It seems to be a basic truth in movies that any horror film of any renown that was made before the year 2000 will get a remake after it. Series, one-offs, cult classics, major hits… doesn’t matter, so long as the name has some recognition. And as perhaps no name has more recognition in horror than Stephen King, it shouldn’t be any surprise that the first film ever adapted from one of his novels, Carrie, is getting remade this year.
With the remake just around the corner, I figured it was probably about time I checked out Brian De Palma’s original 1976 version, starring Sissy Spacek.
Carrie is one of those stories where pop culture references have given away virtually all there is to know. Even the original movie poster highlights the events of the very end of the film. Thus any viewer who hasn’t somehow been sheltered completely from exposure to it is watching not to find out what happens, but to see how it gets there. As a result, though it is certainly part of the horror genre, it doesn’t quite feel like a horror film while watching it, so much as a tragedy (albeit a tragedy involving a telekinetic with a fragile psyche.) Viewing the film, the only element that was truly a mystery was the motivations of Sue and Tommy (Amy Irving and William Katt), the only kids to really show any kindness to Carrie. There is, of course, no mystery at all about the motivations of senior class alpha bitch Chris (Nancy Allen), who has all the warmth and humanity of a particularly misanthropic rattlesnake. Even her own boyfriend (John Travolta in a relatively small role) has trouble putting up with her.
If he’d just kicked her out of his car and dumped her, it might have saved everyone a lot of trouble.
The whole situation is a classic demonstration of the worst aspects of bullying. When Carrie has an experience early on that is traumatic due to her upbringing and ignorance, the other girls in gym class start harassing her en masse. One girl starts it, the others join in; it’s a game in mob mentality. When the punishment comes down, most of them view it as the administration being overly harsh; they don’t understand the hurt they’ve caused. Only Sue seems to potentially grasp the fact of her own culpability. Chris puts the blame for her punishment on Carrie. It’s a common aspect of bullying that is seldom shown so clearly in film. The initial bullying is just opportunity and pecking order, but after punishment is received, then it’s personal; the bully puts the onus on the victim for the consequences of the bully’s own actions. It’s small wonder that Nancy Allen’s portrayal of Chris borders on sociopathic, as it involves a similarly narcissistic worldview.
Of course, in the case of Carrie, the kid may have been doomed from day one. The trauma is the direct result of the ignorance caused by the way her mother brings her up. Carrie’s mother, played by Piper Laurie, is frankly more terrifying than Carrie ever could be, as it is clear from early on that she is quite insane. She refuses to teach Carrie about basic biological matters, particularly the menstrual cycle, in the belief that if Carrie never sins, she will never experience them. (Given her apparent views on that aspect of education, it’s a wonder she even allowed Carrie to attend public school; did they not cover that in health class?) When nature takes its course, she harangues Carrie with passages from her own addenda to scripture. Piper Laurie’s performance is terrific, and earned her an Oscar nomination.
Someone slipped past the board of mental health.
Sissy Spacek also earned an Oscar nomination, and just as deservedly. As Carrie, she’s required to sometimes act terrified as she’s being bullied by classmates, and sometimes browbeaten as she’s being bullied by her mother. She has to progress from being shy and withdrawn to showing a growing confidence as her powers develop and as Tommy starts to show kindness to her. She’s a neurotic mess, but she isn’t a one-note character. There’s a lot of nuance in the role as a girl who is both smarter and more capable than she’s been allowed to believe. And, of course, as a girl who becomes completely unhinged in the climax.
There’s never a question of how the film will turn out. Every little action piles on like a tiny stone in the avalanche of inevitability; even the smallest or nicest things are clearly going to end badly. But it’s an engrossing story to watch unfold, thanks to the quality of the actors, and the quality of the writing; and, of course, the direction of Brian De Palma, who perhaps slightly oversells things a few times (the Psycho strings were unnecessary) but generally shows things in exactly the light they need to be shown in.