Everything that makes high school an evil, evil place comes to the forefront in “Carrie,” or at least all the worst possible combinations of things that could literally make high school hell. Brian De Palma brings Stephen King’s first novel to life as part coming-of-age drama, part obnoxious high school movie and part horror film in a way that’s at times messy, but visually lasting and highly memorable.
Unexpectedly, the film’s title sequence takes place in a girls locker room where we get a barrage of full-frontal nudity followed by star Sissy Spacek erotically soaping herself in the shower and discovering that she’s bleeding for the first time. The sudden change in tone sets the expectation for the shock factor that pervades the rest of the film, and De Palma portrays Carrie’s consequent freak out and the subsequent bullying she endures from her peers with a certain surreal turbulence that will also make repeat appearance.
Carrie has it rough. In addition to being bullied at school, her mother (Piper Laurie) is a religious nut who abuses her regularly, forcing her into a “prayer closet” for sins she hasn’t committed. To complicate matters, she’s started to develop telekinetic abilities. All this starts to set the perfect storm in motion for Carrie to completely lose it.
Amazing, then, that despite all the foreboding, De Palma convinces us at times that things are looking up for Carrie. When one of the girls who bullied Carrie in the shower, Sue (Amy Irving), has a change of heart and convinces her prom date, Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom instead, it seems like misguided and disingenuous help, but over time we come to believe Tommy sees Carrie in a new light. Suddenly things are looking up, even though we know that Chris (Nancy Allen), the girl still bitter about being punished for tormenting Carrie, has a nasty surprise in store for her that will quickly change things.
In the script, we lose Carrie at times for these lesser supporting roles, including Chris’ boy toy played by John Travolta right before “Saturday Night Fever” launched him to fame. Carrie is prime for a cinematic character study, but the film doesn’t go in that direction nearly enough. As such, Carrie becomes the object of pity instead of empathy. And her mother simply acts like a zealot, so by the time we finally start to understand her, it’s too late.
It’s a stretch to call “Carrie” a horror film; most of it is an exercise in effective foreshadow because we know all these circumstances will lead to something bad, but not until the end does it get a bit gruesome (though not nearly gruesome enough). Even so, the images are more creepy than terrifying. De Palma doesn’t scare us so much as shock us with images we won’t soon forget. There’s a reason that to this day, everyone talks about the prom scene in “Carrie.”
Spacek also has an important role to play in the memorability of the film. Her performance certainly works as a sheltered girl dominated by her mother and shunned by her peers, but her looks contribute immensely to the story. With bug eyes and prominent cheekbones, she looks a little strange and plenty weird, but as she transforms herself for prom, she pulls a 180 that makes the final act’s flip of the switch eerily effective.
The whirlwind ending to the film will leave a sour taste for some viewers looking for more answers or definitive resolution. There’s a religious connection implied in these final scenes that distracts a bit from what King did well with “Carrie,” and that’s serve as a cautionary tale. At the least, you might think twice before picking on the loner, or at least regret whenever you did.
Directed by Brian De Palma
Written by Lawrence D. Cohen, Stephen King (story)
Starring: Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Klatt