Despite many attempts at rebooting and remaking Stephen King’s first novel (including most recently in 2013), the 1976 version of “Carrie” remains the best version of the story. The story itself is a perennial tale that strikes a chord with anyone that has ever felt out of place, ridiculed or powerless. But it is director Brian De Palma’s version that has lasted for 40 years (celebrating its anniversary on November 3rd) and has woven itself so completely into the fabric of pop culture.
There has been one other film adaptation of King’s book, a TV movie, a sequel and a Broadway musical, and yet it’s De Palma’s vision that has stood the test of time and embedded itself into the public consciousness. Much of this is the great work of screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen, translating King’s epistolary novel into a vital examination of teenager outsiders, but it also is De Palma’s expert direction. The film is melodramatic at times, with heightened emotions echoing throughout its running time (even in the comic moments, it’s a pretty heightened view of reality). But that’s perfect for the tableau of teenage life, where everything is the most important; every social faux pas, every Prom, every moment is weighted against surging hormones and a rigid societal structure within the school. By using larger emotions, the dramatic score by Pino Donaggio, and the excellent framing of camera shots, De Palma puts the audience into the mindset of a teenager and allows them to empathize easily with the emotions.
De Palma’s camera work and staging goes a long way to establishing this tone. The opening locker room scene straddles the line between innocence and exploitation with its soft focus slow motion before it careens into Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) nightmare of having her period. Just like the moment marks that line between childhood and adulthood for Carrie White (and her emerging psychokinetic powers), De Palma shoots the scene and gets both readings out of the way it unfolds. It’s always bright in the high school scenes, well lit and seemingly a safe space for the bullied Carrie, but instead, it’s a form of hell for her as she tries to squeak by unnoticed by the masses. It’s not until she returns home to a dramatically candlelit house and encounters her mother (Piper Laurie) that the audience realizes there is no respite for this odd girl. Her family life is even more abusive and horrible than the traumatic experience at the start of the film.
Viewers are immediately sympathetic to Carrie, first to her lack of understanding of basic biology, and then to the horrendous treatment at the hands of her Holy Roller mother. This is what makes the turn at the end on prom night so effective – she’s committing terrible acts, mostly against innocent people, but we’ve seen how much she’s had to put up with in school and home. It’s a moment of psychological dissonance best displayed by the split diopter shots and split screens (which De Palma would become famous for) that has the audience diverting its attention between the “monster” and her victims. Not since Frankenstein’s monster has there been such a sympathetic creature that does terrible things.
Speaking of the legacy of “Carrie” and monsters in movies, one of the ways that shows the film’s mark on pop culture is the fact that Carrie is probably one of the few female “boogeymen” that is readily identifiable by people everywhere. In a landscape of slashers, monsters and other horror icons, Carrie is one of the few female portraits that still stands out in her blood-soaked prom dress dispensing horrific justice to her classmates and teachers. Not since Elsa Lanchester in “The Bride of Frankenstein” has there been such a legendary female horror figure… and probably not again until Samara from “The Ring” many decades later.
It’s an odd legacy, to be sure, but it is one that is important, as this female character stands shoulder to shoulder with others like Jason, Freddy, Dracula and all the rest. Part of her iconic nature is due to the imagery of a virginal woman doused in blood with Spacek’s creepy stare that De Palma captures on film. But part of it is also that audiences that see the film get to know the character, care about her, and worry about her right up until she starts carelessly killing off those around her. It’s important to note that, in a field dominated by male monsters, Carrie still stands out as one that people can immediately recognize with or without context. Even this horror-themed music video includes a “Carrie” nod amongst all of its other genre references because of her indelible appearance and place in pop culture. (Those just interested in the “Carrie” part should skip to 3:24).
One last element that cemented the legacy of “Carrie” and influenced many films to come is the ending. Shot in a dreamlike manner (actually shot backwards and then rewound), with that same soft focus brightness from the beginning, there’s a false sense of security that all is over and this is just a touching coda for a misunderstood girl. But De Palma sees an opportunity for one last scare and delivers a doozy (itself inspired by the last sequence from “Deliverance”), with a hand reaching up to grab the sympathetic Sue Snell (Amy Irving).
It’s still an effective scare to this day, but more importantly, it ended up shaping the idea that horror films need one last scare to send audiences screaming home. “Friday the 13th” was one of the first copycats, and its ending is a direct homage to that same jump-scare dream sequence, but other films followed suit with one last “gotcha!” that had audiences recoiling in fright just when they thought it was safe.
When “Carrie” was a smash hit in 1976, it ended up being a boon to many careers. It helped cement Stephen King’s legacy as a modern master of horror in pop culture, even for those not interested in reading; it gave De Palma a hit after many misfires at avant-garde comedies, which allowed him to go on to make films like “Scarface,” “Dressed to Kill,” and “The Untouchables”; and both Spacek and Laurie received Oscar nominations for their performances. The film also created a female horror icon that would permeate pop culture for decades, while also introducing a final scare moment that would be copied by an untold number of films.
And yet, despite all of these accomplishments, the greatest legacy of the movie is that it’s still a powerful examination of teenage life and being a misfit. The heightened emotions that De Palma brought to the tale perfectly capture the intensity of being a teen, and the film goes to great lengths to underscore the isolation and confusion of being a girl on the verge of womanhood. “Carrie” is still a thrilling, scary and emotionally complex film that works to this day because it manages to nail the tone needed to tell this outsized story and imprint itself upon the public’s consciousness. Forty years later and the tragic tale of a misfit teen still packs a punch, a powerful legacy that any film, no matter its genre, would desperately aim to accomplish.