Director Brian De Palma’s creature feature about a shy young woman who was born a monster.
When high school senior Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) experiences her first period in the gym class shower at school, the other girls make fun of the young woman’s fear and ridicule her. The sheltering by her mother Margaret (Piper Laurie) has left Carrie unprepared for a harsh world, constantly being pelted with the fanatical teachings of a God-fearing woman who judges everything through the lens of a Bible. When Sue Snell (Amy Irving) guiltily convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom to make up for her part in the showers, disgraced queen bee Chris (Nancy Allen) and her abusive boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) take it upon themselves to “teach Carrie a lesson” – just before the running and screaming and dying begins.
This 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel Carrie is often touted as director Brian De Palma’s best film. For its time, Carrie was a forerunner to the slasher genre of the 1980s that gave birth to Jason Voorhees, Michael Meyers, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger. De Palma paints Carrie White as a serial killer waiting to happen, almost justifying her own mother’s admission that she should have killed herself while pregnant with her daughter. Sissy Spacek’s performance is easily a standout in the cast rivaled only by Piper Laurie, but the entire cast seems eerily aware that they are in a horror film masquerading as a dark fairy tale – and it works. Even the music sounds like the soundtrack to a dream, offset by nightmarish tones that sound suspiciously like the theme to Psycho.
To call the 1976 Carrie dated is decreeing the obvious. William Katt’s hair looks like it was later sold to David Coverdale to use for Whitesnake videos; blue jeans on women rode up so high they could double as corsets. Look beneath the surface and a pattern emerges: this is the birth of the daughter of the devil, a young woman who is exactly what everyone is afraid she is, practically justification for putting her down. Rather than take dramatic license with King’s story, De Palma opts instead to focus on absurdity to offset the horror elements: the wide-eyes look of possession in split screen as Carrie looks and makes things happen; the silhouette of pranksters taking too much time to pull a simple rope; and bit part performances cut short for a quick body count. By the time Carrie returns home, she’s a monster and beyond redemption, proven by her total lack of sympathy even for the innocent.
“We live in Godless times,” says Margaret White to pretty much anyone who’ll listen. Piper Laurie spews hellfire and damnation like a country preacher looking to fill a collection plate, but in De Palma’s film, she’s exactly right. As evidenced by the opening and ending, the main character is neither Carrie nor her mother: it’s Sue, the woman who should have stood up for Carrie and might have prevented what happened if she had she done so. Because of her failure, the devil’s daughter honed her power and found the will to use her destructive gift. It’s a cautionary tale that suggests that fear of the unusual justifies any action to displace the potential danger; destroy everything strange and every stranger before we’re corrupted, too. My, how times have changed.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)