If horror cinema had a golden age, it would have to be the 1970s. Most of the truly great classics of the genre come from this period (‘The Exorcist’, ‘The Wicker Man’, ‘Suspiria’, ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, ‘Alien’ and ‘Halloween’, to name only a few), and some of the great horror directors like Carpenter, Romero, Hooper and Argento solidified their places as masters of the genre during this decade. One film's legacy which covers both of these is ‘Carrie’, Brian De Palma’s extraordinary adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel. Now forty years since its release, it still stands as a testament to De Palma’s immense talent and as one of the most enduring horror film ever made. By today’s standards, it might appear pretty pedestrian in terms of its shock value; a recent retrospective from The New York Times argued that ‘Carrie’ isn’t really a horror film anymore because it isn’t conventionally scary. This kind of response though demonstrates the inherent misunderstanding we now have about the genre: that it’s all about making you jump and giving you nightmares. Horror is a soulful, emotional genre when it’s at its best, and there are few cinematic examples of this as potent as ‘Carrie’.
In many ways, the novel demonstrates all the ingredients that have made King’s writing so popular and enduring. Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is seventeen, friendless, shy and dangerously sheltered by her abusively religious mother (Piper Laurie). This makes her the perfect target for her classmates, many of them tormenting her sadistically. What they don’t know is that Carrie also has telekinetic abilities, ones that she is only now discovering and doesn’t fully understand. King’s characters are almost always ordinary people placed in extraordinary circumstances, and when Carrie is pushed to the brink of emotional and mental collapse in an act of particular cruelty, this shy, lost girl becomes a force of power and merciless fury.
Like so many of King’s books, ‘Carrie’ is an extraordinary reading experience, expertly constructed and emotionally unforgiving. However, the problem with King’s work is that it often fails in its transition to screen. The number of successful King adaptations is very small, the intricacies of his characters and plots often reduced in the adaptation process. King’s books, for all their inherent horror and nightmare-inducing imagery, are far more interested in character interaction and response, the horror acting as a metaphor for something more human and immediate. ‘Carrie’ is a superb example of that, King taking a teenager suffering the worst traumas of puberty and handing them the ability to respond, even if they aren’t emotionally ready to deal with that. Thankfully, De Palma’s film is one of those rare successful adaptations of King’s work - and even more rare, one that transcends its source material to be a wholly affecting work of its own.
There are a number of balls that De Palma has to keep in the air with ‘Carrie’. It’s a work of horror, but also explores the experiences of being in high school. He and screenwriter Laurence D. Cohen wisely chose to place the horror in the background, and even though the film barely makes it to 90 minutes, much of its length is about exploring the intricacies of almost every one of its characters, not just Carrie. They also balance the melodrama of Carrie’s narrative with moments of lightness and humour, both acting as releases of tension and giving room for the blows to really land. Comparing ‘Carrie’ against horror films made today, it’s surprising how funny it is, and how comfortable it is with being camp and ridiculous without sacrificing its convictions. The sequence where sports teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) puts Carrie’s classmates through athletics-based detention for abusing her is played very much for laughs, especially as these almost-adult girls throw petulant tantrums, but the violence of their tantrums also highlights their disturbing lack of humanity towards Carrie.
This is where the true horror in ‘Carrie’ comes from: our ability to relate to her as a forgotten, neglected outsider who belongs to no one. Carrie is the student whose existence has no consequence, the kid who disappears into the background, and because of that she becomes an easy target, not just for her classmates but also for her mother. Mrs White uses Carrie as a reciprocal for all her own anxieties and intolerances, putting the fragile girl through severe psychological abuse under the justification of religion. Carrie is a dog who has been beaten her whole life with no way out, so that when her powers offer her a chance, she can only respond with ferocity. This makes her horrifyingly relatable - as we watch what unfolds, our shock mixes in with the knowledge deep down that we too would have done exactly the same thing.
And this brings us to what makes ‘Carrie’ an icon of horror cinema. The film is bookended by two extraordinary and disturbing sequences, which rely on each other for context. Carrie having her first period in the gym shower, ignorant and horrified by what is happening to her, and then suffering the jeers and torments of her classmates still leaves you in awe of its raw cruelty. In many ways, the success of the film relies on that opening sequence, and De Palma executes it with an intensity and immediacy that still feels shocking today. The finale in the gym, where Carrie is named Prom Queen before having a bucket of pig’s blood dumped on her, has ghastly poetic symmetry to it, and the film milks the moment for all it’s worth. This is the turning point for her, when her fragility finally cracks, and you can hear the film itself turning before unleashing Carrie’s revenge. Seeing Carrie take out her classmates with her powers might provide the cheaper shocks, but it’s these two moments of blood - moments that involve nothing more than human cruelty - that really make ‘Carrie’ a legitimate and classical work of horror.
...as we watch what unfolds, our shock mixes in with the knowledge deep down that we would have done exactly the same thing.
All of these themes and moments are there in King’s book, but it’s to De Palma and his team’s credit that they adapt to the screen so potently. There’s a raw simplicity to the filmmaking here, unembellished and carefully constructed. Great horror films take their time earning their big finale, and De Palma understands that. What solidifies the horror of ‘Carrie’ is also that it underpins it with character and emotion, understanding that this is where horror lives, breathes and thrives. De Palma isn’t afraid to let the film be emotionally affecting as well as difficult to watch, and in that sense it’s an extraordinarily mature film, even for its moments of camp or bombast.
It would also be criminal not to mention the performances, particularly the two that the film rests on. Both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie deliver iconic performances for which they were both nominated for Oscars. Spacek is heartbreaking as Carrie, delicate and ignorant and lost, and she finds strength there rather than playing it as a weakness. This means that, when Carrie turns against her tormentors, she does so with frightening intensity, so much so that we go from leaning in to her with sympathy to leaning back in fear. The quiet intensity of Spacek is complemented magnificently by the religious ferocity of Laurie, who somehow prevents Mrs White from becoming a camp icon and grasps onto her religious conviction, making her a truly frightening antagonist. Her determination to adhere to religious doctrine is so intense that we know Carrie’s safety isn't guaranteed with her. Both women command the screen every moment they appear, and send shocks of electricity across it when they’re together.
For an audience today, ‘Carrie’ might seem a bit tame, but I would argue that anyone who feels this doesn’t have a true appreciating of the genre. Horror at its best holds up a mirror to mankind and shows how ugly we can be, and ‘Carrie’ is one of the greatest examples of that. Forty years later, it’s still extraordinary - a fantastic mix of humour, social commentary, metaphor and the good old-fashioned darkness of the human soul. It’s also a perfect adaptation, one that honours its source while making sure it works on its own terms (especially with the legendary sting in its tail). If the 1970s was the golden age of horror cinema, this potent little masterpiece is definitely one of its crown jewels.