Back in the mists of time (1976 to be exact) a young, bold filmmaker named Brian DePalma adapted a novel by a bold horror novelist named Stephen King and subsequently birthed a stone cold classic in the form of Carrie, the story of a bullied and abused girl who ultimately takes brutal and explosive revenge on her tormentors.
We all know the story, we’re familiar with the iconic image of Sissy Spacek glaring at us with pig’s blood dripping down her face, but it’s easy to forget the sheer craft at work here, from the performances to the grand guignol of the super-stylized climax.
Carrie White is a quiet, sickly girl. Bullied at school and dominated by her religiously tyrannical mother Carrie’s last nerve starts to fray when her first period strikes with all the bad timing of a sundial at night. Blossoming late and in the act of taking a shower after P.E. she rightly freaks out as she has no idea what’s happening to her. Relentlessly mocked by everyone in her class and locked in a closet by her mother for “committing sin”, Carrie’s fortunes eventually start to come round when one of her bullies takes pity on her and convinces her sports all-star boyfriend to take her to the prom. This act if kindness unfortunately sets tragedy in motion as some of her other bullies aren’t feeling so merciful and see this as a golden opportunity to plan a vicious and humiliating prank on the special night, but the jokes on them as Carrie is harbouring a dark and powerful secret within herself. Carrie is telekinetic and it’s usually triggered during heightened moments of emotional stress essentially making her a bomb in a prom dress. Will anyone be spared her terrible vengeance and how will her deranged mother react to what she sees as a spawn of the devil?
The greatest thing about Carrie is the utterly barmy attention Brian DePalma approaches the material with by painting high school life for a teenage girl as a brutal free for all, drenched in adolescent sexuality, that takes no prisoners and bluntly subverts scenes left right and centre. Starting with a scene set in a high school gym shower as girls wash in slow motion (almost deliberately veering into titillating pseudo-porn), he flips the uncomfortably sensual moment into full blown adolescent body horror as Carrie starts menstruating and freaking out in the genuinely unsettling opening; then there’s the overblown climax in which DePalma’s directorial powers bloom alongside Carrie’s own as he hurls split screens, and every other trick he can muster during the exhilarating and punishing prom night massacre.
Horror has always been a magnificent tool for dismantling the many aspects of the human condition and puberty is an especially ripe target considering it’s a time when our own bodies deeply betrays us at every chance it gets. When taken by the genre and amplified to such an insane degree it forces us to face the things that affect us in our lives and funnels it through the genre in a form we can enjoy. When we are made to look like an idiot in front of a crowd, we want to curl up into a ball and die thanks to social anxiety, when it happens to Carrie, after quite possibly the happiest moment of her life, her cinematic rage and self loathing mirrors our own only with murderous telekinetic hoses. In this regard, Carrie is the natural forerunner to more modern genre outings like The Witch or It Follows (check out 2000’s magnificent Ginger Snaps too).
The cast, featuring offensively young versions of John Travolta, Amy Irving and Nancy Allen, are all spot on but it’s Sissy Spacek as the tragic heroine and a frankly terrifying Piper Laurie as her God bothering psychotic mother who both tie for acting gold.
Making a name for most of the people involved, Carrie is grade-A horror that stands tall after all these years as one of the best of it’s kind.