Caution: may contain spoilers.
Throughout his writing career, Stephen King has had his books turned into movies and TV specials more times than Alexandre Dumas, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare COMBINED. The more you watch them, and the more of them you watch, the more you notice that many of them have certain things in common — most of them take place somewhere in Maine, there's a parental character who slowly goes insane if he hasn't already gone insane, sometimes there's a religious icon who is self-righteous to the point of having a possible serious mental condition, and usually there's a monster that is something out of a deep-seeded childhood trauma which shakes the protagonist even today, like Tim Curry's Pennywise the Clown from the "It" miniseries or the primitive-CG'ed Milk Duds of Doom from the TV adaptation of "The Langoliers."
But "Carrie" was a little something extra special. It wasn't just King's first published novel to be turned into a movie — in 1976 by director and co-producer Brian de Palma, and the first of a great many, I'm sure — it was also his first published novel period, first printed in 1974. And while most of the other films you can take or leave, "Carrie" has since become a horror classic and a staple of pop culture and also spawned a sequel, a musical and almost a TV series. King himself has even said that it was one of the best adaptations of one of his novels ever made, and even prefers it to his original book.
I kinda wish he'd felt the same way about "The Shining" ...
Sissy Spacek stars as Carrie White, an ostracized high school student whom nobody understands. You know the type — the slow, mixed-up kids who fall off the beaten path quite often and, well, just don't fit in. As shown in the opening scene where Carrie is showering after gym class and notices a bit of blood running down her legs. Confused and horrified, she goes to the other girls for help and they respond by mocking her and throwing tampons and sanitary napkins at her. Only after the gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) breaks things up does she calm her down, but not before a light bulb breaks over the shower stall.
And then while at the principal's office where he dismisses her for the rest of the day, an ashtray flips off his desk and spills onto the floor when he gets her name wrong for the fourth or fifth time.
And then a kid on his bicycle crashes into nothing and falls over while riding past her and calling her names.
Of course, it's not Carrie's fault in the least. A good portion of the blame lies with Carrie's mother Margaret (Piper Laurie), known throughout the neighborhood as a religious fanatic who believes that the transformation of a young girl into an adult is not so much natural as just God punishing you for something really naughty you did. She responds to the news of Carrie's first period ("the curse of blood", as she calls it) by throwing her in a small closet full of grotesque Catholic imagery kicking and screaming.
The next day, while Carrie is in the library looking up telekinesis, Miss Collins gives her students detention for yesterday's incident. One of her girls, an especially nasty feather-haired girl named Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) walks off in a fit of rage, and in the midst of a night of romance with her boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta in the Vinnie Barbarino, pre-"Saturday Night Fever" phase of his career), she is too upset with Carrie to think.
Another of Carrie's tormentors at the scene, a plain looking girl named Sue Snell (Amy Irving) has a change of heart about the whole thing and decides to make it up to Carrie by asking her intended prom date, the VERY permed Tommy Ross (William Katt) to take the poor girl out instead.
Her heart a-flutter with the thought of normalcy and against her mother's wishes (even after closing every window in the house with her telekinesis in protest), Carrie is off to the prom with Tommy. She's sewn her own prom dress ("I can see your dirty pillows", says her mother), she's had her hair done, she's got makeup and lipstick on, and her new-found self-confidence is firing on all cylinders. She's the proverbial ugly duckling transformed into the proverbial beautiful swan. And everybody loves it.
And as if the night couldn't get any better, her and Tommy's names are on the ballots for prom king and queen. Score.
The votes are in — Tommy and Carrie are the king and queen of the prom! Feeling on top of the world, she escorts Tommy to the stage and recieves her tiara and roses, smiling and waving as everyone applauds. Truly it is the happiest moment of her young life.
And then a bucket of pig's blood is dropped upon her head while Tommy is knocked unconscious by the bucket.
It turns out this whole prom queen thing was a prank by Chris and Billy, who snuck into a swine farm, bludgeoned a pig, bled it into a bucket and snuck into the prom and rigged it above the stage, and they rigged the votes as well to get her up there just to epically humiliate her at her crowning moment of glory. Now whether or not the subsequent pointing and laughing is all in Carrie's head is up for debate (the ambiguity there is well established) but only one thought is running through her head: IT'S GOING DOWN.
Using her telekinetic powers, Carrie closes every door in the gymnasium never to open again, and then ...
I really don't think it's necessary to tell you what happens next. I mean, if you were a high school outcast with telekinetic powers and someone had dumped a bucket of pig's blood on you at the apex of your short-lived popularity, what do you think you'd do? Besides, I'm guessing many of you have already seen this movie, or at least this part of the movie in some form or another, so you really don't need me going too much into detail about it.
I will say this though: NO SURVIVORS. Well, except for Sue, who sneaks in to check on Carrie and notices the bucket over the stage but is thrown out by Miss Collins before she can warn anybody about it.
As for Chris and Billy, don't worry, they get theirs. After fleeing from the gym, they see Carrie in her blood-stained prom dress and in a momentary fit of homicidal glee try to run her down (oh yeah, another Stephen King movie staple, the school bully who stoops as low as committing murder in the first degree), but she casually glances backwards and diverts their car, flipping it over several times before it explodes as cars normally do.
Carrie returns home to clean herself up when her mother comes in to comfort her...and then stabs her, now fully convinced that her daughter's new powers make her a witch. After a brief chase downstairs, Carrie fends her off by flinging kitchen utensils at her with her mind, literally crucifying her on her own kitchen doorway, and then while crying over her body, ducks into the closet while inadvertently bringing her entire house crashing down on top of her.
The final scene is of Sue Snell waking up screaming from a nightmare in which she walks in slow motion to put flowers on a makeshift grave for Carrie where her house once stood and is grabbed by a hand popping up from the ground.
Stephen King based his novel Carrie on two girls he went to school with who were both in the same boat as its title character, and had written it as sort of "a reverse Cinderella story". The theme of teenage alienation translates well into the movie, aided by the performances of Spacek as Carrie, Laurie as Margaret, and ... well, almost everyone else, I suppose. It's sort of a "who's the real monster" message type of film, but it isn't played like an after-school special — it feels real, and it has you pitying Carrie and her hard-knock life, and pays you off with the "prom night" climax that the film will have had you counting down to by the time it happens.
But...DAMN, IS IT '70S! I don't think I've seen anything as '70s as this outside of Sid and Marty Krofft. The perms, the feathered hair, the tuxedo jackets, the music in the background during the gym class scene, that one kid with the Elton John hat during the getting-ready-for-the-prom montage ... the story is timeless, but I can't think of anything else about this movie that is as well. However, this can only be attributed to the passage of time and is just a minor complaint towards otherwise prerequisite viewing for anyone who loves horror.
Or anyone who loves stories about bullied schoolkids getting revenge. Those are always good.
Adam Lafferty also likes to talk about movies, among other things, on his other blog, popculturevomitbag.blogspot.com.