The King of Summer: Carrie (1976)
Brian De Palma is a director known for creating gorgeous imagery out of perverse themes and narratives, especially in his erotic thrillers like Dressed to Kill and Body Double. Famously inspired by Alfred Hitchcock, De Palma took great care in filming unique, poetic sequences with the music, set design, editing, and camerawork acting as instruments in a symphony. His adaptation of Stephen King’s first novel Carrie is a dreamlike horror movie. The film is lurid, inspiring conflicting emotions with a motif of duality running throughout the film.
Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) is a shy, socially inept high school senior who is raised by her abusive religious fanatic mother Margaret (Piper Laurie). Carrie gets her first period at the age of 16 while at school. Frightened, she pleads for help from her classmates including alpha girl Chris (Nancy Allen) but instead the other girls throw tampons at her shouting “plug it up!” This traumatic experience unleashes Carrie’s dormant telekinetic powers, as Chris hatches a plan to humiliate Carrie even further.
I personally haven’t read the Stephen King, but from my reading about it I learned that the film makes one big deviation from the novel. King’s book has Carrie show signs of her telekinetic powers throughout her childhood while the film offers no reference to that. I do like that the movie doesn’t have any flashbacks or explanations for Carrie’s power—it just is and it becomes unlocked after a particularly horrifying experience. I also like that Carrie does not have much control over her powers. Carrie makes her a more empathetic anti-hero when her inner rage and sadness manifest themselves through her telekinesis but even she does not understand its depths.
Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) is sympathetic to Carrie, giving her advice and actually caring about her, but even she expresses annoyance at Carrie’s lack of social skills. This duality of emotion is what De Palma puts his audience through. We want Carrie to fit in and but also are frustrated that she can’t get a grip, we enjoy Chris being slapped by Miss Collins and ostracized by her clique, even though it’s just another form of teenage alienation. Even at the prom, we are excited that Carrie gets to have her fairy tale prom, even though we’re all waiting for that bucket of blood to fall on her. King’s story is one of revenge against the bully, and De Palma enhances it by forcing the audience to question its own identifications, biases, and wish fulfillments. It’s satisfying to see Carrie get her revenge, but is it actually warranted? Much like Hitchcock, De Palma puts the audience in the uncomfortable position of being both the victim and the victimizer.
The dramatic irony in the film is really interesting, as it allows you to indulge in fantasy while also keeping reality at the back of the mind. Even Carrie herself knows that her prom night is just a dream. While she and Tommy Ross (William Katt) share a whisper of an attraction, he’s still a date on loan from Sue Snell (Amy Irving). Sue thinks that giving Carrie the perfect prom will help her, but everything Sue does has the opposite result—even trying to stop Chris’ prank. De Palma exploits King’s ironic and cruel tale through his melodramatic, heightened style, like Carrie and Tommy’s dance. De Palma transforms the story into some kind of deranged Cinderella story.
I always forget that Carrie is a Stephen King novel because for me the De Palma film is such a singular work of visual storytelling. Also, I don’t really think of King as a feminist author, but of course I can’t say whether the film is better than the book. By most accounts, King is satisfied with this film version. In an interview in 2010, King told Christy Arnold the movie is dated but good. The novel has been banned in several school districts, presumably for its violence and sexual undertones. The novel has since become influential, since the story has spawned multiple film versions and an infamous Broadway musical. It’s not hard to see why since the story is so universal, the characters sharply drawn, and the violence so visceral. While I think the De Palma film has become the definitive take, it all spawned from King’s writing.