Before Stephen King was a behemoth of horror writing, there was Carrie (1976). Before The Shining (1980), before Shawshank (1994), before Misery (1990)… a new writer wrote a story about a timid girl who could move things with her mind. Carrie was also fairly early in director Brian DePalma’s career, though a lot of his in-camera effects are here, marking it as his work.
I think we take for granted now how ground-breaking Carrie was. Carrie (Sissy Spacek) was both hero and villain, a sympathetic character capable of doing terrible things. A fully formed believable girl, that so many of us as geeks and weirdos could relate to. The pubescent changes to her body manifesting not only in blood from her but blood from everyone around her. The ending a karmic reflection of the opening scene.
Stephen King too hadn’t fully realised all his tropes and conventions. There are no writers here, no alcoholism (although arguably her mother’s psychosis is partly caused by PTSD from an alcoholic partner), no internal voices or ghosts, all of which became part and parcel of his work as time went on.
Carrie’s power can be interpreted as a manifestation of The Shining, especially if you consider how he develops the idea in Doctor Sleep, and it is set in Maine. So… there are a few bits. But his choice to tell the story in the original novel as a series of letters, news reports, and documents means that the internal dialogue we get with most of his characters is lost. We are given Carrie from a distance, disconnected from her as much as the other students are. This carries over into the film. We are watching as Carrie is lead down a path where we know she is going to suffer further abuse but are powerless to do anything to help her. Chris (Nancy Allen) and Billy (John Travolta) have set Carrie up to humiliate her, placing a bucket of blood over where she stands as the iconic Prom Queen.
At home too, she gets no respite from abuse. Her mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie) fanatically tries to keep her young, clean, and pure. Margaret sees any development of Carrie physically as a sign of sin, which must be met with beatings and emotional abuse. She locks Carrie in a cupboard to pray to a ghastly crucifix. Her mother’s distorted view of the world is further highlighted by her protestations of being able to see Carrie’s dirty pillows under her red dress. The dress is clearly pink. But it foreshadows what the dress will become later, perhaps her mother also has a little of The Shining herself? Allowing her to see Carrie’s future.
This horror is made worse by the moments of kindness from some of those around Carrie. Sue (Amy Irving) encourages her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom. They enjoy themselves, they dance and laugh and even share a kiss. The gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) supports Carrie through her first period and encourages her to involve herself and accept Tommy’s invitation. These actions lift Carrie up, they make her happier and more able to stand up to her mother, they start to hint at some sort of positive future for Carrie. Unfortunately, the bullies won’t allow that, and their actions lead to the explosive, bloody finale.
There have been a few versions of this film made, a TV movie, a modern theatrical version, and a stage musical (I’ve listened to it so you don’t have to… a singing Carrie makes no sense). For me, none match this original version. Sissy Spacek is so meek and small, but beautiful and powerful, she manifests both halves of the character perfectly.
Carrie is a timeless classic, endlessly relatable, tragic, empowering, and beautiful. It’s pretty scary at times too.