We catch up with Carrie White in Brian De Palma’s classic tale of menstruation and telekinesis.
Who made it?: Brian De Palma (Director), Lawrence D. Cohen (Writer), Paul Monash (Producer), Paramount Pictures.
Who’s in it?: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Betty Buckley, P.J. Soles.
Tagline: “If You’ve Got A Taste For Terror . . . Take Carrie To The Party.”
IMDb rating: 7.4/10.
1974’s Carrie was the book that made the eponymous Stephen King a superstar. With an estimated 350 million books sold worldwide, King is one of the few populist authors you can find in just about every household. Not known for reading? I bet you still have a tatty King paperback lurking around somewhere. Or, at the very least, your movie collection has a title based on his literature.
It’s tough to imagine now, but one of the most influential writers of the 20th century started out penning his macabre tales in a rundown trailer. His old stomping grounds of Portland, Maine would provide the inspiration for countless narratives, but for many years, he struggled. Practically penniless, he and his beloved wife Tabitha even disconnected their telephone to cut costs. He had started writing Carrie – a tale about a schoolgirl using her telekinetic powers against her horrible classmates – as one of his many short stories, but it had blossomed into a full-blown novel. Dissatisfied with his efforts, King threw his manuscript into the bin. It might have stayed there if it wasn’t for Mrs. King, who promptly reclaimed it from the waste basket, started reading and became hooked. She convinced him to carry on, and lo and behold, Doubleday agreed to publish Carrie with a $2,500 advance. Suffice it to say that he’s made a lot more in the years since.
It’s a story that has been told again and again, especially by King himself, but it’s a great rags to riches account that gives hope to any budding authors out there. All you need to do is write one novel that enters the cultural lexicon and you’re set for life. That was Carrie for King, and it has maintained a passionate following over the last few decades despite the creator’s protests. “I’m not saying that Carrie is shit,” he told a university class, “and I’m not repudiating it. She made me a star, but it was a young book by a young writer. In retrospect, it reminds me of a cookie baked by a first grader — tasty enough, but kind of lumpy and burned on the bottom.” Simple confection it may be, but Carrie struck a chord with wayward youth and disenfranchised adults, and it wasn’t long before the bright lights of Tinseltown became blinding.
Ah, yes, King and Hollywood. The two have become inseparable, lending credence to the refrain “don’t judge a book by its film.” For every awful adaptation of his work, and there are many, there’s also an all-time classic. Brian De Palma’s Carrie is one of the latter. Produced on a modest $1.8 million budget, the 1976 film later went on to gross over $33 million and further cemented King as a modern master of lurid fiction. De Palma’s picture is just as influential as King’s tome, however, boasting a handful of iconic scenes and a last-second “jump” scare that has been referenced in just about every horror film since. I’m happy to say that it remains a prime genre staple.
We know that life is rough for the young Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) as soon as the film begins. Relentlessly teased by her bratty classmates, the bullying comes to a head in the shower room when Carrie notices blood coming from her body. Her outright horror belies the fact that she’s merely getting her first period – Carrie’s deeply religious mother (Piper Laurie) is so dialled into God that she didn’t see fit to explain to her daughter what changes a woman goes through. The other teens naturally find her display uproarious, pelting her with tampons and sealing their fate early on. Good-natured gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) tries to make amends by comforting Carrie and disciplining the other girls, but it sparks a chain of events that will only end in disaster. After the virtuous Sue Snell (Amy Irving) convinces Tommy Ross (William Katt) to take Carrie to the impending prom, devious little shits Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta) plot their revenge with the help of a strategically-placed bucket of pig’s blood. Unfortunately for them, Carrie has been nurturing a recently discovered ability to move objects with her mind, erupting in a display of supernatural ferocity that will leave none of them alive…
De Palma’s Carrie is fantastic in that it shares the novel’s view of puberty through the lens of fantasy. Miss White’s hormonal shifts unlock her talent, sure, but it also speaks to the uncertainty we all feel at that age. The telekinesis works here as a metaphor as much as it does a pay-off. People remember school as the “best days of our lives,” but it wasn’t that way for everyone. If you were bullied back then, Carrie will resonate with you far beyond the level of most horror films. The true terror here is in the mundane universe White drifts through, as it is so recognisable. De Palma builds this world slowly; a classic American microcosm of cheerleaders, white picket fences, and Bible belt ideals. The latter is important, of course, as Carrie’s wildly OTT mother is the living embodiment of everything we hate about blind faith. Margaret White is the real villain of the piece, making a sorry tale even more tragic. I’m not sure I’ve ever wanted to see a character die as horribly as her.
It is such a sad, depressing story on so many levels, and in Spacek, De Palma finds a Carrie we can fully sympathise with. The actress has always been an otherworldly figure detached from her contemporaries – famously put to good use in 1973’s Badlands - and she’s so achingly and perfectly cast in what has become her signature role. She conveys the character’s broiling inner-rage and her exterior fragility with remarkable ease. We feel pity for her from beginning to end whilst also fearing her remarkable powers, and I defy anyone not to be biting their nails as that swine’s blood cascades from the heavens. We don’t want these horrible things to happen to Carrie… but then that’s exactly what we came for.
When the time finally comes for everything to go crazy, De Palma brings the skill he would eventually apply to Dressed to Kill and Blow Out, indulging in his trademark fluid camera movements, clever split-screen effects, and beguiling slow-motion. Its an accomplished picture throughout, with Mario Tosi’s photography taking on a hyperbolic and dreamlike quality that’ll stick with you long after the credits roll. As the first adaptation of King’s work, Carrie set a filmmaking standard so few have matched. It is a thematically (if not emotionally) satisfying movie and a more than adequate translation of a popular text.
Naturally, the 2013 remake didn’t come close to the quality of this iteration, and De Palma’s film remains a highly enjoyable take on King’s work that paved the way for countless directors since. It isn’t hard to look back on it fondly as King owes his entire dynasty to the troubled Carrie White.
Well, maybe Tabitha, too…
What else could it be other than Carrie’s date with destiny?
- Sissy Spacek asked Brian De Palma how he wanted her to react when Carrie first realises that she is bleeding in the showers at the start and De Palma told her “It’s like you’ve been hit by a truck.” Spacek talked to her husband Jack Fisk (art director), who as a child had been run over by a car when he was standing in the streets looking at Christmas lights a neighbour had put up, and used his description of the experience as a basis for the scene.
- The pig’s blood dumped on Spacek was karo syrup and food colouring, although she was willing to have real blood dumped on her.
- Sue Snell and her mother are played by real-life daughter and mother Amy Irving and Priscilla Pointer.
- Stephen King based Carrie White on two girls he knew while at school, both were social outcasts from deeply religious families and both died while still in their twenties.
- Spacek would later perform the audiobook of Carrie.