And Her Mom Thought We Would All Laugh at Her...
Streaming on Netflix | 1976 | R | 98 minutes
Genre: Horror—or, an occult coming-of-age vengeance narrative? You be the judge!
Why I watched: Carrie lingers so significantly in our cultural memory that everyone from Rhianna to Grey's Anatomy has made a reference to the horror flick. While I'd seen the classic on TCM several times growing up, I had never screened the theatrical version in full until recently. There aren't too many differences between the two—except that the TV version pares down a notable opening credits sequence set over slow-motion locker room footage that would never pass FCC muster.
You might also like: Why not watch another Stephen King novel turned seminal horror flick? Pet Sematary (1989) is available to rent on iTunes, Prime, etc. right now. Want something Carrie-adjacent but less conflicted in terms of granting female agency? Look no further than Teeth (2007), a very good bad movie about a virtuous high school student with a, uh, mythical line of defense against men. And while his 2013 attempt at a remake of Carrie didn't go well, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa did manage to rework the film for 2018 in the form of Riverdale's "Carrie: The Musical" episode (Season 2, Episode 18, Netflix).
I was absolutely torn this week about whether or not to recommend Carrie. Women have suffered enough, right? But the more I thought about it, this might be exactly the time to watch this film about a high school girl who is bullied and ostracized, abused and torn down. Until, that is, she realizes she has certain... abilities, and can basically do whatever the heck she wants. Wouldn't that be nice?
Carrie—published by Double Day Books in 1974 with an initial print run of only 13,000 copies (!)—was Stephen King's first novel to hit it big. After the Brian De Palma–directed movie adaptation, the novel went on to sell over four million copies and made King a household name. The film (and novel) are about Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a loner and the only daughter of a fundamentalist Christian mother (Piper Laurie). When Carrie gets her period in the locker room shower, she's terrified, and the event leads her peers to tease her and her mother to condemn her. Menstrual blood is, after all, evidence of Eve's original sin, according to Mrs. White. (If you know nothing else about Carrie, you know that basically it's all about blood...)
I hate to get too theoretical here, but we can also interpret the blood between Carrie's legs as the embodiment of male fear, announcing to its audience that women are basically terrifying. Picture this: You're a male viewer, watching a bunch of cute teen girls bounce up and down in a locker room and then, WHAM! If you think I'm crazy, take this quote of King's into account: "Carrie is largely about how women find their own channels of power, and what men fear about women and women's sexuality... which is only to say that, writing the book in 1973... I was fully aware of what Women's Liberation implied. ... The book is... an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality." The film was a product of its time, playing on male anxieties about female empowerment. Of course, that empowerment is ultimately punished in the scope of this film. But not before Carrie gets her revenge!
Putting aside the film's complicated feminism, Carrie is a cinematic treat. Sissy Spacek's and Piper Laurie's acting is phenomenal, earning both women Academy Award nominations. The film also delivers one of the first terrifying prom scenes, a number of which have appeared since (e.g., Prom Night, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.). After Carrie, De Palma's version of an extreme Dutch angle camera shot became a staple of low-budget horror (notably by Sam Raimi for his The Evil Dead franchise, 1981–1992.) And you know that image of a hand popping up from a grave that you've seen a zillion times in scary screenings? That also originated with Carrie. Oh! And this flick is also a very young John Travolta's first theatrical release.
It feels wrong in some ways to take horror movies out of their historical contexts. They rarely pack the same punch that they did when they were initially released, both because of the ever-changing sociopolitical climate as well as the rapid progress of audiovisual technology. For example, it's just as hard for me not to think of school shootings when I watch the prom scene as it is for me not to notice how cheesy the special effects are throughout. Suspend judgement, though, and take Carrie for what it is: A book that wasn't supposed to do all that well, that became a low-budget horror film that wasn't supposed to garner critical acclaim, that earned two Oscar noms and a became a touchstone reference in American popular culture.