When Brian De Palma delivered his breakthrough feature to a world without Stephen King adaptations, he didn’t neglect to break ground elsewhere, too.
Carrie consolidated De Palma’s success as a thriller director after 1973’s promising Sisters. It gave a platform to stars about to bloom (hello Amy Irving and John Travolta). And most pointedly – especially for those who now view De Palma as a misogynist and vacuous stylist – it brought horror to high-school drama and flooded both with full-bodied humanity.
Making horror fans identify with a powerful female “monster”, De Palma proved an adage that outlasted Carrie’s short life: the more an audience cares, the better the scares.
King’s story is tooled for teen-outsider identification, with its focus on a wallflower whose puberty comes with a paranormal payload. Carrie White’s powers prove to be bad news for her hapless teachers, Jesus-loving mom and nasty classmates when prom night goes scare-shaped, but the blood-soaked climax tells barely half the story.
De Palma doesn’t overdo the red stuff, or the vengeful catharsis. Right off the bat, he seeds rhyming motifs and plots the contexts for Carrie’s pains so that her revenge packs a cumulative punch of style and sorrow, terror and tragedy.
Set in high school’s ground zero for horror-lashed humiliation – gym class – the opening targets a splash of red (P.J. Soles’ shorts and cap) with a slow zoom over a bisected volleyball court, images that hint at later events.
The changing-room scene adds more teasers: the shower hose and the blood will later be echoed by a fire hose and buckets of innards. More crucially, De Palma uses the shower scene to pull us into Carrie’s unworldly POV, shifting from a heat-haze of innocence to cruel experience as she begins her menstrual cycle before her baying schoolmates.
Often dismissed as a ‘flashy’ filmmaker, De Palma steers our sympathies sensitively. So does Spacek, whose outsider isn’t the hipster geek seen in many a modern high-school movie: we sympathise with her because she’s the fearlessly enfeebled real deal, sunk into submission under hair that’s drained of the will to live.
Not that Carrie is just Spacek’s film – or De Palma’s. The supporting cast help build a world that’s capable of moulding a monster out of a mouse. Piper Laurie came out of semi-retirement to imbue the Bible-wielding Mrs White with damaged toxicity. Betty Buckley perfectly balances gym coach Miss Collins’ mix of the motherly and misguided, while Amy Irving makes under-written Sue Snell convincing.
John Travolta makes an impact in a small role, brimming with vim as he dances in his car seat like someone struggling to resist the moves that would later possess him in Grease and Saturday Night Fever.
On a musical note, Pino Donaggio’s score overdoes the echoes of Psycho-era Bernard Herrmann but triumphs when its tender moments weep in sympathy with Carrie. Mario Tosi’s lensing glides elegantly between Carrie’s detached dream-life and in-your-face reality. John Fisk’s production design speaks equal volumes, notably in the chafing contrast between prom night’s wonder-world and the White house, a home starved of light and love for anyone but Jesus.
Elsewhere, levity and light prove vital as De Palma uses humour to humanise. The scene with the boys picking out their tuxedos is cheesy but cheering, like a pre-run for a more innocent American Pie or Superbad; while Priscilla Pointer is endearing as Sue Snell’s mum, turning a cameo into a cocktail as she raises her afternoon tipple for a misjudged toast after Carrie’s mother rants at her about “Godless times”.
The pay-off for the carefully accrued details comes as prom night delivers scares (Spacek’s eyes are a revelation) and sadness by the bucketload. Even one of De Palma’s more, erm, divisive devices sort of works, if not entirely subtly. De Palma called his use of split-screen “a great mistake”, but maybe he was being harsh. It recalls the split volleyball court at the beginning, with its suggestions of the competition fostered by high school.
And it cannily reverses earlier shots where De Palma used a split dioptre lens to keep Carrie focused in the background while more dominating characters (Tommy, Mommy) fill the foreground. At the close, Carrie is the dominant figure, the power shift powerfully visualised.
She hovers no less imperiously over later horror movies, too. Had Carrie not been a hit, would future King movies have been so copious? We might have been spared Dreamcatcher, but imagine a world without The Shining, The Dead Zone, The Shawshank Redemption, Stand By Me, Misery...
Various high-school schlockers also owe her one, though Chronicle (geek rampages), Let The Right One In (tender terror about cyclical violence) and We Need To Talk About Kevin (red everywhere, high-school horror) give a better impression of her lasting influence. Hence the shock ending.
It seems cheap, but it broke ground and it packs a suggestive jolt, as well as a warning to the considerable talents behind the upcoming remake (Kimberly Peirce, Chloë Moretz). They’d better bring their A-game, because the original angry Prom Queen hasn’t lost her power to haunt and grip.
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