In seeing his best-selling 1974 debut novel "Carrie" turned into a studio-made 1976 feature film, author Stephen King could not have possibly asked for a better adaptation. Transcending the written page of an unorthodox book consisting almost exclusively of newspaper and magazine articles, letters, and transcript excerpts, director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen mount a stirring, spellbinding coming-of-age drama with an unflinching horror bent. From its opening moments wherein high school outcast Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) gets her period for the first time in the girls' locker room and is accosted with tampons by her snooty, "plug it up!"-chanting classmates, the film introduces an uncompromising suburban world and a title protagonist so vulnerable, sympathetic and true it is easy to forget one is in a classically frightening Stephen King tale. There is enough, after all, scary about adolescence before vicious pranks, religious zealotry, and telekinetic vengeance are added to the equation.
Sheltered all her life by her Christian fundamentalist mother Margaret (Piper Laurie), Carrie White feels as if she has never been given a chance to become a whole person. Most of the popular kids at school, led by nasty queen-bee Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), treat her like a pariah, and this treatment only threatens to get worse when she is left confused and assaulted after the aforementioned insinuating circumstance in the locker room. Margaret is appalled by the news Carrie has fully reached puberty"You're a woman now," she says with disdaininsisting she pray for forgiveness for her sins. As it turns out, Carrie's feminine rite of passage comes with another discovery about herself: the miraculous ability to move objects with her mind. Feeling guilty over joining in with the other girls in their bullying of Carrie, Sue Snell (Amy Irving) seeks to make amends by convincing boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt) to invite her to the Prom. Carrie cautiously accepts, but, as preparations for the big night kick into high gear, Chris conspires to play a cruel trick on Carrie that no one will forget.
Guided by a pair of brilliant Oscar-nominated performances from Sissy Spacek (whose biggest role to this point had been 1973's Terrence Malick-helmed "Badlands") and Piper Laurie (previously Academy Award-nominated for 1961's "The Hustler"), "Carrie" is one of cinema's ultimate operatic teenage melodramas. For 98 riveting minutes, the film drifts by in an intoxicating wave, observing not only Carrie and her alienating experiences at school and home, but also that of her peers. If Sue has a good heart and selflessly wants to give Carrie a night to remember, the vindictive Chris stands forever in a self-made spotlight, blaming Carrie for her own actions and manipulating those around herincluding boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) and cap-wearing best friend Norma (P.J. Soles)to assist in a heartless plan to humiliate her.
As the story's chess pieces move strategically into place, the viewer recoils, hoping for a stop to the inevitable. De Palma toys with emotions in the best way, getting his audience to care deeply about Carrie, about Tommy, about empathetic gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), before the bucket of pig's blood is dumped. Wearing a gorgeous pink dress she has sewn herself ("I should have known it would be red," her mother says upon seeing it, betrayal in her voice), Carrie does not make a fool of herself as she enters the Prom, but is finally, gradually, seen as someone more than the weird, quiet girl in English class. It's a winning moment, and it's followed by two other transcendent scenes: one where Carrie bonds with Miss Collins as the teacher remembers her own Prom, and another where Carrie and Tommy dance to Katie Irving's "I Never Dreamed Someone Like You Could Love Someone Like Me," the camera swirling around them as she gets her first true taste of what it feels like to be accepted.
The exquisiteness of "Carrie" is in the unerring intimacy of its character study. Carrie is loved by the filmmakers and, by extension, the viewer, treated like a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood person. Rarely has the marriage between performer and role been as perfect as that of Sissy Spacek as Carrie. She is phenomenal in the part, never seeming to be acting, believable as a freckle-faced wallflower and also as someone who blossoms naturally before our eyes. By the third act, her happiness means everything, which makes the sting of what comes next so lacerating. Using deeply saturated lighting, unsparingly sharp editing, Pino Donaggio's iconic musical orchestrations, and deft split-screens which aid in ramping up the horror of Carrie's uncontrollable, psychologically shattered revenge, De Palma concocts a chilling climax every bit as shocking whether it's being seen the first or the one-hundredth time.
As Margaret White, Piper Laurie is blissfully, horrifically over-the-top in a role that calls for it. She is not a one-note villain, however; in her own warped, fanaticized way, she loves her daughter and believes her actions toward her to be righteous. The fateful confrontation between Carrie and Margaret during the finale is a thing of harrowing terror, reaching Shakespearean levels of grim poeticism. Supporting turnsamong them, Nancy Allen as Chris Hargensen, John Travolta as boyfriend Billy Nolan, Amy Irving as Sue Snell, William Katt as Tommy Ross, Betty Buckley as Miss Collins, and P.J. Soles as Normaare excellent across the board, each one fashioning an indelible, individualistic figure.
I have seen "Carrie" more times than I can count, and yet it never loses its uncommon heartbreak and blood-curdling dramatic power. While every character nuance and narrative beat can, by now, be anticipated right down to the second they occur, it doesn't stop me from longing for a different ending for Carrie White, an alternate reality where she is emboldened by her positive experience at the Prom, comes out of her withdrawn shell, breaks away from the clutches of her unhealthy home life with her mother, and ultimately moves away to the big city following graduation as a strong, independent woman standing on the precipice of the 1980s. It's wishful thinking, of course. Carrie will never have any of this. She will never leave high school. She will never go on to a career, and see her ambitions fulfilled. She will never be able to share with others the love that is so purely in her heart. For just a taste, though, as she simultaneously loses and finds herself on the dance floor with Tommy Ross, she senses all of this could be the future for which she is destined. That, above all else, is both the profound tragedy and the bittersweet beauty of "Carrie."