When I first discovered Carrie in my teenage years, it was an unforgettable experience. I had no idea what I was watching, catching the last half-hour of the movie during a midnight broadcast on a local channel. It was almost 2am, I was sleep deprived, I had no television listing to tell me what was going on, and what I was watching on television was crazy: a teenager bathed in blood at a high school dance who enacts vengeance upon the punk kids who did this to her before going home and fending off her crazy mother and collapsing the house upon herself. And then the coda: is everything that happened just a dream? Is Carrie burning in hell or is she right there on the horizon of existence, ready to come back and finish her revenge? It left an unforgettable impression on my mind, to the point that I declared it one of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen. What it actually was, was one of the scariest movie fragments I’d ever seen.
Watching Carrie came in between my Stephen King phases, so I’ve never returned to the source material to see what King intended from the story. In Brian De Palma’s hands, the cinematic adaptation becomes a beautiful metaphor for adolescence, with Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) suddenly plagued by her period in the opening of the film – an experience she is unprepared for thanks to her crazy mother (Piper Laurie). Already an outcast, the experience just serves to isolate her from the rowdy punk kids all that much more, especially after Carrie’s well-meaning teacher (Betty Buckley) punishes the other kids for their treatment of the poor girl, driving that wedge all the deeper, leading them to play their iconic joke on Carrie at the prom.
Even without the supernatural element, Carrie is an excellent story, although one more designed for an after-school special (kids: look them up and see what you’re missing out on) rather than a horrific tale of an adolescent with unbelievable abilities. The supernatural element just makes adolescence all that much worse – a theme that has been woven from Carrie into more contemporary thrilling stories, like Teeth and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The contrast of the ferocious supernatural element with the coming-of-age story of a meek girl is right up the alley for director Brian De Palma, who makes artistry out of contrast. Despite the hard fashions of the era (Ah, the ‘70s just weren’t good for William Katt’s hair), De Palma makes a fascinating story where the supernatural element takes a back seat to Carrie just coming to terms with growing up and contending with her zealot mother, played with dedication by Laurie. The first 2/3rds of the movie only see Carrie’s ability shrouded in the background, as a almost normal coming-of-age story dominates he scene, slowly heading to the prom scene where all hell will be unleashed. In fact, De Palma revels in the fact that the audience knows where the story will go because it allows him to play with that contrast even more.
As if the effects and score aren’t creepy enough, Carrie’s suspense is built in party by Spacek’s approach to the part. The actress looks dowdy and creepy enough, even before being bathed in blood; just disconnected enough from the world she’s supposed to be a part of to make the audience uncomfortable with the film’s title character. Casting personalities like P. J. Soles and Nancy Allen to play the popular kids just accentuate that contrast even more. When Carrie’s world comes crumbling down, Spacek steals the show, creepy bug-eyes and all.
There are definitely parts of Carrie that don’t hold up with the passage of time (Katt’s hair) and the truth is that the movie doesn’t even need the first hour in order to be a frightening experience. But there’s something enjoyable about the cohesive whole – a young girl facing womanhood whose terrifying first period is overshadowed by a development of another sort. If you don’t want the adolescent metaphor, however, the final third of the movie is still well-executed and one of horror’s most memorable cinematic moments.