CARRIE. The legendary horror analysed

Carrie. Almost all of us in our school days had a person in the class who stood out from the rest, was the object of all kinds of ridicule, no one wanted to sit with her in the bench, talk during...

Adrian Szczypiński

13 July 2023

carrie sissy spacek as carrie

Once upon a time, Sir Alfred Hitchcock showed how to instill fear in the viewer without the need to dazzle with butcher shop props. This brilliant creator had many imitators, including some outstanding ones, for whom copying the Master was a directing school. Henri-Georges Clouzot, Roman Polanski, Brian De Palma and even Robert Zemeckis with finesse and inventiveness confirmed the craftsmanship of Hitch’s formal assumptions regarding the role of image, sound, music, editing and clockwork precision of the script in building the noblest horror cinema. After Polanski’s successes, sealed with “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968), in the 1970s Brian De Palma in particular aspired to be the most faithful imitator and creative heir of Hitchcock, making Sisters (1973), Obsession (1976) or the musical pastiche Phantom of the Paradise (1974).

And God created Eve from Adam’s rib
and Eve was weak
and released into the world a raven called sin
and the first sin was coitus
and the Lord cursed her
and it was a blood curse
and cast a second curse on Eve
and it was the curse of childbirth
and in blood and torment Eve gave birth to Cain

School janitor inspiraton

carrie movie poster

The 1970s were also the time of birth of another horror legend, this time a literary one. In 1973, in Hermon, Maine, USA, Stephen King, a humble English teacher, had the idea to write a horror film. The inspiration came from some experiences from his own past. Once working as a janitor in an elementary school, he came across a container of used sanitary pads and tampons in the girls’ restroom. The thought occurred to him, what if one of the students got her first period in the school restroom? Years later, as a teacher, King read a newspaper article about a girl in whose presence objects floated in the air. Scientific analysis of this phenomenon suggested puberty as the driving force.

The prototype of the main character of the planned novel was King’s two friends from elementary school. The first was the class laughing stock. Shy, boisterous, always wearing the same baggy clothes and unable to take care of herself. But one day, she showed up at school completely changed, confident, with new clothes and makeup. Many years later she committed suicide. The other girl looked similarly hopeless every day, and she also suffered from epileptic seizures. She lived only with her mother in a small house in the suburbs. Both were extremely religious. A few years later, due to an attack of the disease, this girl also died. Describing the medical-emotional details of the main character’s upbringing, King felt awkward enough to throw the forthcoming Carrie into the bin. King’s wife, Tabitha, pulled it out, convincing her husband to continue working. King’s friend, the owner of the Doubleday publishing house, became interested in the finished novel. King reworked the last 50 pages at his request, and a few weeks later Carrie saw the light of day, becoming the debut writer’s first success.

carrie novel cover

A few months later, thanks to Lawrence D. Cohen, who got his hands on Carrie in early 1974, the novel started gaining some traction among filmmakers. While looking for a producer for a future adaptation of the novel, he found Paul Monash in Los Angeles. Cohen was skeptical of Monash, but upon hearing that he held the film rights to King’s debut novel, he immediately accepted the offer to write a screenplay based on “Carrie.” Work on the film began at United Artists, whose bosses chose a young and talented thriller director, Brian De Palma, who, after reading the novel, was eager to adapt it to the screen. The filming took place from May to July 1976.

The object of all kids of ridicule

– We feel for you, Cassie…
– I’m Carrie!

Almost all of us in our school days had a person in the class who stood out from the rest, was the object of all kinds of ridicule, no one wanted to sit with her in the bench, talk during breaks or give hints during the test. Such was the fate of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the only daughter of Margaret White (Piper Laurie), a lonely religious fanatic, mentally and physically isolating her offspring from normal life. Carrie, a senior student, is the laughing stock of the school, especially since the memorable day when, after a volleyball game, while bathing in the school shower, she noticed with horror the blood flowing from her insides…

carrie shower scene sissy spacek

The unprecedented delay of a first period especially for her age, causing mindless aggression in her dim-witted classmates, is just an overture to extraordinary abilities that Carrie herself is just beginning to comprehend with her frightened, but intelligent and receptive mind. In moments of great mental tension, objects suddenly start moving around the girl – the lamp under the ceiling of the women’s cloakroom breaks, the ashtray on the school principal’s desk suddenly leaves its place, the rude kid on the bicycle falls onto the grass, and finally the windows in the family house close by themselves, to mother’s devilish suspicions…

Exempt from gym class, Carrie finds books in the school library about her extraordinary gift – telekinesis. Meanwhile, the female part of the class, for cruel treatment of Carrie during her first period, is severely punished by the homeroom teacher, PE teacher, Miss Collins. This brings revenge on Carrie’s head from Chris (Nancy Allen), Carrie’s proudest, fiercest, most painted and stubbornest classmate. It is Chris and her boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) who hatch a diabolical plan to humiliate Carrie in front of the whole school. Meanwhile, Sue Snell (Amy Irving), the only conscience-stricken classmate, successfully persuades her handsome boyfriend Tommy to go with unwanted Carrie to the prom. Sensing the trick, Carrie, despite her mother, finally agrees and shows up at the ball with Tommy like a duckling turned into a swan. Her dreams come true – a wonderful evening with a great guy and finally winning the prom king and queen. But the latter is just Chris’s perfectly planned revenge, inevitably coming to a tragic end…

carrie prom dress scene sissy spacek

Fluidity, precision, virtuozery

Carrie is a world champion in the category of purely visual storytelling. Brian De Palma remembered Hitchcock’s most important lesson – film is an image. Not a dialogue, but an image that assumes the most important narrative role. This intricately woven story is a visual masterpiece that goes beyond the scope of the operator’s circus prowess. De Palma, staging a very human drama of a rejected girl, shot it with an almost comic-book poetics of the image, cumulated and most visible in the famous split of the screen. This phenomenal narrative trick stemmed largely from a fear of too many cuts necessary for traditional editing. However, splitting the screen carried the fear that the viewer would get nystagmus while following several parallel and closely related places of action at the same time. Fortunately, De Palma’s fears did not materialize. The split screen is a trademark of this director, continued with varying degrees of success in Blow Out or The Bonfire of the Vanities and brilliantly used in Snake Eyes. It is also impossible not to notice another characteristic feature of the director, which are long shots. Like Hitchcock, De Palma had already opened Carrie with two long shots – on the pitch and in the locker room – that gave the viewer enough information about the alienated and disliked title character from the start.

Carrie john travolta

But that’s nothing compared to the cinematography feat in the prom sequence. Cinematographer Mario Tosi phenomenally prepared a breakneck 2’08” long shot, starting with a close-up of Carrie and Tommy’s table, from where Emma takes the card with votes for prom king and queen. Emma handing over the papers to the committee, walks over to the podium where Chris and Billy are hidden, gives them a hand signal and disappears from the frame The camera moves to the string (Chris is holding the end) hidden along the podium. We’re getting to the end of the podium decorations, and at that point, Sue comes from the back to sneak a peek at Carrie and Tommy. Following the string, the camera unexpectedly abruptly climbs up, high above the stage, to reveal what’s on the other end of the string, a bucket of pig’s blood. The camera pans down to keep the bucket out of focus and zooms in on the table that opens the shot, where Carrie and Tommy are sitting, suddenly illuminated by a spotlight, the winners of the prom king and queen. End.

Carrie bucket of blood

– They will laugh at you!

Even being blind and deaf to the technical qualities of film productions, this one shot can impress with the smoothness of implementation, the precision of every detail of the camera movement and, above all, the perfect timing of all elements of the shot. Apart from the fact that we see probably 35 takes in the film, this is one of Brian De Palma’s greatest displays of virtuosity. Another operator trick, eagerly repeated in subsequent films, are shots using a double focal length lens, where elements both in the foreground and in the background are equally sharp. Editing by Paul Hirsch (who won an Oscar two years later for editing “Star Wars”) is another topic for a separate book. De Palma surprisingly coherently combined long shots and chilling scenes in Carrie, which owe their quality to editing. Here again, the ball sequence, especially the scene of the winners climbing the podium and the moment of the coronation, shown in rigorously slow motion. This is the purest film magic, a masterpiece of the art of storytelling only with images and music, without a single word of dialogue.

carrie double lens piper laurie sissy spacek

The joy of the viewer, accompanying the finally appreciated Carrie, underlined by the gentle musical theme of Pino Donaggio, is slowly absorbed by the worried face of Sue, who notices the string attached to the podium. We see the girl and alternating shots of the string from her point of view. Then we see Miss Collins, who notices a disturbing looking Sue. Here you see Sue from the teacher’s point of view. In turn, the moment when Miss Collins struggles with Sue, we see through the eyes of Carrie and Tommy, watching the whole incident from the podium. The way of building the action on the montage of objective and subjective shots allowed De Palma to have great visual ping-pong. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but I saw one tiny commonality in the two key moments in the scene, when Sue realizes what is about to happen to Carrie, and in the shot of Miss Collins’s face noticing Sue. Well, in these shots, the faces of both ladies are briefly touched by the green light of the spotlight at the decisive moment, as if to emphasize the sudden anxiety of the heroines.

Pig's blood

The accelerating pace of the editing also makes an incredible impression, when in shorter and shorter, alternately edited shots we see Miss Collins throwing Sue out of the room, a close-up of a bucket of pig’s blood, Carrie’s face, and finally Chris’s revenge-obsessed face, eyes and mouth, who pulls with almost orgasmic pleasure for the string. Then all the precisely built tension is finally released as the contents of the bucket are dumped on Carrie. Surprisingly, the only sound in this brief moment of silence before the storm is the dripping of blood and the clatter of an empty bucket as it bangs against the podium structure. The explosion of laughter and mockery that follows several seconds later includes a puzzling element in the form of laughing Miss Collins, the last person in Carrie’s life who could betray and deceive her. This can be explained from the point of view of Carrie herself, who with her twisted and damaged mind saw what she wanted, and not necessarily what was really happening.

Carrie in blood prom scene sissy spacek

The famous pig’s blood dropped on Carrie was actually corn syrup laced with red food coloring. Covered with it, Sissy felt quite good in this make-up in her own perverse way. The problems began when the liquid, warm at the time of pouring, began to cool down and stick to the actress’s body during the tedious and time-consuming sequence of the school massacre. Then this substance congealed, became sticky, heavy and stiff, causing the actress’s movements to be blocked. To complete the shoot, the crew had to run after her with hot air blowers. The bucket that hit Tommy Ross in the head was made of cardboard.

Musical heart attack

Of course, the whole scene wouldn’t have made such an impression if it wasn’t for the alternately soothing and nerve-wracking music by Pino Donaggio. Brian De Palma intended to hire Bernard Herrmann himself, Hitchcock’s court composer, for Carrie. But Herrmann’s death in 1976 forced the director to find another composer. Pino Donaggio, creating a very Hermannian soundtrack, fulfilled the task simply brilliantly. It is impossible to imagine, for example, the coronation scene of the most beautiful couple at the ball, described above, without the music of the Italian composer, which gives it an increasingly nervous pace. A chill runs down your spine as you hear the eerie piano lullaby that accompanies the first and last scenes between Carrie and her mother. And the musical theme accompanying the unexpected finale of the film can even cause a heart attack. It is a true perfection of the combination of image and music and a reference example of the narrative function of film music. A literal quote from Herrmann, however, were short, shrill string jerks, taken straight from the iconic shower scene in Psycho. At the opposite side of musical spectrum, there are quite funny musical themes, accompanying PE lessons or choosing a suit by Tommy Ross’ friends.

carrie soundtrack cover

De Palma's tricks

Carrie’s drama, taken completely seriously by De Palma, surprisingly did not lose its strength and credibility when confronted with comic camera tricks and editing. And such combinations usually end in a fiasco when the meanders of the script are covered by the virtuosity of the filmmaking. Instead of worrying about the fate of the characters, the viewer’s attention is diverted by the brilliantly used technique. The strength of Robert Zemeckis’ films lies, among others, in effectively hiding any post-production manipulations, carefully embedded in the on-screen story. Meanwhile, De Palma can even flaunt his juggling knowledge. Sometimes it turns out to be a poor film like Femme Fatale, but sometimes its staging mastery, together with a well-written script, unanimously participate in building meaningful films The Untouchables. Carrie was no different. In decisive moments for the protagonists of the film, De Palma suddenly turned on his arsenal of extravagant ideas, surprising with unusual camera settings or truly music video editing solutions (and this at a time when the high point for video clip makers was the good old “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen, and of the 14-minute Thriller Even Michael Jackson hasn’t dreamed yet.

Margaret White, helplessly thrashing around the kitchen, at some point starts unknowingly cutting a vegetable. Suddenly, we see the last few hits of the knife on the cutting board in the ever closer, quickly assembled plans. Just before Chris and Billy’s car was destroyed, De Palma went even further. Instantly released, the destructive power of the title character was given in the truest twinkling of five close-ups of Carrie’s face and eye. A few seconds later, the car blow-up was preceded by identical shots of Sissy Spacek in counterplane. When you look closer (i.e. on a freeze frame), you can see that De Palma used four optically inverted shots from the first series of close-ups. This reveals the bloody make-up on the actress’s face. Also the rotating view of screaming passengers inside the overturning car is an optical effect.

carrie piper laurie stabbed


Masterful performances in Carrie were played by Oscar nominees for these roles, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Sissy went to the casting at the urging of her husband, Jack Fisk, for whom designing the sets in Carrie was already the second collaboration with De Palma. Sissy, after the first conversation with De Palma, was disillusioned by him, because the director intended to cast her in the role of Chris. Angry Sissy took her way. She smeared her hair with cream, put on the ugliest dress from her mother’s wardrobe and made herself a bogeyman. The next morning, dirty and ugly, won the casting by landslide. Piper Laurie had not acted in films for 15 years when she was unexpectedly offered the role of Margaret White. The actress, after reading the script for the first time, decided that her role was a grossly exaggerated misunderstanding. It wasn’t until she met the director that Piper discovered the deadly irony and play beyond the grossly exaggerated grotesque needed to be fully believable as Carrie’s mother. Piper Laurie insisted on keeping her line about Carrie’s red dress in its original form. In fact, the dress was changed to pink at the last minute, and Margaret White’s words in the script were not changed. Brian De Palma wanted to rewrite the scene, but the actress convinced him to leave it. This blunder helped the film by adding another pebble to Mrs. White’s garden of madness.

carrie piper laurie behind the door

For most of the other actors, Carrie was a debut (Amy Irving, P.J. Soles) or one of the first films (Nancy Allen). A very interesting story is the casting for this film, which also involved George Lucas, looking for the cast of Star Wars. They both chose from the same group of young, unknown actors. I wonder how the history of cinema would have turned out if De Palma had engaged Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher, and Lucas liked Amy Irving and William Katt more … For the role of Sue Snell’s mother, De Palma repeated his casting maneuver from Sisters and involved a real Amy Irving’s mother. Priscilla Pointer was so moved and shocked by her daughter’s acting abilities that in the dramatic finale of the film, seeing how truly she played the horror of Sue, unable to wake up from a nightmare, she unknowingly calmed her down with her real name Amy, which fortunately is not heard in the film. Betty Buckley, who played Miss Collins, was a bit embarrassed by her role, because in private the actress was only a few years older than Sissy Spacek, The completely unreal scene of Margaret White’s death was originally intended to look a bit more realistic. Piper Laurie suggested to De Palma that her heroine’s death was a moment of some macabre triumph, a moment Margaret had been waiting for a long time and which came true in the form of knives digging into her flesh. The unusual (and impossible in the case of a corpse) body position in which Margaret dies is an obvious reflection of the nightmarish figure of St. Sebastian, to whom Carrie prayed in confinement. Technically, the scene rested mostly on the shoulders of the special effects people, who placed the knives on (not always) invisible cables, and Piper Laurie’s body was secured with metal and wooden elements to absorb the blows of the knives.Nancy Allen or Amy Irving, who played her students. Betty wrote a story about Miss Collins’ prom that she tells to Carrie. In the script, it was just a few sentences of a much weaker story. Betty Buckley also dubbed the director’s nephew, Cameron De Palma. This is the little boy who shouted “Creepy Carrie! Creepy Carrie!” on the bike, for which the main character threw him out of the saddle. And one more interesting fact – Jack Fisk’s assistant set designer was Bill Paxton, many years later one of James Cameron’s favorite actors.

– You won’t let the witch stay alive…

The completely unreal scene of Margaret White’s death was originally intended to look a bit more realistic. Piper Laurie suggested to De Palma that her heroine’s death was a moment of some macabre triumph, a moment Margaret had been waiting for a long time and which came true in the form of knives digging into her flesh. The unusual (and impossible in the case of a corpse) body position in which Margaret dies is an obvious reflection of the nightmarish figure of St. Sebastian, to whom Carrie prayed in confinement. Technically, the scene rested mostly on the shoulders of the special effects people, who placed the knives on (not always) invisible cables, and Piper Laurie’s body was secured with metal and wooden elements to absorb the blows of the knives.

carrie piper laurie stabbed

Mighty King accepts

Unlike Kubrick’s The Shining, Stephen King liked the adaptation of Carrie very much, despite the many differences between the book and the film. First of all, Lawrence D. Cohen simplified and straightened the narrative, abandoning the style of police reports and scientific formulas that dominated the ending of the novel. King’s title character was fat; looking at the skinny Sissy Spacek, however, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role of Carrie. Cohen and De Palma intensified King’s final hecatomb, which reduced most of the city to ashes, in the prom sequence, based on the correct (and cheaper) assumption that for Carrie, it was enough to raze the school itself to the ground. Missing was the father figure of Chris, who threatened the school principal for banning his daughter from the prom. In King’s, the order of victims in the ending is different – Billy and Chris die only after killing Margaret White. Cohen also dropped the telepathic bond between Carrie and Sue, and removed the suggestion that another girl’s telekinetic powers were born somewhere in America.

Despite being shot and edited, a scene from Carrie’s childhood was not included in the film. One day, an adolescent girl watched her neighbor sunbathing in a very skimpy costume. Unintelligibly punished for this by her mother, furious Carrie caused a hail of stones from the clear sky. In the finale of the film, this episode was supposed to be repeated, but too much difficulty was caused by the physical special effect with stones being dropped on a miniature (1/2 scale) version of Carrie’s house. Finally, De Palma decided to burn down the house instead of burying it with stones. Despite this, a few shots inside the house, the ceiling of which is pierced with invisible stones, made it into the film.

The screenwriter of the film added several characters, including Sue’s mother and several students of Bates High School (a clear allusion to the protagonist of Psycho). Miss Collins dies in the film, killed in a telekinetic frenzy by Carrie. Margaret White’s death was also different. In the novel, Carrie causes her to go into cardiac arrest – with today’s 3D visuals, it would be possible to show. Back then, no one dreamed of such effects, so De Palma used knives.

carrie nancy allen

At the end of the film, Lawrence D. Cohen and Brian De Palma decided to be more creative than Stephen King. Thanks to this, the film was enriched with one of the most terrifying epilogues in the history of cinema. Although this scene has little in common with the book and screen relationship between the characters of Carrie and Sue, in return it guaranteed the viewers a pre-infarction ending. With Pino Donaggio’s sweet, idyllic theme, Sue walks to the cross that stands on the cursed ground that once held Carrie’s house. The iconoclastic text Carrie White burns in hell is inscribed on the cross. Sue tearfully places a bunch of flowers under the cross when suddenly Carrie’s bloody hand comes out of the ground, dragging Sue’s hand down. All this turns out to be a dream from which both Sue and the shocked viewer cannot wake up…

Sissy Spacek insisted on doing the scene herself, though only her hand was visible in this scene, which might as well have belonged to an anonymous understudy. Sissy settled in a hole under the decoration, which was covered with plywood and covered with earth. At the agreed sign, the actress put out the appropriate, well-characterized hand from hiding … and that’s it. Yet behind this simple staging lies one of the most chilling moments in cinema history. Brian De Palma, as usual, performed a very simple and effective trick in this scene. Well, the shots with Sue walking towards the cross can be seen in the film with reversed tape advance. Amy Irving on set was just walking backwards. Thanks to this manipulation, the blowing hair and the movement of the dress in the wind gave an unusual effect of an unreal dream, turning into a nightmare. The effect of reversing the movement is evident in several frames of one of the shots, where the car in the far plan of the street is driving backwards.

carrie final jump scare

I should’ve killed myself when he put it in me. After the first time, before we were married, Ralph promised never again. He promised, and I believed him. But sin never dies. Sin never dies. At first, it was all right. We lived sinlessly. We slept in the same bed, but we never did it. And then, that night, I saw him looking down at me that way. We got down on our knees to pray for strength. I smelled the whiskey on his breath. Then he took me. He took me, with the stink of filthy roadhouse whiskey on his breath, and I liked it. I liked it! With all that dirty touching of his hands all over me. I should’ve given you to God when you were born, but I was weak and backsliding, and now the Devil has come home. We’ll pray.

Margaret White

Carrie lived to see two editing versions. Due to a lot of nudity in the prologue and some foul language in the scenes with Nancy Allen and John Travolta, the so-called  TV version was created. The view of the naked schoolgirls was optically narrowed and cropped, and an alternative, “dressed” version of the shot was used. A portion of the shot with the words Carrie White eats shit scrawled on the wall was cut from the gym scene. The scene of Carrie’s mother’s death was also massacred, from which almost all the shots of the knives sticking into her body were cut out.

Carrie reactivation

Carrie’s story returned four more times, including very bad 2013 version. Unfortunately – one would like to add, because there is nothing to add to this story for common sense, and a remake of such a masterpiece was doomed from the beginning. But the Americans, just as they can make great films, are equally free to rummage in them ruthlessly. A few years after the premiere of the film, Lawrence D. Cohen, Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford realized … a musical, premiered on Broadway. Betty Buckley, who played Miss Collins in the film, played Margaret White on stage. The role of Carrie was played by Linzi Hatley. The musical turned out to be a complete fiasco.

carrie the musical

In 1999, Carrie 2 was released with the subtitle The Rage, an idiotic sequel to De Palma’s film. The door was used in the form of Ralph, Carrie’s father, who left his daughter at the mercy of a fanatical mother. The screenwriter of the sequel, Rafael Moreu, imagined that the wicked daddy would re-sow the telekinetic plague years later. Here is Rachael Lang, a senior student, after the strange, suicidal death of her friend, discovers in herself the ability to move objects by force of will. From the adult Sue, Snell also learns who her father was and how her half-sister Carrie White is remembered. Soon history repeats itself…

This mess should not have been made, and work on it should have been stopped after director Robert Mandel abandoned this exhumation in favor of Katt Shea. Despite the participation of Amy Irving, Carrie 2 does not live up to the original. This is a model denial of the quality of De Palma’s film. It lacks virtually everything that made Carrie great, which was vainly compensated for by digital visual effects. But not this way. Emily Bergl, who plays the main role, has as much demonism as Mickey Mouse, the concept of bringing the entire explanation of the source of telekinesis to Carrie’s father, absent in both films, smacks of applied psychology, and the direction is suitable at most for a television horror movie in episodes.

The Rage Carrie 2

Television? Here you go. Three years later, director David Carson (Star Trek. Generations) directed the television version of Carrie. Contrary to De Palma’s original, the whole story is based on police interrogations of witnesses who survived the conflagration of Carrie’s anger. The action takes place today, among computers, mobile phones and ubiquitous sex within the walls of the school. The final massacre, according to the novel, covered the whole city, but the merciful screenwriter Bryan Fuller … saved Carrie, who in the epilogue leaves the city…

Victory on all fronts

One film vs remake, sequel and musical came out victorious on all fronts. It was hard to expect that anything could deprive Brian De Palma’s film of its place at the forefront of the best achievements of horror cinema. Carrie is also a bitter episode in the life of young people taking their first step into adulthood, a study of loneliness, rejection and the main character’s maturing to control her troublesome gift. All this, served on a golden platter of masterly staging, places this modest film among the most important achievements of the film art.