Classic modern horror doesn’t get any more classic than Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976)—arguably the best film adaptation of a Stephen King novel ever made, with the possible exception of Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). Here—as in perhaps no other film—De Palma’s non-stop stylistic flourishes completely complement and enhance the proceedings. While his flashy style is invariably entertaining, it rarely melds this well with the material. This is one of those rare films where—in 1976—you actually saw things you’d never seen before. Add to this the absolutely magnificent performances of Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie (both Oscar-nominated, both shamefully passed over by voters) and that classic—the classic—shocker ending and you have something very close to a perfect horror movie. And more.
In 1976 few people really knew what Carrie might be because few people knew much of anything about De Palma. His earlier films were little seen and his rock ‘n’ roll horror comedy Phantom of the Paradise (1974) had never gone beyond cult status. (Though it was here he found his Carrie, Sissy Spacek, who had served as set dresser for her husband, production designer Jack Fisk.) His other 1976 film, Obsession, only barely beat Carrie into theaters and hadn’t exactly set the world on fire. Audiences in general had little clue about his style—the flashy camerawork, the split-screen work—and even those who did weren’t really prepared for the sensuality revealed here. And—though it’s demonstrable, on examination, that the shock ending is constantly telling you that what you’re seeing isn’t real—that ending scene was like something out of the blue.
Looked at as something more than a horror movie, Carrie isn’t just the ultimate high school nerd revenge fantasy, but it’s a particularly terrifying look at repressive religious beliefs. Both of these elements are taken to levels never previously attempted—and perhaps never attained in any subsequent film. Piper Laurie’s portrayal of Carrie’s sexually repressed fundamentalist mother is one of the most chilling in the history of horror—and years of parodying her “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” line (thank you, Adam Sandler) have done nothing to dim its power in context. While a lot of 1970s horror doesn’t always hold up, Carrie is a film that seems as fresh today as it did in 1976.