It’s tricky as this date to really define when modern horror starts. Some place it with the beginning of Hammer Films in the late 1950s. Others start it with Psycho in 1960. And there are those who see it as beginning with the more permissive era that began in 1968 with the advent of the ratings system. In any case, horror has been “modern” for some considerable time now. Classic modern horror is easier to define, because…well, honestly, there’s not all that much of it that’s clearly in the classic category. But 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), which is a pretty specialized exception. King himself has said that the film of Carrie is better than his book.
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. No one had ever encountered anything like the giddy, almost hallucinatory shot where Carrie (Sissy Spacek) and Tommy Ross (William Katt) dance at the ill-fated prom. Add to this the absolutely magnificent performances of Spacek and Piper Laurie (both Oscar-nominated, both shamefully passed over by voters because, well, it was a horror picture) 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 as a staple minight movie long before Rocky Horror. (Though it was on Phantom De Palma 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. It quickly became a genre staple that everyone — including De Palma — tried duplicate and never did.
The shrewdness of the film lies in part in the way it carefully turns Carrie from victim into something like a normal girl before reaching its inevitable — and extended — horrific climax. Earlier in the film, it’s possible to feel sorry for Carrie, but she’s so completely a victim that she threatens to become tiresome. The way her character becomes more and more self-assured over the course of the film, the more it becomes possible to actually like her. The genius, however, really lies in the early scenes at the prom where she becomes lovable and hopeful — to such a degree that it’s hard not to hope that she’ll somehow escape the fate awaiting her. De Palma’s handling of the whole, key prom sequence is masterful. He actually manages to make this prom seem as magical to the viewer as it is for Carrie (whose prom ever had bands this good?) — before he pulls the rug out from under everything. Just as remarkable is that he is able to keep the film compelling for another 20 minutes after its big set-piece.
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 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.
The Asheville Film Society is showing Carrie Wednesday, Oct. 29, at 7:30 p.m. in at The Carolina Asheville as part of the Budget Big Screen series. Admission is $6 for AFS members and $8 for the general public. Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther will introduce the film.