There’s a truly inspired transition at the start of Carrie (1976): poor little Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a high school senior who still looks pre-pubescent, flubs a volleyball triumph for her team, her P.E. class draws to a close, and lithe, blonde classmate Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) walks up to her and says, “Eat shit!” Hard cut to the locker room, the camera gliding through plumes of steam and naked young women, everything slowed down for lyrical effect, the music pretty, corny. I imagine director Brian DePalma pitching Carrie to potential producers and getting stopped at this point: “Naked girls! Tastefully draped in steam!” Even before he gets to the telekinesis, the blowjob, the pig’s blood shower, it’s already green-lit. And we in the audience already know we’re in the hands of a filmmaker who will shower us with great craftsmanship and flagrant trash. (There’s more ogling to come in the detention sequence, when every female in sight, the jealous P.E. teacher included, wears extremely short-shorts. Does it matter that all the actresses playing teenagers were actually in their mid- to late-twenties?)
The story begins properly with what happens next: Carrie in the shower, initially consoled, then appalled and panicked to discover blood pouring from between her legs. This moment too tells us a lot about the sensibility of the director—who never saw a Hitchcock film he didn’t want to remake—with the first of several winks to Psycho (1960): the fragmented shots of Carrie luxuriating, Janet Leigh-like, under that conspicuously penisy showerhead, the ominous god’s-eye view shots of rooms, the Bernard Herrmannesque violin shrieks on the soundtrack, the oppressive mother, the fact that much of Carrie is set at Bates High School. With that unexpected flow (“Blood, Mother, blood!”) and Carrie leaps from serene to hysterical in seconds. The girls are cruel. Who cares that Carrie’s never even heard of menstruation, let’s pelt her with tampons! (The source material was Stephen King’s first published novel, so in a sense he too was losing his innocence.)
From here on it’s a matter of inevitability. Carrie’s classmates get in trouble for harassing her, Chris plans an elaborate revenge involving animal slaughter, while Sue Snell (Amy Irving) feels bad and convinces her poodle-pyramid-haired boyfriend (William Katt) to take Carrie to the prom. John Travolta shows up, smiling so vigorously he can’t even get beer into his mouth. Piper Laurie plays Carrie’s sadistic, sexually repressed Jesus freak single mom at a level of melodramatic mania that’s hard to match—though her “dirty pillows” bit is easily one of my favourite lines in cinema history. Nancy Allen licks her lips in close-up and gets slapped a lot, while DePalma gets drunk on the power of deep focus and, for better or for worse, takes none of this seriously—he plays it all for camp. But Spacek is a revelation, delivering a genius performance; she’s truly heartbreaking in those nervous scenes leading up to her prom night humiliation (“Blood, Mother, blood!”) and subsequent revenge on her entire high school. We can’t help but identify with Spacek: being a teenager is already a kind of horror movie. Carrie is a flawlessly constructed, winky, sleazy slab of ’70s pop horror, but, thanks to Spacek and something innately fascinating and resonant in the material, it remains a movie for the ages. As the final dream scene implies, Carrie will never die.