KING'S CORNER: Carrie (1976)

Updated: Oct 18

Carrie - King's Corner Review


Welcome to King's Corner. A recurring series of reviews based on the film adaptations of Stephen King's work, reviewed and released in order of the original source material publishing date.


In his book 'On Writing' Stephen King described a moment early in his writing career where he threw away the first few pages of a story thinking that there was nothing there. The next day his wife, Tabitha, fetched them from the waste basket and read through them. She felt the story of a troubled high school girl with telekinetic powers was worth saving and convinced Stephen to persevere with it. He did and the rest is history.


Within a year of its publication the book sold over a million copies with one such fan being filmmaker Brian De Palma who was intrigued by the story. He secured the rights to the novel and made 'Carrie' the first King big screen adaptation leading to widespread critical and commercial success. With the film celebrating it's 45th anniversary now is as good a time as any to see how it has stood the test of time.


Director: Brian De Palma

Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Amy Irving, Walter Katt


Written by: Laurence D. Cohen

Produced by: Paul Monash, Louis A. Stroller, Brian De Palma

Cinematography by: Mario Tosi, Isidore Mankofsky

Original Score by: Pino Donaggio


Synopsis:

Carrie White, a shy, friendless teenage girl who is sheltered by her domineering, religious mother, unleashes her telekinetic powers after being humiliated by her classmates at her senior prom.




Thoughts:

Opening with a leery shower scene after gym class the camera pans to Sissy Spacek's Carrie with a close up on her eyes. With her discovery of menstrual blood Carrie's eyes are awash with fear and confusion, thinking there is something terribly wrong with her. Although De Palma shoots it through his problematic gaze (one of the more dated aspects of the film) it firmly establishes Carrie as a sympathetic social outcast. Her lack of understanding over maturity is met with bullying from her classmates who throw sanitary pads at her telling her to "plug it up" before the teacher comes to the rescue.



Although the film's depiction of Carrie physically differs from the novel, Spacek is incredible in the role. From her uptight physicality to her shy line delivery (which is at times heartbreaking), it is easy to see why she earned an Oscar nomination for the role. Despite being ground down by both the bullies at school and her fanatical mother at home, her first step into womanhood in tandem with the development of her telekinetic abilities marks a change in Carrie which Spacek conveys seamlessly coming to a head during the iconic prom scene.


Whilst Carrie is very much a reserved character throughout the film the same can't be said for her mother Margaret. A powder keg of internalised frustration and regret she explodes with a terrifying sense of fundamentalist self righteousness abusing her daughter for getting her first period, calling it a sinful act that must be atoned for by praying in a closet. Even when Carrie gets the upper hand with her through her abilities she is still menacing at moments such as her delivery of the line, "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" is chilling. Although at the time of making the film, Piper Laurie thought the film was a black comedy and gave an over the top performance, it works in the context of the film as it adds a layer of unpredictability to the character.


Bullies are commonplace throughout King's work and 'Carrie' is where the trope began with Nancy Allen's Chris being a particularly nasty one. Rebellious and manipulative she sets in motion the horrible prank to embarrass Carrie on the biggest night of the school year and Allen plays it wonderfully with malicious relish. Little moments such as the close up of her licking her lips before dropping the pigs blood on Carrie cements her place as a highly underrated on screen King villain.


William Katt's role as Tommy Ross, the jock with a poetic side is also a standout role in the film. The first interaction between the two in English class when Carrie calls his poem beautiful utilises a split diopter effect synonymous with De Palma's work to beautiful effect showing the reaction of the remark at the same time. Initially we share the same suspicions Carrie has in that he only wants to ask her out to play a cruel trick on her but that washes away as his kinder side shines through which is a credit to how Katt handles the role.



Even if you haven't read the book or seen any of the various incarnations of it, the one iconic moment that stands out when we talk about 'Carrie' is the prom sequence which is where De Palma really shines. All elements of the film converge at this point and work masterfully together to go down in one of the greatest moments in horror cinema history. De Palma sets the scene with the camera panning over the dance-floor and past the stage to the entrance where Carrie and Tommy enter, establishing the geography of the room allowing the audience to take it all in before the chaos ensues.


There is a dreamlike quality to the whole scene. A moment too good to be true where the audience are praying that Chris' plan doesn't come to fruition. It peaks when Tommy asks Carrie to dance her first dance. From the soft glow of the dance floor lights to the romantic music playing as they twirl around on the spot there is a lot of optimism in the face of what is to come. With their kiss, Tommy removes any fear or doubt Carrie has. It is one of the most beautiful and tender moments in horror film history which is all the more tragic given what follows.


The announcement of Carrie and Tommy's victory as prom king and queen gives De Palma the opportunity to really flex his Hitchcockian sensibilities as he adopts the classic "bomb on the bus" approach where the audience are shown the mechanics behind the pig's blood prank with none of the victims being aware of it at all. It heightens the tension of the scene which becomes almost unbearable as Sue discovers the plot but Miss. Collins suspects her of being the culprit in slow motion.


The moment we've all been dreading (or excited for depending on your disposition) comes when the blood drops on Carrie, drenching her in a moment of frozen panic. Some of the audience laugh at Carrie whilst Tommy berates them but the scene is silent save for the sound of the drops of blood and the swaying of the bucket only to be broken by the words of Carrie's mother in which warned her how "they're all going to laugh at you". Through a kaleidoscopic lens she pictures everyone laughing at her, even her trusted friend Miss. Collins. The screen splits in two as Carrie snaps. An intense wide eyed stare of suppressed rage washes over her face as she locks the doors with her mind and attacks her classmates with a firehose. It is a brilliant technique that shows Carrie's actions and reaction simultaneously. Pandemonium ensues with people dying left and right before the gymnasium catches on fire. Both bullies and those kind to her suffer at her hand as she stares with no emotion but the audience knows that there is a certain sense of satisfaction in her as the red glow of the dancefloor lights shines on her.


As she makes her way home she confronts Chris and Billy who try to run her over but she flips their car which explodes burning them alive. A fitting end for the toxic couple. She arrives home, washes up and seeks comfort in her mother who reciprocates by stabbing Carrie. A scuffle ensues that ends with Carrie launching various kitchen knives at her leaving her in the pose of St. Sebastian whose statue that resided in the closet strikes a haunting image. As she breathes her last (in an unusually orgasmic fashion) the house collapses through Carrie's will killing them both. A tragic end to a tragic life.


The film closes with an epilogue which at the time must have been terrifying but now due to repeated replication (I'm looking at you 'Friday the 13th') seems like a cheap trick. In a dream Sue visits the remains of Carrie's home with some flowers whilst Pino Donaggio's romantic score swirls before Carrie's hand bursts from the ground to scare Sue awake. In the grand scheme of the film it sticks out as being needless but at the time it is easy to see why it was added. Always leave the audience with a good scare.



In the pantheon of King big screen adaptations, 'Carrie' still stands as one of the absolute best. Whilst remaining loyal to the source material for the most part it doesn't hinder De Palma from putting his stamp on it by putting some of the most iconic moments in cinema history onto the big screen. There are some elements in it's 45 year history that have not aged well (and understandably so) but the quality of the filmmaking, acting, music and cinematography is what allows it to endure as a classic to this day with no one laughing at Carrie White anymore.


Verdict: ⭐⭐⭐⭐½


- Joseph McElroy


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