Cult Movies: Brian De Palma’s 1976 horror classic Carrie remains a truly remarkable film

Ralph revisits the high school horror based on Stephen King’s best-selling novel

Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Brian De Palma's 1976 movie Carrie
Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Brian De Palma's 1976 movie Carrie

I ONCE found myself standing next to the actress Sissy Spacek at a gig. Given that said gig was at the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, the kind of event that always lures in the odd Hollywood superstar to unlikely rock shows in the upstairs areas of dodgy downtown bars, that maybe isn’t the most unusual thing that’s ever happened. It still struck me as fairly surreal, though. given that I’d loved her ever since first seeing her in Carrie many moons previously.

I’ve just watched her weave her strange magic in Brian De Palma’s 1976 masterpiece one more time, courtesy of the excellent new extras packed 4K UHD reissue of the film via Arrow Video, and it remains a remarkable performance in a truly remarkable film.

Adapted from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, it’s the uneasy story of a young girl living alone in constant trauma and torment with her single mother (played by Piper Laurie), a rabid fundamentalist Christian who abuses her and rants on endlessly about how she must repent for her general uselessness in life.

If her home life equals relentless misery, things aren’t much better at school, where the timid Carrie is bullied ruthlessly by the popular girls who treat her like something they’d like to scrape off their shoes.

Right at the start of the film, we’re made all too painfully aware of the young girl’s outsider status when we see her humiliated in the locker room showers: her first period arrives unexpectedly and she is mocked mercilessly by all around her.

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Sissy Spacek and William Katt in Carrie
Sissy Spacek and William Katt

This kickstarts a series of events that show Carrie has very special psychic powers and is capable of unleashing real terror into her teenage world.

What makes Carrie so special, though, is the oddly ambivalent attitude the film has to its titular character. Spacek is astonishing in a role that allows her to be both the victim and the monster of the piece, and in the figure of Carrie we’re given one of the most unforgettable teenagers in horror movie history.

Spacek can portray the meek and ultra-shy outsider one minute, then flick to the terrifying evil-bringer of death and mayhem with utter ease. Without a doubt she deserved the Oscar nomination that subsequently came her way.

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek in Carrie
Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek (Courtesy Everett Collection)

The bullies who make her life a misery and get their comeuppance for their efforts are led by Nancy Allen and John Travolta, and there’s a cruelty in their sly performances that make you hate them and wish for their downfall from the first moment you see them on screen.

De Palma ratchets up the tension from the off, but this is much more than a straight ahead revenge fantasy. There’s a sadness and emptiness at the film’s core that captures the average American teen experience perfectly.

All things told, Carrie is little short of a masterpiece. In retrospect, it’s something I should have said to Sissy at that Texas gig. Instead, I just nodded in her direction and returned my gaze to the stage.

Well, I mean, you’ve got to be cool about these things, right?