It might be exaggerating to call Carrie a good film, since it’s unabashedly campy and lurid, but there’s no arguing with results—among other things, the movie earned two Oscar nominations, elevated director Brian De Palma to A-list status, turned leading lady Sissy Spacek into a star, initiated an epic relationship between Hollywood and novelist Stephen King, and became one of the most popular horror movies of the ’70s. Considering that the flick is so trashy it features beaver shots beneath the opening credits and culminates with a blood-soaked teenager using telekinesis to slaughter her classmates, that’s quite a list of accolades.
Based on King’s first novel, Carrie tells the sad story of Carrie White (Spacek), a misfit American teenager so ignorant to the ways of the world that she freaks out upon getting her first period while showering in the school gym. Her vicious classmates, led by instigator Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), taunt Carrie mercilessly, pelting her with sanitary napkins, so Carrie is excused from school for the rest of the day. Once she returns home, we discover the source of Carrie’s troubles—her lunatic mother, Margaret White (Piper Laurie), is a Bible-thumping abuser who considers sexual development sinful and tortures Carrie with long imprisonments in a closet.
As Carrie reels from the shower incident and her troubles at home, she discovers the ability to move objects with her mind. Meanwhile, Chris is banned from the upcoming prom—indirect punishment for tormenting Carrie—so she plans grotesque revenge. Adding a final thread to the story is Carrie’s sympathetic classmate Sue (Amy Irving), who persuades her dreamboat boyfriend, Tommy (William Katt), to take Carrie to the prom. One bucket of pig blood later, it all goes to hell.
De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen took relatively few liberties with King’s narrative, so they delivered his signature combination of gore and pathos intact, and Carrie zooms along at tremendous speed. Excepting two ill-conceived comedic sequences (both of which feature cringe-inducing music), Carrie is laser-focused on developing empathy for the protagonist and setting up a Grand Guignol climax. Generally speaking, Carrie is an efficient movie, and some of the picture’s elements exist on an elevated plane. De Palma’s trademark tracking shots manifest in full force, for instance (though the shots are akin to guitar solos in overwrought hard-rock songs, flamboyance for the sake of flamboyance). Additionally, De Palma uses the supporting cast like an orchestra, getting exactly the right single note each from Allen, Irving, Katt, Laurie, and others (including Betty Buckley and John Travolta).
Spacek’s Oscar-nominated performance holds Carrie together, since her character’s emotional journey drives the story. As played by Spacek, Carrie is fragile during early scenes, ferocious when assaulting her enemies, and poignant once she realizes the tragic fate to which she has been consigned. De Palma’s ending represents his biggest departure from King’s book, and while the film’s concise denouement is more cinematic than the protracted conclusion of King’s narrative, it’s a bit much, right up to the notorious “gotcha” coda. Once again, however, there’s no arguing with results; Carrie made such an impression that it earned a Broadway adaptation in 1988, a low-budget movie sequel in 1999, and big-budget movie remakes in 2002 and 2013.