Like Jaws a year before it, Carrie is one of the great happy accidents in horror cinema. Stephen King almost threw away his debut novel out of artistic frustration, and was only paid $2,500 for the film rights. The production was underfunded by United Artists and its director, Brian De Palma, lacked commercial viability, having had only a modest hit with Obsession. But out of this potential disappointment came an engrossing and terrifying film, one of the best Stephen King adaptations and perhaps the high point of De Palma's career.
Like a lot of Stephen King adaptations, there was a relatively small gap between Carrie being published as a novel and the film version being released. The only contemporary production with a shorter turnaround was Christine¸ which went from a novel in April 1983 to being filmed by John Carpenter that same summer and being released in December. Hence it is difficult to judge how much of the film's success lies in De Palma's direction and how much of it lies in the source material.
De Palma's biggest contribution, from a narrative point of view, is to take such a relatively simple premise - a high-school girl with telekinetic powers - and explore it over 90 minutes with precious little in the way of padding. Because Carrie was originally intended as a short story, it has an inbuilt modesty which is absent from It or The Shining. But what it lacks in epic storytelling it, more than makes up for in its thematic depth and the intense believability of its characters.
Carrie at its most basic is about the horrors of high school: the bullying, the peer pressure, the feeling of being an outcast and, in an exaggerated way, having to live up to the expectations of one's parents. Its influence can clearly be seen in everything from Michael Lehmann's cult classic Heathers to more mainstream efforts like Mean Girls. The opening sequence in the showers sets up the majority of the girls as school as utterly repulsive. Their rapid-fire, everybody-talks-at-once dialogue is obnoxious for all the right reasons, and their posing, pulchritudinous bodies are in stark contrast to Carrie, who is so gaunt and wiry that you might mistake her for Gollum.
Within this context, Carrie's telekinesis represents her burgeoning adolescent rage. It begins as something over which she has very little control, but over the course of the film she learns to focus it and use it sparingly. The film uses telekinesis in the same way that Let The Right One In uses vampirism, as a means of expressing a deep emotional reaction to the world by placing it outside of oneself. But as with the final scenes in Let The Right One In, Carrie's abilities are not entirely within her grasp, and at the prom there is still a question of whether she is controlling her powers or the other way around.
Carrie is also about the suffocating influence of religion, and in particular its role in the repression and persecution of women. Carrie's mother is a Christian fundamentalist who believes that menstrual bleeding is an indication of sin. When punishing Carrie she continually recites the phrase "Eve was weak" and forces her daughter to repeat it, to confess to a crime that she has committed simply by being born a woman.
The mother, played with abandon by Piper Laurie, is essentially a sadomasochistic character. She derives pleasure in the form of spiritual vindication from both inflicting pain on Carrie and by condemning herself. By believing that all women are cursed and sinful, she is submitting herself and her daughter to a greater will, allowing herself to be punished both alongside her daughter and on her behalf. The deep bond between mother and daughter is paralleled by the bond between sex and spirituality. The mother's gasps as she dies are borderline orgasmic, and she dies in the same pose as the icon of Christ in Carrie's closet.
The Biblical connotations of Carrie are not confined to the position of women. Carrie's bleeding is interpreted as not just punishment for her own sins, but for the sins of her mother and father. Towards the end of the film, it is revealed that Margaret White slept with Carrie's father outside of wedlock, the implication being that Carrie is illegitimate. The father left the family, perhaps because of the pregnancy, perhaps because he was intimated by Margaret's personality or her faith. For whatever reason, the mother's guilt for that sin is laid upon Carrie; she implicates her daughter because she cannot face and atone for her own sin.
In this sense Carrie is immediately comparable to A Nightmare on Elm Street, which dealt with the theme of the sins of the father in a more surrealistic way. But there are also strong connections with Suspiria, Dario Argento's giallo masterpiece which was in pre-production when Carrie was released. Both films are very stylish and striking in their manipulation of colour. Mario Tosi's cinematography contains the same shimmering blues and Technicolor reds that Argento's work features in abundance.
But more than that, both Carrie and Suspiria have huge elements of fairy tales about them. Where Suspiria is modelled on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Carrie is a reworking of Cinderella with the final act subverted. Instead of a handsome prince coming to save the day and everything working out fine, Carrie descends into hell, embracing her extraordinary powers and losing all feelings for anyone else. In this context Carrie's classmates are the ugly sisters (with the handsome prince being in on the act) and Margaret is the wicked stepmother, a further indication that Carrie is illegitimate.
The film simply wouldn't work without the performance of Sissy Spacek, who is nothing short of phenomenal. Having first come to prominence in Badlands, Spacek was originally cast to play Christine Hargensen, the role which eventually went to Nancy Allen. Determined to change De Palma's mind, she smeared Vaseline into her hair and turned up to the final audition in a dress she wore in seventh grade. She brings a heart-breaking fragility to the role, making us feel so strongly for her character that we almost find ourselves cheering in the midst of her carnage. The image of the blood-stained Carrie walking home, or climbing the stairs into the attic, is simultaneously touching and terrifying.
The only thing which prevents Carrie from being a full-blooded masterpiece is some of De Palma's visual trickery. Many of his decisions work well, adding to the tone and substance of the film. When Carrie and Tommy are dancing, the camera is at a Dutch angle and twirls around at a faster pace than the couple. This and the final dream sequence, which was filmed in reverse, successfully reinforce the magical, fairy tale quality of the story. And the use of slow-motion up to and include the pig blood falling do add a real sense of tension.
But once the pig blood hits the fan, De Palma gets carried away and his visual decisions undercut the climactic scene. Using split-screen undermines the sense of unbridled panic we are meant to have: by asking us to focus on two different things at once, we both lose a sense of scale and find it hard to focus on the often-poetic justice being meted out to. The Metropolis-style kaleidoscope view of people laughing doesn't contribute all that much, and the looping of her mother's voice ("they're all gonna laugh at you!") makes the whole thing feel like the final groove of Sgt. Pepper.
Despite its slightly botched ending and some overly conventional jumps, Carrie is a damn fine film which still has the power to unnerve after 35 years. Spacek's extraordinary performance is supported by some fine work from Nancy Allen and Piper Laurie, along with a brief appearance from John Travolta on the cusp of superstardom. Where De Palma's later works would be memorably shocking, this is shockingly memorable, and remains one of the high points of his often distinguished career.