Never has a genre of fiction been so dominated by one name like Stephen King in the world of horror. But it took the writer some time to climb the horror mountain. In 1973 King was an English teacher, penning short stories in his spare time, living in a trailer park with his wife Tabitha. Recalling a magazine article about a teenager who could move objects with her mind, the story suggested this ability was a consequence of the girl’s age and her first steps into puberty. Casting his mind back to his time as a school janitor King remembered discovering a sanitary towel dispenser in the girl’s locker room; he wondered what it would be like for a girl to have her first period in front of her classmates. Combining all these elements King had the foundation for a story and set about writing his first full length novel.
It was far from a straight shot to literary fame though; King’s first draft of Carrie ended up in the trash, so displeased was he with the end result. Having faith in her husbands writing, Tabitha fished it out of the rubbish and returned it to the kitchen table where King sat to do his writing, encouraging him to persevere. The novel was eventually picked up by the publisher Doubleday. King’s first purchase with his modest advance cheque was a brand new hairdryer for his wife.
Carrie, King’s first published novel, went on to become a bestseller. Studios started clamouring for a script treatment of the book and the rights to make the film finally reached United Artists via 20th Century Fox. Wanting to make a lean thriller movie, shooting was entrusted to a director labelled as the next big thing in suspenseful cinema, Brian De Palma. Trimming King’s novel down to its fundamentals De Palma focused on Carrie’s empathetic focal points; a teenage girls struggle for acceptance and her revenge on the students that torment her.
The titular Carrie White, a pupil at Bates High (named in tribute to Norman Bates) is laid bare in the first two scenes of the movie. An opening volleyball match paints the social sub-divisions, the awkward and abandoned Carrie planted on the baseline. An opportunity to join the game eventually comes Carrie’s way but she fails to take advantage. Carrie is lambasted as she leaves the court. De Palma follows this concise introduction with an audacious locker room scene. Filmed in soft focus and slow motion, the director managed to convince nearly all of principle actors to appear naked in the scene. Far from erotic, the scene conveys an innocence, perfect for the set-up De Palma and King were aiming for. Carrie is alone in the shower, as serene moment as Carrie escapes her troubles. But just as the viewer settles, De Palma pulls the rug. Carrie discovers she is bleeding; she is having her first period. Like a tape winding back up to speed, the soothing strings and slow-mo disappear, replaced by Carrie’s blind panic and confusion. Unwisely she wades into her classmates, wailing for help. Her classmates respond with abuse and a salvo of sanitary towels, ‘Plug it up, plug it up’.
Utilising the bare minimum of runtime De Palma extracted maximum sympathy from his audience. In ten minutes we feel we know Carrie White, tormented, naïve, and alone. The source of this naivety is made apparent when Carrie returns home to confront her fanatical mother. ‘Why didn’t you tell me Momma’ questioning is met with religious rhetoric, ‘The curse, the curse of blood’, and physical abuse, thrown into a cupboard to pray for her supposed sins. Here is a girl fully deserving of our sympathies.
There’s an intriguing twist though, introduced equally early in the film. Carrie has discovered she has telekinetic powers, the ability to move objects with her mind when in a heightened emotional state. Gradually clawing her way out of social leper status (or so she thinks), when Carrie’s chance at popularity, courtesy of a prom Queen coronation, is cruelly taken from her she unleashes her telekinesis in a devastating and frightening display of power.
Many a great horror film has stemmed from a simple premise, from Jaws (1975) to The Blair Witch Project (1999), but none have been quite as sheer as this. But with Carrie less is more. A twisted version of the ‘Ugly Duckling’ fable, the only character given any real exposition is Carrie herself. But as the story revolves around her, this is entirely forgivable. The other main characters receive little back-story and merely serve to move Carrie’s tale from beginning to end. Carrie’s classmates seem caricatured as a result; John Travolta’s Billy Nolan, PJ Soles as Norma Watson, and Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen. But the characters surrounding Carrie remain just the right side of clichéd and reminiscent of fellow classmates most viewers will recognise from their own school days, the class nerd, the class bully, the loner or the jock. Being able to place ourselves in the shoes of those on screen, the story becomes more raw and the climatic scares become more intense.
It is easy to connect with Carrie. Most of audience members will have been in her shoes at some point in their lives. There are numerous levels of tragedy in Carrie’s story, our heroine so close to happiness before being pulled to an even greater level of misery. Due to budgetary constraints, the ending to King’s novel was changed for De Palma’s film. In King’s climax, Carrie levels most of the town on the way home from the prom. De Palma’s prom hall slaughter focuses Carrie’s catatonic rage on half of the cause of her unhappiness, her school life, before she returns home, and is forced to confront the other half, her mother. This tightening of the plot makes the climax all the more intense and much more poignant.
Placing the spotlight so firmly on one character, it was vital for De Palma to choose the right actress to play Carrie. In a bizarre casting initiative directors George Lucas and De Palma held joint auditions for Carrie and Lucas’ 1977 movie Star Wars. The joint session offering no solid choice for the role of Carrie, art director Jack Fisk suggested that his then wife Sissy Spacek audition. Determined to get the role, Spacek went to great lengths to present herself as the real Carrie White. She rubbed Vaseline into her hair, didn’t wash her face for a number of days and wore a tattered sailor dress to the audition. Her method style tactics worked and De Palma found his Carrie.
Having so much screen time it was important for the actress to make Carrie as vulnerable and self-conscious as possible whilst also ensuring that she remained likeable. Spacek managed this feat and then some. It’s impossible not to be a little bit in love with Carrie by the time she takes her first dance with Tommy Ross at the school prom. Despite the fact viewers paid to see a film with horrific conclusions, most would be happy to end the movie on this note with Carrie and Tommy happily departing the prom as an official couple. It is a joyous moment when Carrie is announced Prom Queen, albeit by a rigged vote and a masterful figure-of-eight continuous shot used by De Palma when the votes are collected.
But the inevitable has to happen and De Palma wrings out every drop of tension in the build up to the dénouement. The bucket of pig’s blood is painfully teased above Carrie’s head as she proudly stands on the school stage with her new beau. Once the blood hits, Spacek does a tremendous about turn in her portrayal. With little more than a furious wide-eyed stare Carrie dispenses with everyone around her. It was a startlingly visual, Carrie soaked to the skin in blood back by the flaming ruins of the prom stage, so attention grabbing it was eventually utilised on the successful Carrie movie poster campaign. Spacek handles the two distinct Carrie Whites masterfully, both powerful in their own right, one afraid and downcast, the other overwhelmingly malevolent.
The latter of the two disappears once Carrie makes it safely back home to her mother, but for the concluding few minutes of the prom she creates a cinematic imprint that is undeniable in the world of horror cinema. The image of the crimson school girl backed by flame is as fierce an image as any seen in film.
For the equally important role of Carrie’s mother, De Palma convinced veteran actress Piper Laurie out of semi-retirement. Laurie skilfully created a believable villain from a character that could have quite easily strayed into hackneyed territory. Despite her power, even Carrie cowers in front of this religious extremist. By the film’s half way point such is the commonality with which Margaret White abuses her child, Carrie is almost used to it; see the shadowy ‘last supper’ dinner table scene when Margaret hurls a bowl of hot soup into her daughter’s face.
As Carrie’s powers become more apparent there is a subtle change in the relationship between them, wonderfully portrayed by Spacek and Laurie. Carrie still fears her mother but is now more in control, whilst Margaret still holds sway over her daughter but fears greatly this ‘unnatural’ ability. Despite the complex feelings between the two of love, respect, hatred and pity, it is almost as if one would not survive without the other. It is Margaret who Carrie eventually returns to, believing perhaps rightly so that her mother was correct in her prediction that nothing good will come with her mixing with ‘boys’. Similarly Margaret knows that she cannot survive without her only companion, her child ‘born of sin’. As a metaphor for their co-dependent relationship, their final confrontation is hardly all in Carrie’s favour, in spite of the girl’s great power. Both are bloodied, and both come to the same end. Rarely does the horror genre offer up performances as good as Spacek and Laurie.
The remaining roles in Carrie, though rather one dimensional in their writing, are depicted sufficiently well. Amy Irving and William Katt portray Sue and Tommy with just the right amount of ambiguity. You wonder if they are actually playing a prank on the hapless Carrie, right up until the prom. Sue Snell’s mother is played by Irving’s real-life mother Priscilla Pointer, and their connection comes through effectively on screen (with Pointer mistakenly referring to her daughter by her real name, Amy, in the final scene). Betty Buckley makes the most of her role as the sympathetic gym teacher Miss Collins, despite the fact that the twenty six year old was hardly much older than the actresses playing the teens under her charge. It is doubly tragic when Carrie’s random acts of revenge cost the teacher her life, by way of dramatic basketball-backboard-impaling. Of all the characters we hope will escape the carnage Carrie’s confidant Miss Collins heads the list.
In horror movie terms before 1976 there had never been a movie that placed a tale of supernatural terror in the everyday environment of an American high school. The use of a school setting and your run-of-the-mill teenagers as principal characters was not something that had been done before by a mainstream scary movie. The haircuts and fashions may have changed, but the feeling of shock at such a tragic and horrifying incident in a familiar environment remains. This idea of recognisable settings and characters was pounced upon in 1978 by John Carpenter’s Halloween. The only failing in De Palma’s movie was his reliance on some of the stylistic tropes of the time. While the use of split-screen can be overlooked, the use of funky disco soundtrack for the lighter scenes, occasional comedic sound effect stings, and spiral camera effects have not done Carrie any favours and started to age the film almost immediately.
De Palma had an ace up his sleeve though that blew all stylistic quibbles clean out of the water; the last minute chair jumper. It’s a familiar horror film device these days, successfully employed in all manner of horror films, from Friday the 13th (1980) to Scream (1996), but Carrie was the first mainstream film to use this heart-rate rattling ploy, throwing one last startling scare at the viewer just when the movie appears to have reached its calm ending. In 1976 it made for a ground breaking double climax, and as an example of the last minute fright Sue Snell visiting Carrie’s grave site has never been bettered.
To ensure this last payoff had a suitably eerie effect De Palma shot the scene backwards, making Amy Irving walk away from the sight of the house and then reversing the footage (keep an eye out for two cars over Irving’s shoulder, clearly travelling in reverse). The soft focus and the melodious soundtrack build to what we assume is a tender moment to end the film on, before Carrie’s bloody hand smashes through the dirt. We are transported to the hysterical Sue in her bed; the nightmare was not over after all, and may never be.
Perhaps due to the movie’s focus on serious character study with accompanying horror payoff, Carrie is not a film often mentioned in the same breath as such established horror classics as Psycho (1960), The Exorcist (1973), or The Shining (1980), but it fully deserves a place alongside them. The Academy Awards certainly thought so, bestowing a nomination for Best Actress on Sissy Spacek and a nomination for Best Supporting Actress on Piper Laurie. They were the first actors to receive Oscar nominations for working on a mainstream horror movie.
Unfortunately, it was all down hill for the Carrie franchise from Oscar night onwards. The properties next outing was, somewhat unexpectedly, a stage musical in 1988. Trialled in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to Broadway, the musical was a flop being pulled from theatres after just sixteen previews and five performances. Brief revivals in 2012 and 2015 helped little, and the shows only legacy is its inspiration for the title of Ken Mandelbaum’s infamous 1992 book Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Broadway Musical Flops.
Carrie’s credibility took a further battering in 1999 though when a pointless sequel entitled The Rage: Carrie II (1999) was released, helmed by writer/actor/director Katt Shea. Survivor Sue Snell makes a return as a school counsellor, twenty three years after the original events of Carrie. One of the pupils she takes a particular interest in is Rachel Lang, a girl who has the same power of telekinesis that Carrie had. Similar revenge fuelled horrors occur after Rachel’s closest friend commits suicide and a cruel joke is played on Rachel at the end of year party. In a further attempt to link the sequel to the original film it is revealed that Rachel is Carrie’s half-sister. Carrie II was the antithesis of De Palma’s film, unoriginal, lacking in scares, and devoid of characters to root for.
Further cinematic pointlessness arrived in 2013 when a remake of Carrie was added to the ever growing list of failed horror remakes. Before the release of Carrie (2013) it was rumoured that the remake would stick more closely to King’s original book, with a scorned Carrie White taking revenge on her entire home town rather than just her school prom. Boys Don’t Cry (1999) writer and director Kimberly Peirce took the safe road though and made her Carrie a straight forward reshoot of De Palma’s original. It was so close to the 1976 version it begged the question, why bother? Being a carbon copy, the story became predictable, a good amount of the scares and tension gone. Chloe Grace Moretz was given the role of Carrie; a former model as well as actress, there was little chance of audiences buying Moretz as a dowdy, forgotten-about student no matter how good her acting ability. The one shining light was Julianne Moore, having all kinds of fun hamming it up as Carrie’s zealot mother
Forty two years later there’s still only one semi-psychotic, telekinetic teen viewers should take to the prom, the 1976 vintage Carrie White.
See also The Rage: Carrie II (1999), Carrie (2013)