Stephen King, the author whose work inspired this horror classic, may be better known for exploring the lives of boys; from his short story The Body – translated to the screen in the form of Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me – to IT’s male-dominated ‘Loser’s Club’. But his debut novel turns our attention to the trails of women’s adolescence, and it starts with the most female experience of all: periods.
Adapted by Brain De Palma, Carrie would prove to be one of the most iconic films in his career and it’s opening sequence lingers in viewers minds 41-years after its initial release. Ridiculed and harassed by her schools peers after flunking a volleyball game, we’re instantly aware of Carrie’s (Sissy Spacek) standing in the vicious social hierarchy of high school. Well-used to this treatment, Carrie enjoys a moment of blissful solitude as she showers in the school changing room. That is, until the water turns red and she notices blood gushing down her thighs. The innocent Carrie’s terror and frantic pleas for help are once again turned into a opportunity for amusement by her peers who jokingly toss tampons at the frightened Carrie cowering in the corner of the shower cubicle. This scene holds its own against another infamous shower sequence in horror cinema. It is a turning-point for all the characters involved, and blood a recurring motif.
The use of the female body as “other” is a common trope in horror. Here it is used to examine both Carrie’s conflicting relationship with herself and our opinions of her, as she flits between tragic heroine and vengeful villain. Soon after Carrie is inflicted with “the curse of blood” – a term used by her fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie) – she begins to notice another change within herself.
Amidst the tournament Carrie endures during the traumatic opening sequence, a lightbulb blows and we’re left in little doubt that is Carrie who has unwittingly caused this. She then sends an ashtray flying across the room after the headmaster repeatedly calls her by the wrong name.
This moment is a precursor of the events that are to follow, as we witness the powerful woman trapped within Carrie’s shy demeanour screaming to escape. However, it also serves as a warning about the consequences of her repressed anger.
Carrie is loaded with 70s nostalgia. From the extravagant haircuts – Tommy’s (William Katt) is so ridiculous it’s actually distracting – to the presence of a young John Travolta portraying the high school bad-boy that would pave the way for his breakout performance in Grease two years later. Yet, the true star of Carrie is and will always be Sissy Spacek.
Fans of the book will recognise how Spacek is such a perfect fit for the role – and understand why the talented Chloë Grace Moretz was so miscast in Kimberley Peirce’s unnecessary remake. Spacek embodies every detail of Carrie – expressing her many repressed emotions from sorrow, fear, innocence, and rage. She makes us pity her, fear her and root for her.
I warned you that Carrie’s unfortunate shower experience foreshadowed events to come, and it is in the masterful prom night scene – that remains one of the most memorable moments in the history of cinema – that Brian De Palma demonstrates his sheer genius.
Like a Hitchcock thriller, the audience is aware of the events that will transpire – but few could have predicted the aftermath (at least that would be the case if the scene wasn’t held in such high regard). Sue (Amy Irving), who has selflessly sacrificed her place at the prom to show some kindness to Carrie, notices the bucket of blood hovering ominously over her as she enjoys the cheers of her classmates. Our sense of dread is intensified by the slowed-down sequence, recalling memories of Arbogast’s (Martin Balsam) ill-fated walk up the stairs of the Bates mansion. We know what’s going to happen and can only watch in horror. The subsequent reaction expresses the brilliance of the titular character, as we are both enthralled and terrified by her actions.
Carrie may appear dated to some modern viewers, but its message rings as true today as it did 40 years ago. It remains one of the most shocking and captivating films in the history of horror and is worthy of its status as a cinematic masterpiece.