Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 14, 2017)
Although Carrie single-handedly established the careers of writer Stephen King and director Brian De Palma, the two seemed to go in different directions after that. For King, Carrie acted as the start, as he quickly became one of the world’s most popular novelists.
As for De Palma, Carrie made him a prominent director, but his path seemed much rockier since then. After the success of Carrie, he settled into a pattern of duds and moderate hits.
Actually, even when De Palma produced popular films, they still seemed like disappointments. Flicks like The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible and Scarface reached significant audiences, but they felt like they fell short of expectations.
Perhaps De Palma peaked early, as Carrie remains one of his best. While I don’t believe it merits the stellar reputation it currently boasts, I do feel that Carrie offers a reasonably winning and compelling experience.
At the start of the film, we meet Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a lonely high school student with no friends and a reputation as an awkward and creepy loser. While she showers after gym class, she gets her first period and freaks, as her spooky ultra-religious mother (Piper Laurie) never told her about “the curse”, and Carrie loses it in front of her peers. They react less than sympathetically, as they toss towels and tampons at her.
Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) breaks up this ordeal and punishes the other girls with 10 days detention. When snotty Chris (Nancy Allen) refuses to attend, she learns that she must go or she has to skip prom.
This initially gets Chris to detention, but she ultimately rebels and loses her prom privileges. Chris blames Carrie for her problems, and she plots revenge.
In the meantime, Sue (Amy Irving) - apparently the only classmate with a conscience - rues the way she helped tease Carrie, and she attempts to make it up to Carrie. Sue forces her studly boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom.
Reluctantly, Tommy agrees to do so, and after additional prompting, Carrie concurs. This seems to go well until Chris’s plan goes into effect – and Carrie’s special mental powers take charge.
Part of the problem with Carrie - as with many of De Palma’s films – stems from the way it wears its influences too heavily on its sleeve. De Palma’s always had a serious Hitchcock fetish, and the master’s voice permeates Carrie. Not only does the score strongly echo Bernard Herrmann’s famous work for Psycho, but they named the high school “Bates”, for crying out loud!
Admittedly, De Palma clearly does this in a wink-and-a-nudge manner, as Carrie walks the thin line between straight horror film and campy parody. Actually, it usually veers into the latter territory, though it doesn’t do so with enormous abandon.
Carrie can be viewed in a fairly concrete manner, but it usually appears obvious that De Palma goes for a grander, almost satirical tone. He doesn’t play the story for laughs, but De Palma creates a broadness that occasionally goes beyond the realm of pure horror.
While that’s part of the film’s charm, I don’t know if it always works. The almost operatic intensity of the relationship between Carrie and her mother is effective, but the overamped emotions of the rest of the crew can become a bit much at times. Everyone seems to be so high-strung and intense that it gets annoying to a degree.
Still, I have to love a movie that begins with a loving journey through a girls’ locker room, and I admire De Palma’s stylistic creativity. Carrie comes filled with fine visual imagery, and even when the attempts aren’t totally successful - such as the split screen during the climax - the techniques seem interesting.
That climax deserves special recognition, for it really becomes the best part of the film. Although it barely goes beyond straight carnage, De Palma builds it in a very effective manner, and while it doesn’t quite seem terrifying, it still gets the old heart pumping. Spacek goes over the top at that time - it’s the only aspect of an otherwise fairly nuanced performance that struggles – but the scene still works well.
As a whole, I must admit that Carrie provides a fairly entertaining and creepy experience. It doesn’t enthrall me to the degree that some may feel it should, but despite some dated styles and techniques, it holds up well after 40 years.
Marketing pet peeve: the packaging for Carrie heavily touts the involvement of John Travolta. He receives second billing, whereas the movie includes at least seven roles that are more substantial than his.
Surprisingly, this emphasis actually reflects the original advertising. By the time of Carrie’s theatrical release, Travolta had already achieved prominence due to Welcome Back, Kotter, so the studio clearly tried to capitalize on that. It still bugs me, though!
Possibly the oddest bit player in Carrie is Edie McClurg. Best known for frumpy Midwest women seen in films like Planes, Trains and Automobiles, she seemed to have been born middle-aged, so it’s bizarre to see her play a teenager.
Of course, not a single main “teenage” cast member of Carrie was younger than 22, and at 27, Spacek was actually two years older than McClurg. Even though she played their teacher, Buckley was only two years senior to Spacek, the oldest “student” in the school.