StephenKing.com Synopsis: The story of misfit high-school girl, Carrie White (played by Sissy Spacek), who gradually discovers that she has telekinetic powers. Repressed by a domineering, ultra-religious mother (played by Piper Laurie) and tormented by her peers at school, her efforts to fit in lead to a dramatic confrontation during the senior prom.
Editorial Note: This is the review for the 1976 Brian De Palma film Carrie. For the book review, click here.
On November 3, 1976 Brian De Palma opened a new front in the career of Stephen King…movies. And ever since, horror readers and moviegoers the world over have been engaging in the time-honored tradition of debating whether the book or the movie is better. With over 100 film adaptations of his books, short stories, and other musings, King is arguably the most adapted author of all time (with the exception of Shakespeare, of course) and until the last ten years, the overwhelming majority of those films ranged from barely passable to downright duds. So many filmmakers have attempted to adapt his stories--and failed miserably--one could be tempted to claim King’s stories as “unfilmable”.
Yet, amid the large pile of terrible adaptations, there also exists a growing list of truly great ones, films that transcend the books to become amazing works of art in their own right. Some use the source material as a launching pad for exploring something quite different (The Shining and Castle Rock being the most obvious examples, but Andy Muschietti’s It also diverges significantly from the book to decidedly amazing results), while others simply expand on the book in order to give a well-rounded, passionate physical manifestation of King’s words (The Dead Zone, Shawshank, The Mist). But the common thread in all of these myriad successful adaptations is that they start by investing the audience in the characters and then let the horror flow naturally from that investment. As the host of Stephen King Cast spoke at length about in his latest podcast on the Episode 7 of Castle Rock, Stephen King populates his work with memorable, fully-alive characters who, when given life by great dialogue and actors, can turn even the silliest premise into a horror powerhouse. The horror is secondary to the character development; if the audience doesn’t care about the characters, they surely will not care what happens to the them. In short, so often the plots of King’s work seem to act like a narcotic that makes directors and writers forget the most basic tenet of filmmaking…make us care about the characters.
Brian De Palma, however, didn’t forget. Everything you need to know about adapting Stephen King is right there in the very first one. Great dialogue, great acting, a zippy runtime, and every scene tailor-made to build the tension through camerawork, dialogue, and subtle character interactions. As a perfect example of De Palma's take on the story, nearly 75 of the film’s 90 minute runtime is devoted to character-development, so that when the carnage finally lets loose, the audience is fully invested in the fate of the characters.
I’m not sure how audiences felt at the time as they sat through this teenage drama, when they’d been promised blood and gore and revenge, but the critics were nearly unanimous. The film received rave reviews, garnered over $14m at the box office, and snagged two well-earned Academy Award nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Carrie was an unqualified commercial and critical success, and deserves its place among the best Stephen King adaptations of all time.
And the reason it’s so good is because the story revolves around the characters, not the horror. De Palma understood that the only way the tragedy of Carrie White would resonate with audiences is if they truly cared what happened to her, and he starts building those character blocks from the opening scene. Carrie’s lack of athletic prowess loses her team the volleyball game in gym class, and then it’s onto the locker room, the setting for so many real and fictional high school traumas. As the film glides through the locker room, tracking the confident, joyous movements of young women in the nude (for waaaay too long, admittedly) the music plays like a David Attenborough nature documentary. We're seeing young women at the very beginning of their sexual and physical peak until we end our journey through the locker room with Carrie, isolated and uncomfortable, stunted in her development in the shower alone. The music changes slightly as we track over Carrie's body in this tender moment of vulnerability.
Then the music stops entirely and the blood starts to drip down Carrie’s leg. It’s a sequence that is at once uncomfortably sexualized and awkward for the very beginning of a film, but comes to a remarkably gut-wrenching conclusion when we see that all those naked women and cloud fluff music was a set-up to show us how completely isolated Carrie is. As she screeches from classmate to classmate, her bloody hands outstretched, certain she’s dying and finding no solace or help in their eyes, De Palma brings the sequence to its horrible conclusion…Carrie, on the floor, bleeding and terrified, pelted with tampons and maxi-pads, her young womanhood birthed by the midwife of trauma.
Throughout the film, De Palma changes very little from the source material, but the changes he does make are almost universally to the betterment of the story. The first of these changes is in this opening scene, where Carrie begs her classmates for help. In the book, her bleeding is recognized first by a classmate, who starts to point at laugh, and only then does she realize what’s happening and becomes terrified. By showing her crying and asking for help from her classmates, naked and afraid, De Palma makes it that much more terrible that they turn on her. Not only is it clear she has no idea what’s happening to her body, but it reveals something terrible and debased in her classmates, beautifully setting up the tension underpinning the narrative.
Another interesting change is that Margaret White appears to be jobless, making her "living" by essentially door-to-door panhandling her neighbors. This neighborhood dynamic is wonderfully depicted when Margaret visits Sue Snell’s house and tries to get Snell’s mother to repent her sins. We see first-hand Margaret’s awkwardness and religious fervor, but we also see that she’s essentially a parasite on her neighbors in much the same way that she’s a parasite on her daughter. Carrie is embarrassed of her mother not just because she’s ultra-religious and restricts Carrie from her social life, but because she also goes to the homes of her classmates. In a single entertaining scene, we see all we need to know about the character.
In other areas, De Palma simply amplifies character traits present in the book in order to heighten the tension and tragedy. Ms. Collins (Desjardins in the book) is more than the disapproving bystander she plays in the book. Here we see her take a more active role in trying to protect Carrie. Whether it’s in the brief scene with the principal, or the longer one where she grills Tommy and Sue about their true intentions, we see Ms. Collins taking ownership of Carrie in a way that is only hinted at in the book. No scene displays this more palpably than when Ms. Collins finds out Tommy has invited Carrie to the prom, and though we see the skepticism on her face, she takes Carrie under her wing and tells her that she’s beautiful and deserves nice things. It’s a tender, heartbreaking scene that makes the tragedy of Carrie’s prom that much worse. That it’s followed immediately by Ms. Collins reading the riot act to Sue and Tommy, makes for one of the movie’s best one-two scenic punches.
The casting is nearly flawless. Tommy and Sue are both good, with William Katt in particular doing a hell of a lot with very few scenes. The burgeoning love triangle between Tommy, Carrie, and Sue seems incredibly natural given its literal fictional arrangement, and though Sue isn’t given much to do, Amy Irving is believable as a well-intentioned popular girl. Not all casting choices were made equal, though. John Travolta was a misstep of enormous proportions. One suspects dePalma knew that, which is why he gives Travolta about 10 lines of dialogue, but those ten are painful. In particular, the scene in the truck cab where Chris Hargensen “convinces” Travolta’s Billy Nolan to go along with the revenge scheme is a master class in terrible, manic acting. Travolta isn’t, not even for a moment, believable as a psychotic greaser, and when he hits Chris it’s shocking how unearned it is.
Not even Travolta’s terrible performance, though, can detract from the tension and tragedy of the film’s final act. We get extended sequences of dancing and frivolity, as Tommy sweeps Carrie off her feet and onto the stage for their Prom King and Queen win. The bucket of blood trembles above them for an elongated moment, as the audience waits for the inevitable. For the briefest of moments, there’s hope that maybe this tragedy can be avoided, that the bucket will remain in the rafters. We’ve spent 75 minutes with these characters, and we know Carrie doesn’t deserve this. We know there is another version of her that grows up, gains confidence and maybe some control over her emotions and powers, that maybe even uses them for good.
Then the bucket drops and the blood is on Carrie and Tommy. The laughter starts, and the film rolls into its final, startling conclusion. There couldn’t have been more than a few people who saw this movie in the theaters without knowing exactly what was going to happen. The bloody prom sequence was a huge part of the marketing of the film, yet when it finally happens, and the doors slam and the fires start, the suddenness of the tragedy is so complete and horrible that the viewer is stunned anyway.
The deaths of Billy Nolan and Chris Hargensen are tacked on after the carnage of the prom, a bit of deus ex machina that is oddly appropriate given how badly-drawn the characters were, and then it’s onto the final confrontation with Carrie’s mother. De Palma’s choice to have Carrie and her mother effectively kill each other, and the house pulled in on them, is a fitting ending to the movie, which does a better job of setting up the conflict between these two women than that between Sue and Carrie. In the book, Sue Snell was developed enough that she needed a fitting ending to her story arc, yet in the movie she is so underdeveloped that she might as well have died at the prom with her boyfriend Tommy. Instead, she survives, and visits the vacant lot where Carrie’s house once stood. In the only directorial misstep, the film ends with a half-assed jump scare, as Carrie’s hand pops out of the ground and grabs Sue’s wrist. It’s an unfortunate, ridiculous sequence the film would be much better without.
In 1976, Brian De Palma showed the world that Stephen King’s stories could do more than scare book readers. He provided a template for bringing King’s incredible imagination into the world of film, opening a new, lucrative, and terrifying front in the King multiverse. He proved that with great character development, combined with good acting and attention to detail, Stephen King’s work could be transformed into beautiful, affecting cinema. It may be guilty of a few hokey moments, and more than a few groan-worthy line readings from Travolta, but Carrie is a classic of horror that is as harrowing now as it was 40 years ago.
- One strange choice is that Carrie has a southern accent while no one else does. I think the movie is supposed to take place in North Carolina, which makes Carrie's accent make sense. It's clear, they hadn't quite figured out that Stephen King movies need to take place in Maine.
- The camerawork during the first scene with Carrie and Margaret is so well-done. The way the camera tracks from one room to the next as Margaret drags Carrie into the praying closet drives home the abuse.
- Another great shot is the classroom scene with Tommy in the foreground and Carrie in the background. Both of them are in focus, which makes it disorienting and striking.
- The one great scene with Chris Hargensen is the outdoor sequence where she rebels against Ms. Collins' ruling. The moment says a lot about all the characters involved, and shows that Chris is just a spoiled child who has no idea what she's about to do.
- The BJ scene in the truck is sooooo bad, but perhaps the poo icing on the poo cake is when Chris is miraculously talking clear, unobstructed English with a d**k in her mouth.
- I loved that Carrie runs away from Tommy when he first asks her to prom. It seems like a far more realistic reaction for such an abused person.
- During the pig slaughtering scene, one of Billy Nolan's friends shout "Git 'er done!" and now I'm convinced that is where Larry the Cable Guy got it from.
- After the bucket of blood drops, the sound design is so good. Nothing but breathing and drips of blood, showing the utter shock of the moment.
- It was awesome the way they dressed Carrie's house like the inside of a cathedral after the bloody prom. Spookily perfect setting for the emotional carnage that's about the happen.
- In Episode 7 of Castle Rock, I found it fitting that Sissy Spacek's Ruth takes a bath and washes the blood off of herself after the nightmare of the episode, which bookends with the scene in Carrie where she goes home and washes the blood from herself. Awesome synergies between the two shows.
- The house coming down on Carrie and Margaret should have been the end of the movie. The final sequence with Sue Snell and the jump scare is so dumb.