“They’re all gonna laugh at you!”
One of the most notable characters in the Horror genre, and the girl who helped kick off Stephen King’s career, is none other than our favorite telekinetic prom queen, Carrie White. This blood-soaked beauty was brought to life by King in 1974 with his first novel under his own name. The novel is actually one of many on the list of banned books that some schools refuse to carry for its jarring subject matter, adult themes, and negative religious connotations.
Firstly, let’s get the overall plot out of the way. This tragic tale follows a young girl by the name of, you guessed it, Carrie White, a withdrawn outcast who’s constantly tormented and discarded by the students in her high school. She has been sheltered all her life by her deranged fanatical mother, Margaret, who constantly spouts religious babble which only fuels the attacks on Carrie. One unfortunate day, Carrie gets her period for the first time, causing her to cry as she believes that she’s dying. The girls at school cruelly throw sanitary napkins at her while chanting “plug it up.”
From that moment something within her changes and she gradually discovers that she has telekinetic abilities – the ability to move and manipulate objects with her mind. Nice girl Sue Snell, feeling guilty for what they have done, convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross to take Carrie to the prom as a kind gesture. As things begin to escalate, the ring-leader of the mean girls, Chris Hargenson, devises a plan, recruiting her sidekick Norma, and her boyfriend Billy Nolan, to humiliate Carrie at the prom. Needless to say, at the prom Carrie is unwittingly nominated for prom queen and wins. During the crowning, Chris dumps a bucket of blood on her head, and then all hell breaks loose as Carrie unleashes her wrath upon the entire school, leaving a trail of carnage in her wake.
Naturally such a story made it to the silver screen in 1976, and by all accounts the film is a Horror classic. The film was then remade for television in 2002, and again for theatrical release in 2013. For the sake of comparisons, let us stick with looking at 1976’s edition verses the 2013 remake. While many films have touched on the subject of teen bullies, Carrie was one of the first to really showcase the particularly nasty brand of bullying dished out by teenage girls. High school can be hell, but it is a special kind of hell when you are a social pariah like Carrie. Carrie suffered in silence, in addition to her mother’s abusive behavior and unusual tactics which made her home life unbearable as well.
In Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaption, his Hitchcockian approach to directing is evident from the opening scene. The slow-motion shot of the locker room while soft music played in the background only to be finally interrupted by a bloody shower scene is all too fitting. You’re horrified as this frightened girl is shown cowering in the corner while girls pelt her with tampons and pads yelling “plug it up” until the P.E. teacher Miss Collins swoops in to save the day; but not before a light mysteriously bursts overhead, accompanied by shrieking sound effects that will soon come to signal Carrie’s loss of control. It’s a simple, yet effective scene that sets the stage for the horror that’s about to unfold.
Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Carrie is without a doubt one of her best roles. Her mousy appearance and vulnerable performance not only made the film what it is, but earned her an Academy Award nomination alongside co-star Piper Laurie. Speaking of Laurie, her unsettling performance as Margaret White is truly chilling. The visuals of her dragging Carrie by her hair to lock her in the prayer closet, to sit with the most disturbing figurine of Jesus to ever exist, down to her final moments as she attempts to murder her own daughter are truly eerie. It’s something reminiscent of Italian Giallo-style films. The sweeping metaphors, the color-scheme, soaking everything in a vibrant wash of red as if to signify Carrie’s rage as she unleashes hell upon her tormentors. In Margaret’s final moments, Carrie saves herself by throwing knives at her mother, pinning her to the wall in an eerily familiar pose.
The aforementioned score and sound effects in this film are filled with shuddering staccatos and intensity, making every moment feel like a bodily experience. The symbolism in this film is astounding, but it only emphasizes the cinematography and results in creating some of the most memorable scenes and imagery in Horror history.
In the 2013 remake, Director Kimberly Peirce understandably modernized the film, taking the shower scene into today’s digital age by having Chris Hargenson’s character film the whole ordeal and post it on YouTube for everyone to revel in Carrie’s ridicule. The role of Carrie is taken over by Chloë Grace Moretz, who is no stranger to the genre, starring in films like 2005’s The Amityville Horror remake and 2010’s Let Me In, the American remake of the Swedish vampire flick Let The Right One In. This modern version of the story stays a bit closer to the original subtext instead of straying and changing elements like De Palma’s film. For example, the high school is still named Ewen High School instead of the infamous Bates High from 1976. Miss Desjardin is still Desjardin versus De Palma’s Miss Collins. The film definitely gets points for originality and for going the extra mile.
In contrast to Laurie’s Margaret White, Julianne Moore’s 2013 take on the character was much more unhinged, and became one of the standout qualities of this version; seemingly less of a holier-than-thou nut job and more of a severely mentally ill mother whose practices and abuse go beyond just throwing Carrie in the closet. We see her picking and scratching at her skin, hurting herself to gain control of situations. Physically assaulting Carrie, hitting her and genuinely making the other townsfolk uncomfortable. Oh, and let’s not forget the insanely bloody opening scene where she gives birth and instinctively grabs a huge pair of scissors to kill her newborn baby until she has a sudden change of heart.
One of the differences between the two is how the films treat their characters, rooted in their approach to the subject matter in order to take the story and make it their own. Take the P.E teacher, for example. In De Palma’s film, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) is seen as a sort of savior for Carrie: showing up at the right time, offering advice and standing up for her. She comes across as someone that’s truly there for Carrie, though Carrie’s insecurities thwart the teen from believing in Miss Collins’ sincerity. This scene, paired with the dizzying hallucination as Carrie looks onto the crowd after being doused in blood and ‘seeing’ her peers laugh at her – Miss Collins included – are a perfect example of the cracks in Carrie’s psyche that fuel her actions.
But this is not the route they went with this character in Peirce’s film, where Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer) is actually portrayed as a secondary mother-figure for Carrie, leading her to be spared during the prom massacre. This is extended to characters like Chris Hargenson, as well. Where 1976’s Nancy Allen’s Chris is a clear villain with no redeeming qualities – she is nasty and, quite frankly, you are just dying to see her get what is coming to her – in Peirce’s, she’s just as nasty, even more so, but for some reason they try give her a glimmer of humanity with a scene involving her father that implies that her being spoiled was a large reason of why she is who she is. However, the scene feels unnecessary because her spoiled behavior is already implied just based on her actions at school, and we didn’t really need a filler scene to solidify that notion.
Now, let’s discuss Carrie herself: her portrayal and her night to remember. Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Carrie was sorrowful and unnerving, and her pain was palpable from the moment we met her. We feel for her as she’s tormented and abused, and then we relish in her revenge with her emerging like a bloody phoenix rising from its ashes. Her climatic prom night plays out like a visceral coming-out party, drenched in red as she exacts her revenge with jerky movements and an unyielding intensity. This pivotal moment is iconic as Spacek’s wide eyes looks on at her destruction, zeroing in on her targets.
Where De Palma’s descent into hell was gradual, Peirce’s was more whimsical and cartoonish. Not necessarily a bad thing, it was 2013 and effects were significantly more accessible than in 1976, so you can’t blame them for wanting to up the ante. Carrie’s growth went from scouring the library and psychic mental breakdowns with broken mirrors to an X-Men like origin story. Which, honestly, if you think about it, this is certainly what would happen if someone of the likes of Scarlet Witch were to attend high school until being driven to the point of House Of M type rage and erasing bullies from existence. The climax in Peirce’s film was a grand display of effects and took Carrie’s rage out of the crimson shadows into the florescent lights. They traded in her quiet storm for theatrics with Moretz on the stage as if she was conducting an orchestra of disastrous proportions – even giving her the ability to fly. Her effect on the town is shown in its full capacity; flames and chaos following her up until the moment she finally steps back into her home. While its originality is applauded, it’s execution can read a little over-dramatic, losing the fright that the original scene instilled.
Then there is De Palma’s ending, which took a more literal approach to its biblical subject matter. Margaret ceremoniously attacking Carrie with a knife as if she’s come to deliver some divine task sent from God before being thrown and pinned against the wall, dying in a pose similar to the figurine in their prayer closet. Carrie then, remorseful for killing her mother, attempts to free her before the house begins to fall apart. She barricades herself and her mother’s body in the prayer room where they are then crushed by the debris.
Let’s not forget that final shot of Carrie’s arm rising up from her makeshift grave to grab Sue Snell’s arm and scarring her for life. Peirce’s final showdown mirrored the original, only differing by having Sue Snell show up to check on Carrie, only to be thrown out by Carrie in time to avoid being crushed as stones rain from the sky down on their house and sink into the ground. This is after Carrie senses Sue is pregnant so she chooses to save her, an element from the novel. The final shot has the same initial set up, except the headstone breaks into pieces and Carrie is heard screaming. In all honesty, it’s a bit of a letdown compared to its predecessor.
To wrap this up, Carrie is the blood-drenched coming-of-age tale about femininity and sexuality that predates the likes of 2000’s Ginger Snaps and 2009’s Jennifer’s Body. Carrie is both a tale of entrapment and liberation, and it’s a film that continues to hold up to this day. De Palma’s original imagining remains at the top for its hauntingly beautiful cinematography and cast. Peirce’s modernized take, while creative and ballsy, falls short with its cartoonish effects and unnecessary scene fillers that offer nothing to the plot. All this discussed, with the exception of films like the 2017’s It or 2013’s Evil Dead, Carrie is one instance where the original still reigns supreme.