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H'ween Horrorthon: 'Carrie' (1976)

Brian De Palma's Seminal Masterpiece about an Ugly Duckling Who Turned Her Senior Prom into a Living Nightmare!

By Carlos GonzalezPublished 6 years ago 7 min read
Courtesy of MGM Pictures.

"Witch! That's Satan's power!"

"It's got nothin' to do with Satan, Mama. It's me—me! If I concentrate hard enough, I can move things!"

—Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as Carrie and Margaret White.

Hello and welcome, one and all!

This is the one. The movie that made me love horror movies! The movie that became the template for all others. Sure, Alfred Hitchcock gave us the brilliant oft-imitated Psycho. Roman Polanski made us scared of pregnancy with Rosemary's Baby, William Friedkin gave us the head-spinning, pea-soup-vomiting, crucifix-carrying classic, The Exorcist. Richard Donner announced The Anti-Christ with The Omen, and John Carpenter made us dread October 31st with his iconic killer masterpiece, Halloween.

But director Brian De Palma did the unthinkable: taking a popular Stephen King novel and turning it into something more profound and deeper than the initial creation. A mistreated misfit teenage girl who wanted love and acceptance only to be pushed beyond the brink after a horrible prank on her senior prom after being crowned Prom Queen causes her to have a meltdown of cataclysmic proportions—oh yeah, she had the power of telekinesis which would cause that rite of passage/descent into horror to be indelibly etched into the minds of movie-goers for years to come, including this one here.

I was only 12 years old when it was shown on a local syndicated television network. I was already familiar with Sissy Spacek's work and, of course, John Travolta had been a mainstay on TV shows/movies like Welcome Back, Kotter, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, and I was actually aware of his 1981 film with De Palma called Blow Out, in which he re-teamed with his Carrie co-star Nancy Allen. The film was heavily edited for television, but the story intrigued me. Having been a victim of bullying and of abuse via religion, somehow the story spoke volumes to me.

The most terrifying character as it stands would be Margaret White, played memorably by the iconic Piper Laurie, who plays the character so matter-of-factly that it left many a shudder in me. She played Carrie White's criminally-insane, fundamentalist Christian mother who barricades her daughter in a closet, forcing her to pray to a wax figure of a bleeding Jesus (actual fact, it was a statuette of St. Sebastian) and to swear off socializing at school, fearing it would lead to sex. What makes this woman an absolute monster is that all of her misguided Christian-oppression disguised as motherly love is a very blatant form of child abuse. The film never underlines this fact, but Laurie, under De Palma's brilliant direction, gives a pull-out-all-the-stops performance that makes the character far more human than we really want. The Oscar-nominated performance after a 16-year absence would cement her in the annals of horror movie-dom as the always-scary standby: The Mother from Hell.

The 1976 Poster

The 1976 one-sheet subway and billboard poster

Sissy Spacek in the Iconic Title Role

Courtesy of MGM Pictures

Here's the plot as best as I can describe it. Sissy Spacek (an Oscar-nominee herself in this, her most famous film role) is ugly duckling high school senior, Carrie White, a bullied misfit who has just had her first-ever menstrual period. It's here that her telekinetic powers manifest. She's afraid of the extent of them, but trains her herself to control them. After a shower room tampon-pelting incident, two girls are about to decide Carrie's fate. Sue Snell (Amy Irving in her film debut) is the repentant good popular girl who is genuinely sorry for abusing Carrie for something she was clearly ignorant about. How to make amends? She gives up her high school prom date, her popular jock boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt, also debuting), in order to integrate her into the student body.

The opposing force? Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen, also a debut and who would star in De Palma's two seminal thrillers: Dressed to Kill (1980) and Blow Out (1981) and was briefly married to him as well), who just outright hates Carrie. Reasons we don't know, but let's assume that maybe Carrie is the better human being in the whole school? She learns of the prom-date-torch-passing and vows to make Carrie pay for just being killing a live pig, draining its blood into a bucket; hiding under the stage with a rope tying the bucket to the rafters and waiting for the right moment to tip it over. Her dim-witted boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta in an early film role) assists and allows Chris to rig the prom so that both Carrie and Tommy are voted King and Queen. It's a fun night at first, with even Carrie's protective gym teacher (Betty Buckley) giving them her blessing. But, as the names are announced, we get the slow-motion treatment of the happy couple (with Sue happily bearing witness, until she begins to notice the rope). We sense the impending disaster looming and when the bucket finally tips over...

*SPOILER ALERT ( know what? Why bother?)*

For a 41-year-old horror film, we should know what happens by now. It had a 1999 sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2, a 2002 remake, and a 2013 reboot (more on that later). It even had not one, not two, but SEVERAL musical stage versions! The Stephen King story had been translated into many languages, was used in many subplots and even had its classic shock-through-the-throat ending re-imagined by many horror movie director from here to Timbuktu. This film, as well as the novel, also raised awareness about high school bullying, which is a major plus—but, in turn, has also been heavily banned in many high school libraries due to connections with school massacres such as Columbine and Virginia Tech, among many others.

In conclusion, the film and story touch an open nerve. A real horror movie can do that. This one does it, and does it admirably. Horror stories are just an extension of drama and a really great horror story, much like drama, can also have a great impact on its audience. While the opening films I mentioned are all brilliant in their own right; this film had something those didn't have or have enough of: pathos. You feel compassion toward the Sissy character (a testament to Spacek's incredible performance), at least, if it's something you can relate to.

Another credit will go to director Brian De Palma, a controversial filmmaker who has opened many a nerve with his brazen, in-your-face style and films as unapologetic as Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise, The Fury, Dressed to Kill, Body Double, The Untouchables, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, Mission to Mars, Femme Fatale, and Passion. This, and his wildly controversial film, his 1983 remake of Scarface, with superstar Al Pacino, were both daring and potent films that dared to cross the line and even have we (the audience) empathize and care about its anti-heroes; one being an abused teenager who descends into tragedy and the other, a drug kingpin who creates, revels in, and is undone by his own tragedy.

A true horror classic. One never forgotten by me, and it never will be.

My Two Cents: Yes, I also made the mistake of seeing the Kimberly Peirce 2013 reboot (remake, re-hash, repeat offender: blah-blah-blah). I will admit I didn't hate it. As I said, the Stephen King story is timeless and was well-planted into the 2010's; but despite Julianne Moore's chilling interpretation of Margaret White and a solid turn by Judy Greer as the sympathetic gym teacher, Ms. Desjardin (Betty Buckley's "Miss Collins" in the 1976 film), I found Chloë Grace Moretz woefully miscast in the title role. Yes, she's a terrific actress and has given many memorable performances, such as Let Me In (2010) and Hugo (2011), but I felt was too pretty for the role. She was serviceable, but never surpassed the brilliant Sissy Spacek performance.

I've said it before, I'll say it again. There's NEVER a substitute for the original. Time to eat my pork sandwich!

Next Up: The ol' Blockhead's first Halloween, with the Red Baron.


About the Creator

Carlos Gonzalez

A passionate writer and graphic artist looking to break into the BIG TIME! Short stories, scripts and graphic art are my forte! Brooklyn N.Y. born and raised. Living in Manchester, Connecticut! Working on two novels now!

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