The more you think about it, the more you'll marvel at how bad this adaptation should have been. Forget the Curse of King, since there are actually quite a few good Stephen King movies out there (The Shining, The Dead Zone, Misery, The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile). Just consider the source material. Carrie is a book of cruelty, pain, tragedy and psychological torture. It's set in high school, yeah, but that doesn't mean it isn't packed with bitch queens from hell. Carrie is tragically stunted, mentally and emotionally, by her Bible-bashing mother. She's picked on viciously by the clique at school. For the first time in her life she's shown some kindness when Tommy invites her to the prom, but then... hell, we all know what happens then. It's one of the most famous scenes in the movies.
In the original book, I don't think Stephen King ever got past the pain. Novelists take you inside their characters' minds - and Carrie is the tragedy of a deeply damaged individual. King didn't exactly go for laughs. It's a good book, but it doesn't have a light touch.
I was rather nervous about watching this movie, half-expecting to come away depressed as hell, but Brian De Palma's directorial control is masterly. Carrie the movie can be beautiful, tragic or disturbing when it wants to be, but for much of its running time it's just plain funny.
The bitches are utter bitches, yes, but they're also trivial, self-obsessed teenage girls. De Palma knows how silly they are and gives us plenty of sly comedy. Even Carrie's God-bothering mother (Piper Laurie) is given an amusing introduction scene in which she goes around a neighbour's house for a little unwelcome evangelising. We're left in no doubt that she's mutilated her daughter's psyche, but the story keeps a careful balance between Carrie's journey of self-discovery and the shenanigans of her silly, self-absorbed peers. There are also a few nice characters - not many, 'tis true, but they're attractive and strong-minded. They make sure you don't disengage.
I'm sure De Palma had a ball making this. This movie is full of fun touches like the exercise sequence or cheerful music. (The music at the start of the prom is so inviting that it becomes almost ironic.) P.J. Soles doesn't get much to do, but she gets a great ear-flapping comedy moment when she walks in on a sensitive conversation in Miss Collins's office.
Then, having kept Carrie relatively clear of the limelight, the film starts taking more interest in her once Tommy's asked her out and her life sets off on an upward curve. This culminates in the prom scene, which (until a certain point) I found almost beautiful. Sissy Spacek gives a brave performance as this downtrodden creature taking her first few faltering steps into a world of happiness and normal people.
And then comes... *that*. Even someone plucked from an Amazonian rain forest would still get the message well in advance. De Palma wants us to know. It's part of that ironic thing he's got going, in which we can simultaneously feel pleasure at Carrie's happiness and see the double-edged references to what's coming. Sure enough, it hits and it's a bloody nightmare, but note how carefully De Palma handles the transition from happiness to horror. He doesn't just spring it on us as a shock. He gives Carrie's moment in the spotlight its true weight - makes it *real* - and only then lets inevitability take over. No matter what happened later, for a few hours that night Carrie was truly happy.
The character dynamics are full of wicked detail. Chris (Nancy Allen) is a power freak, so enamoured with being Queen Bee of her peer group that she deludes herself into thinking she can even push around her teacher. She doesn't care a jot about her boyfriend (John Travolta, in the best role of his early career) but she'll happily give him fellatio to keep him under her control.
The men are almost all ineffectual, stupid, silly or stooges. The only one with any moral strength at all is Tommy - and even he only asks out Carrie because his girlfriend ordered him to. (That's a telling, clever alteration to King's novel, incidentally.) John Travolta's character is a no-good dickhead who does something insane and horrible merely because his bitch girlfriend told him to. The male teachers are a joke. The women are the real players in this film, pulling their men's strings and enforcing the playground pecking order like a dictator's secret police.
Carrie's mum (Margaret White, played by Piper Laurie) is interesting, too. She's a religious nut, but not actually a stupid one. Her chief motivation is self-hatred. As a neighbour she's annoying but as a mother she's a monster, using religion as a scourge so fiercely that she's blind to her daughter's wants and needs. (She and Carrie also have that Southern accent that I associate with American TV evangelists, which felt like a sly touch.) And man, that's the scariest Jesus statuette ever.
Margaret White's self-loathing manifests itself in many strange ways, but the most peculiar comes at the end. Her reaction to having knives stuck in her is to have an orgasm, or something that looks a lot like it. It leaves her with a smile on her face, anyway. Though having said that, there's a whole load of religious imagery tagged on to this particular sequence and I'm not quite sure where the film's going with it. If it's trying to say that either Carrie or her mother is like Jesus, I'm afraid I don't see it. Maybe it's just that Margaret *wants* to be like Him?
Oh, and apparently this was Piper Laurie's first film since The Hustler (1961) fifteen years earlier and she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in the Oscars for both films. And this despite the Academy's tradition of overlooking the horror genre.
This is a really, really impressive film, one of the best and most famous horror films ever made (though De Palma claims it's not horror). Even its very last twist works like a charm, though it really shouldn't. Personally I think its greatest achievement is to be fun, moving and cathartic when its subject matter could so easily have dragged it down into depressing grimness. Even at the beginning when Carrie's at her lowest ebb, having just been humiliated for freaking at her first period, she gets to telekinetically shove a small kid off his bike for chanting "Creepy Carrie, Creepy Carrie!" Haven't we all wanted to do that?
- Finn Clark