The year is 1976. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) introduced the moviegoing public to the summer blockbuster the year before, and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977) would go on to turn movie studios into toy factories the year after.
The same “film school generation” who pioneered the post-Golden Age renaissance that was New Hollywood, sold its soul to the highest bidder.
Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) is one of the last classics of its era. If you don’t know what to watch next, it’s available to stream on Netflix.
It is an adaptation of Stephen King’s debut novel, so early in his career, his name is misspelled as “Steven” in the opening credits.
It was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Actress for Sissy Spacek (the titular Carrie White), and Best Supporting Actress for Piper Laurie (Carrie’s religious fanatic mother, Margaret White).
The supernatural horror film begins in a high school locker room, where Carrie, an introverted social outcast, menstruates for the first time; because her puritanical mother never warned her about menstruation, Carrie panics, and the other girls laugh and throw tampons at her.
The saintly gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), punishes Carrie’s classmates, including Sue Snell (Amy Irving) and Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), for their bullying, and with the advent of her puberty, Carrie discovers she possesses telekinetic powers.
Meanwhile, a remorseful Sue asks her boyfriend, Tommy Ross (William Katt), the most popular boy in school, to take Carrie to the prom, and a vengeful Chris plots with her abusive lover, Billy Nolan (John Travolta, in his first big screen role), to get back at Carrie.
Carrie is as tragic as it is horrifying, the Cinderella story from Hell, as only King could imagine it. It is a monster movie with many monsters, and the mass murderer with telekinesis is not only one of them, but one of the victims, too.
That Carrie is a sympathetic figure, is the scariest part about her.
De Palma’s filmmaking is at its strongest when he’s borrowing from other artists’ work, and his interpretation of King’s book is bursting with nods to his favorite source of inspiration, Sir Alfred Hitchcock.
Composer Pino Donaggio’s shrieking violins parallel Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho (1960), and so does the name change from “Ewen High School” on the page to “Bates High School” on the screen.
Carrie sometimes surpasses its source material. The written word portrays Carrie as an irredeemable psychopath, whereas almost all the people Carrie kills in the picture have it coming, sparking a hellish catharsis in the viewer.
Also, it feels like parts of King’s narrative are padded for length by an author learning how to write his first novel, since before the publication of Carrie, King was a short story writer.
De Palma’s prom set piece is a masterclass of suspense, as Donaggio’s soundtrack as well as editor Paul Hirsch’s split screens and montages of cuts thrust toward a bloody, fiery climax.
Even upon revisiting it, knowing how it ends, you will still find yourself it will somehow end differently, that Carrie will get the happily ever after she deserves, that her dreams will come true, despite the nightmare she was born into.
In King’s own words, though, Carrie is dated. The special effects have aged somewhat poorly, and the jump scare at the finale has been parodied so many times, it’s borderline laughable.
But as with Carrie herself, there is so much more to cinema than what it looks like, and there is so much more to horror than whether or not it makes you cover your eyes.
Carrie may not make you scream, but it might make you cry. It will make you know what it is to be in high school again, how happy you would be to win prom royalty, and what you would do to the people who ruin it in the worst possible way.
And that is the agelessness of its time.