Dir. Brian De Palma
(1976, R, 98 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Does evil like this really exist? By now we know it does. Of course, I’m not referring to Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the teenage girl who discovers she has telekinetic power. I’m referring to her classmates. With bullying in the public eye more than ever these days, the tragedy of Carrie takes on a greater meaning. It’s a supernatural metaphor for the way kids treat each other, with all the pain and anger and loneliness of adolescence manifested in flying objects, fire, and bloodshed.

Piper Laurie, as Margaret

Of course, we all know what happens when you take Carrie to the prom; the ending is the most famous part. Carrie is the subject of a cruel prank. More than a prank really. This one requires careful planning, preparation, and collusion. It’s more like a covert op, whose sole objective is to inflict emotional violence on a vulnerable outcast girl. It has to be sophisticated; Carrie is smart and has rightly learned to suspect everyone and everything, so getting her to drop her guard is half the battle. Imagine what these kids could accomplish if they pursued interests beyond sadism.

At the outset I expected a revenge fantasy, but the film surprises by how sad it is. There is no vicarious thrill in watching Carrie take her revenge after being humiliated at the prom, because wee see that not all of her victims are guilty. Some were trying to help her. Two classmates seem to have been involved in the plot all along but are revealed to have been sincere, which compounds the tragedy. Their act of kindness was one act too late.

The film is directed by Brian De Palma, who has never been accused of subtlety, and for a while the film suffers from excesses that push the film into camp, in particular the scenes involving Carrie’s abusive mother Margaret (Piper Laurie, Oscar-nominated), who launches into religious tirades of such maniacal, bug-eyed fury that the actress seems to be doing wild farce. Do such parents exist? Sure they do, but most of them probably aren’t playing to the cheap seats quite the way Laurie does here.

The film improves exponentially in the build-up to the prom, where De Palma’s bombastic style is a benefit instead of a liability. There’s a long slow-motion sequence after Carrie is announced as prom queen. We know what’s about to happen, we see the conspirators take their places, the trap set to be sprung, and continually the film returns to Carrie’s bright, beaming face. It’s an agonizing march towards the inevitable, the spark on its way to the powder keg. When the violence begins, it plays not as escapism but despair. These last thirty minutes are a master class.

Much of the film’s success is due to the deeply expressive performance of Spacek, who earned her first of six Oscar nods as a girl taking abuse from both ends: from a mother who claims that her menstrual period is punishment for sin and a pitiless student body that throws tampons and taunts her in the shower when it happens. She and De Palma show teenage victimhood with bold, vivid colors. Not the least of those is red.