mistakes. She’s a tyrannical psychopath who refutes womanhood as something inherently shameful. Most parents would educate their daughters on natural female development, but Margaret denounces the truth and strives to make Carrie feel disgusted with her growing body and evolving sexuality.
tele·ki·ne·sis | te-li-kə-ˈnē-səs
the ability to move or to cause changes in objects by force of the mind
After enduring such vicious abuse from her mother and peers, telekinetic abilities slowly sprout from Carrie’s turmoil. De Palma handles this element of the tale with devoted attention, never allowing her newfound gift to become a sour-tasting, nickel-and-dime gimmick. There are no cheesy scenes with Carrie playing like Roald Dahl’s Matilda, and she doesn’t practice or hone her skills like the character in King’s novel. The film instead allows her powers to emerge from moments of fierce human emotion. When Carrie panics, gets sad, frustrated, or angry, light bulbs explode, windows and doors slam shut, mirrors fracture, and a shit-talking paperboy gets knocked off his bicycle.
The horrifying events that transpire in Carrie lead to an absolutely spellbinding final act at the prom. After landing a date with virtuous jock Tommy (William Katt), she is subject to a disturbing prank at the hands of a callous blonde named Chris (Nancy Allen) and her mindless boyfriend Billy (John Travolta). Terrified and humiliated by this sudden act of cruelty, Carrie’s spirit shatters, and the powers finally take over, resulting in a grisly inferno of panic and misery. The iconic image of a devilish, wide-eyed Carrie soaked head to toe in pig’s blood often renders misconceptions about the true essence of the character and her path toward insanity. She isn’t some stereotypical horror antagonist thirsty for chaos and destruction. Her rage gradually builds out of severe trauma and social rejection, violently altering Carrie’s timid demeanor into something monstrous. This progression evokes sorrow where other films might try for scares. In De Palma’s film, Carrie isn’t the villain, she’s a victim.
Aided by screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, De Palma successfully orchestrates a spectacular, skin-crawling fable of body horror. Although the film lacks any sort of grotesque, Cronenbergian prosthetics, palpable moments of frightful tension and conflict grow directly out of the central characters’ physicality along with their ripening emotions. The screen is populated with a predominant company of female talent and yet they never exhibit any sort of genuine affinity for one another. In Carrie, society persuades women to revile and despise each other almost as much as they loathe themselves. This duality is quietly embodied by the differing personal struggles of relentless bully Chris and her friend Sue (Amy Irving), a flawed girl with seemingly good intentions. Chris blames Carrie for all of her troubles and vows revenge while Sue, ashamed of her role in the shower incident, voluntarily gives up her boyfriend and a spot at the prom in hopes of silencing her guilt.
With the exception of Katt as Tommy, the male performances are easily forgettable. Travolta’s acting is awkward and off-putting with a sleazy delivery that works only because his character is such an asshole. To be fair, his immense talent would later bloom in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and in De Palma’s terrific masterpiece, Blow Out (1981), but his presence in Carrie serves no purpose other than to help the bad girl pull the rope. Although the men fail to provide substantial depth, the mesmerizing female actors valiantly charge to their rescue. Women act as the captivating backbone of De Palma’s cynical, menacing world. Allen and Irving bring their characters to life with ugliness, elegance, wisdom, and pain. Betty Buckley is tender and sharp as Miss Collins, the kind-hearted gym teacher who tries her best to protect Carrie. And who could forget the wonderful P.J. Soles, a beloved genre darling who’d be strangled to death with a telephone cord two years later as Lynda in John Carpenter’s Halloween.
Despite the undeniable power of the supporting cast, the film obtains status as horror elite thanks to an intoxicating lead performance by Spacek. As the delicate, fearful outcast, Spacek delivers a beautifully vulnerable portrayal that never repulses or repels, even in the merciless shadow of Carrie’s darkest hour. Her dynamic yet melancholy presence in the film awakens empathy in the audience. We share her torture and anguish, relating to each and every jab from her sadistic mother and cackling peers. While Carrie dances at the prom, wondering if it’s all too good to be true, we dance with her as the night spins out of control.
Spacek’s character is never more interesting than when opposite Carrie’s diabolical mother. Executed with depraved excellence and intensity by Laurie, Margaret White is ruthless and unpredictable. Laurie holds nothing back in her passionate depiction of a woman poisoned by religion, repression, and crippling mental illness. She glides around her claustrophobic, candlelit household, moving like a vessel possessed by something vile. The hypnotic work Laurie does with her eyes suggests that Margaret sees a world much different from the one we know. When she first glimpses Carrie’s prom dress, she growls, “Red. I might’ve known it would be red.” Carrie replies, “It’s pink, Mama,” only for her mother to utter an infamous dig, criticizing her revealing outfit. “I can see your dirty pillows, everyone will,” she groans. This sliver of dialogue is often quoted in jest, but it boldly represents one of the most horrific themes in Carrie, one where female bodies are constantly shamed and attacked, forcing women to defend themselves as if simply existing is an act of terrible insurrection. “Breasts, Mama. They’re called breasts, and every woman has them.”
After helming such chilling, uneasy thrillers as Sisters (1972) and Obsession (1976), along with the electrifying horror-musical Phantom of the Paradise (1974), De Palma showcased the grand scope of his masterful artistry in Carrie. The influential director’s endearing vision unravels with meticulous control and technique, building rich, palpable tension that delivers extraordinary shock and excitement. The smooth camera movements and the careful, calculated editing establish the perfect rhythm in pacing the narrative. With the help of Donaggio’s elegant and haunting music, De Palma conjures a world where reality and illusions are dangerously entwined. This is best emphasized by the film’s shocking final fright, shot in reverse to achieve a sleepy, surreal aesthetic. (Watch closely, and you can see traffic driving backwards on the street.) This scene appropriately acts as the closing statement for the tragic tale of Carrie White, a moonstruck teenage dream that inevitably transforms into a dreadful nightmare.