US | 1976 | Directed by Brian De Palms

Logline: An introverted teenager, harassed by her mother and humiliated by her classmates, finally unleashes her deadly telekinetic powers. 

I still vividly remember as a boy, the film poster key art with Carrie’s name in averted comas, slightly pixilated and undulating in huge letters with Sissy Spacek’s wide-eyed expression, her body and face drenched in blood. As far as I was concerned it looked like a truly adult horror film up there with The Exorcist (1973). Several years later it was among my early “adult” movie experiences on VHS.

Carrie was Stephen King’s first novel, and he sold the movie rights for just $US2500. It was a huge box office success for Brian De Palma, making over $US30m (made for less than $US2m). It made King a household name, and stars of Sissy Spacek and John Travolta, and provided Piper Laurie with her first big screen role since The Hustler (1961)! 

Carrie celebrates its 40th anniversary at this year’s Sydney Underground Film Festival and although the high school antics and dialogue of the students has dated (including actors who are obviously much older than the characters they’re playing), the movie still commands a strong sense of dread and foreboding, and it sports a terrific visual flair, both elements De Palma has always been able to elicit so well in his movies. 

Carrietta White is an outsider, a wallflower ruthlessly teased and taunted by her bullying peers at school, especially that super pretty, real nasty bitch Christine Hargensen (Nancy Allen). We see poor, naive Carrie suffering horribly in the girls’ chasing rooms, “Plug it up! Plug it up!”, while later at home Carrie’s sociopathic, religious fanatic of a mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), almost terrorises the poor girl with guilt and shame, “I can see your dirty pillows!”

Well-meaning Susan Snell (Amy Irving, who years later would marry Stephen Spielberg) orchestrates it so her own boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt, who years later would become The Greatest American Hero) will take Carrie to the prom as a kind of perverse act of goodwill. But Christine and her dumb boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) plan to completely humiliate Carrie in front of the whole senior school.  

Margaret (Piper Laurie) forbids Carrie to go to the prom. But Carrie is determined, her sight blurred by the rose-coloured lenses of a boy’s false heart and fake intentions. There are demons at work. The Devil is at play. Carrie harbours a dark and troubling secret, and soon enough the whole town will know her name, feel her wrath. 

The movie’s opening scene the high school girls run naked in slow motion through the gym changing room while Carrie showers. It’s slightly bizarre as it unfolds, the viewer feeling a tad uncomfortable, there’s something not quite right. De Palma has always possessed a lurid fascination with voyeurism (he filmed the scene twice, one with full nudity and one with underwear worn, as he anticipated – correctly – that the film would eventually end up on Network television), and many his early movies demonstrate the power and vulnerability of the act of watching vs. the act of seeing. 

Carrie notices she is bleeding, menstruating. She is shocked, she is a late developer. This visual symbolism of innocent blood spilled juxtaposes beautifully with the evil blood spilled at film’s end, as well as providing the crucial key to Carrie’s burgeoning telekinetic power, itself linked to her sexuality.

Later during the movie’s climax Brian De Palma utilises a split-screen technique, a device he’d first used to great effect in his earlier movie Sisters (1973). It is both distracting, yet highly potent in creating a sense of disorientation, but also a sense of omnipotent menace and destructive immediacy. He has frequently been criticised for copying Alfred Hitchcock’s methods of cinematic suspense and eye for composition. In Carrie, and many of his other movies, this familiarity of mise-en-scene and use of suspense is apparent, but there is a dark, lurid and palpable quality to De Palma’s visual style which is all his own. 

The performances of Spacek and Laurie (who was Oscar-nominated), shine with malevolent glow. As mother and daughter, its a kind of dual-edged sword. It’s not Travolta’s best work (his role is a little thankless and peripheral if anything), and certainly Nancy Allen and some of the other support actors aren’t up to the same calibre as Sissy and Laurie, but De Palma makes sure his directing technique becomes a star in its own right; Margaret’s final confrontation with her daughter is a harrowing set-piece worth the price of admission alone.  

Carrie does not follow Stephen King’s brilliant novel faithfully, nor is it De Palma’s most accomplished work (Blow Out, Scarface, and Dressed to Kill are my personal favourites), but for late night popcorn and beer thrills, chills and spills, watching curiously familiar actors in much younger days, it’s a damn bloody treat, a black comedy even, and not to be missed on the big screen!

The digitally-remastered 40th anniversary screening of Carrie is at the tenth Sydney Underground Film Festival, Saturday September 18th, 10pm, Cinema 1, The Factory Theatre, Marrickville.