Gawky, lonely teenager Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is relentlessly picked on at high school by spiteful kids and heartless teachers alike, while the onset of womanhood isn’t made any easier by the cruelty of her hysterical, bible-thumping mother Margaret (Piper Laurie). Yet Carrie has secretly blossomed a potent array of psychokinetic powers. Nice girl Sue Snell (Amy Irving) wants to do Carrie a good turn and persuades popular, good-hearted boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt - with amazing hair) to ask her to the prom. This he dutifully does and come prom night seems to genuinely fall for the lovelorn misfit, before a cruel prank perpetrated by school bitch Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen - evil but yummy as heck) and her redneck reprobate boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta in a star-making turn) turns a fairytale evening into a nightmare. Whereupon, Carrie unleashes hell…
Based on the Stephen King bestseller, this was a breakthrough for everyone involved and along with Halloween (1978) remains an evergreen classic teens still reach for to guarantee a spooky night come October 31st. Striking the perfect balance between heartbreaking lyricism and helter-skelter horror, Carrie’s success interestingly lies in two elements pulling in seemingly disparate directions. Brian De Palma’s virtuoso direction, intermingling split-screen, swirling camera work and pyrotechnics with Pino Donaggio’s beautiful and opulent Psycho (1960) riff orchestral score, plays up the Hitchcockian suspense and horror, reaching a grand crescendo amidst the immortal prom night sequence. Yet Sissy Spacek grounds the movie with her heartfelt, sensitive performance and turns Carrie White into one of the most affecting, pitiable and heck, lovable “monsters” in horror cinema.
De Palma is often thought of as cruel, with criticisms levelled as to why good guy Tommy and Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), the only teacher to show Carrie any kindness, are so callously swept aside amidst the apocalypse. And yet their fates underline the metaphor that Carrie’s powers embody uncontrollable, adolescent rage at its most mindless and destructive, lashing out in pain regardless of who gets caught in the crossfire. What’s more it adds to the idea that true horror often involves bad things happening to good people. In fact, De Palma is attuned to the more poignant aspects of King’s story and plays up the sweet, tentative almost-romance that briefly blossoms between Carrie and Tommy, beautifully played by Spacek and an underrated William Katt.
Oscar-nominated along with Spacek, Piper Laurie’s incendiary turn rests at the heart of this movie’s fractured religious imagery. Note the figure of Christ on the crucifix seemingly remodelled with Margaret’s own face to fit her sick sense of martyrdom. Away from the old moralities of Hammer horror or even The Exorcist (1973), Carrie is a movie where religious fervour is a passport to doom, not salvation, yet still turns the heroine’s climactic self-destruction into an oddly spiritual act.
Away from its status as a horror classic this is also a landmark in the development of the high school movie. While oddities like High School Confidential (1958) played up the exploitation angle, Carrie is surely among the first to really delve beneath the sunny, All-American, “best years of your life” image and satire high school as a Darwinian pressure cooker where the meek and the awkward are damn near eaten alive. Which paved the way for the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight (2008), and arguably even the horror-free Welcome to the Dollhouse (1998).
And let us not forget the justifiably celebrated shock ending - again one of the greatest in horror cinema. This has been criticised in that it transfers our allegiance to Sue Snell, with Carrie becoming the monster the preceding movie and Spacek’s performance went out of its way to suggest she is not. But this nightmare can be interpreted as born less from Carrie’s own perceived monstrousness than the guilt Sue Snell bears for letting things get so out of hand. Plus it’s one heck of a great scary moment - so why complain?
Its monumental success inspired a disastrous Broadway musical, a belated sequel The Rage: Carrie II (1999) and a less-than-stellar TV movie remake Carrie (2002), but there remains only one true ode to the misunderstood misfits of the world. Indeed Carrie is almost a Hans Christian Anderson fable rewritten for the modern age. And is it wrong to think prom queen Carrie looks really beautiful - pig's blood and all?
He's not aversed to directing blockbusters such as Scarface, The Untouchables and Mission Impossible, but Bonfire of the Vanities was a famous flop and The Black Dahlia fared little better as his profile dipped in its later years, with Passion barely seeing the inside of cinemas. Even in his poorest films, his way with the camera is undeniably impressive. Was once married to Nancy Allen.