Stephen King movies revisited: looking back at Carrie

Brian De Palma memorably brought Stephen King's novel Carrie to the screen back in 1976. We take a look at a classic movie chiller...

This article contains spoilers for Carrie.

It’s difficult to imagine cinema without Stephen King. However, all things must begin, and back in 1976, Brian De Palma’s Carrie was the first King adaptation to reach the big screen. In the first of our series on King’s movie adaptations, we break down this cautionary tale of why you should never upset the quiet girl with the latent telekinetic powers.

The film: Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is the shy and quiet girl at the back of the gym class. When she heads into the showers after the lesson, she gets her period. Having been raised by a nightmarish mother (the imperious Piper Laurie), who neglected to mention any of these biological developments to her daughter, Carrie has no clue what is happening and panics. Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), her classmate, leads the taunting and Sue Snell (Amy Irving) joins in.

After a while, Sue feels sorry for Carrie and in order to make up for the bullying treatment she was a part of, convinces her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom. However, Chris’ loathing only grows and she conspires with boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) to ruin Carrie’s night. Little do any of them know that Carrie has been developing telekinetic powers…

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Carrie establishes several aspects and themes that would go on to be recognisably King. It is the fourth novel he wrote, but the first to be published; his wife, Tabitha, famously fished pages out of the garbage and encouraged him to continue. It’s a tale of small-town Americana (or rather, the destruction of it), the cruelty of humanity – and also its capacity for kindness – and criticism of extreme religious views.

The horror genre has always been one of cinema’s most enduring and prolific, but the 1970s was a decade that would herald some of its popular classics. Rosemary’s Baby had been a critical and commercial darling in 1968 and Hollywood, in its characteristic style, seized on the opportunity to capitalise on that success. The Exorcist would hit big in 1973 and Carrie would follow in 1976. Though writer Lawrence D Cohen and director Brian De Palma would bring other changes to King’s novel throughout, it’s a solid adaptation, capturing the disquieting mood of the novel and focusing in on the personal, tragic tale of Carrie White.

Cohen and De Palma focalise the narrative through Carrie’s experiences, rather than those of her eventual victims. When the girls are tormenting her in the locker room, hurling tampons at her naked, bleeding body, it is partly from her perspective; the claustrophobic crowding establishes a base level intensity that then builds as the story progresses. Carrie’s home life is also shown, her mother’s corrupted faith offering the context to why the teen has grown up so naive of how her own body works. The first speech we hear Margaret White give is a warped version of Eve’s curse. Carrie’s bleeding isn’t just biology, it’s the pathway to sin.

Twisted religion is a predominant theme in King’s writing (Mrs Carmody of The Mist might as well be Margaret White’s equally batty cousin) and De Palma uses it here to lace a Gothic horror element through Carrie’s home. The iconography that fills their house is not images of benevolent faith, but of death. There’s a Last Supper in which the gathered apostles seem not to have eyes at all, but dark and staring voids. St Sebastian, his body pierced with arrows, is the idol in Carrie’s cupboard, the eyes given a disturbing glow that seems out of proportion to the rest of his body.

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Margaret’s frequent preaching is another way in which she presents a false version of her religion. Although it sounds as if she is reciting from the Bible because of the linguistic stylisation that Cohen uses for her dialogue, it is entirely fabricated, only bearing a loose resemblance to the Biblical stories Margaret is using to make her point. Not only that, but her religion is violent and vengeful; Carrie is punished by being locked in a cupboard and forced to pray for forgiveness. Margaret also isn’t averse to hitting her daughter in the name of her faith. It is fitting that when Carrie finally takes her revenge on her mother, Margaret’s death is a parodic version of St Sebastian’s pose, her arms spread, knives skewering her hands and body.

Both mental and physical violence are normalised throughout; it is a film of little microaggressions, niggles that slowly build up towards Carrie’s final revenge, like the moment in which Chris is slapped by the gym teacher, Miss Collins, building up to Chris coaxing Billy into slaughtering a pig for the infamous prom night prank. When we finally get to the prom itself, De Palma creates Carrie’s perfect night; Tommy starts to feel an affection towards her and throws himself into making prom something for her to remember.

There’s a magic to the prom scene, all whirling lights and romantic dancing. De Palma almost lets you fall for it, but the dramatic irony of knowing that Chris has got something awful planned echoes through every moment of Carrie’s happiness. When the slow-motion build-up to the cascading pig’s blood starts, the unhurried pace feels merely inconvenient. As we get nearer to the bucket drop, it becomes torturous, an agonising wait for the inevitable that everyone is powerless to stop. It’s a quiet sort of horror, the kind that comes from knowing that Carrie’s perfect night out is about to go tragically wrong, that the bullies get to ruin it for just about everyone. De Palma might not level the whole town as King does, but he ensures that Carrie takes plenty of people out with her when she goes.

At the heart of it all is poor Carrie. The film hinges on Sissy Spacek; she has to balance the quintessential naivety without making Carrie too silly and losing the audience. Spacek almost glides through portions of the film with a flashing steeliness whenever Carrie’s powers come to the fore. It feels like a constant fight between the two qualities, a battle between the side of Carrie that wants to be good and the vengeful side of her telekinesis that eventually wins out. Even then, her humanity is never lost amid the monstrous. She’s still a tragic victim of bullying, just one that happens to be able to flip cars and make them explode with her mind.

Some of the effects may look a little hokey now and the high melodrama with which everything is carried out might not suit some more modern sensibilities, but there’s no denying that Carrie is still a potent, layered film. On its release in 1976, it would become a massive hit and is now quite rightly referred to as one of the best films of the horror genre, while King would go on to become one of the most popular and prolific authors of all time. It’s one hell of a start.

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Scariest moment: Pretty much whenever Piper Laurie is in a scene, whether it’s lurking in the background or in full, wrathful mode. Her chilling monologue was unrehearsed, delivered magnificently on the day to become one of the film’s best scenes. Famously, she initially didn’t buy that De Palma was making a serious film and still insists that Carrie is a black comedy.

Musicality: The instantly recognisable violin screech of Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score is used to emphasise the moments in which Carrie uses her power (another Psycho nod – it is set in Bates High School). Herrmann, having scored De Palma’s Sisters and Obsession, was supposed to work on the film, but died before he could take on the role, leaving composing duties to Pino Dinaggio.

A King thing: It’s the beginning of King’s fascination with children and young people with powers, be it telepathy, telekinesis or pyrotechnics.

• You can read all our revisits of Stephen King movies here.

• What makes a successful Stephen King movie adaptation?