Stories about young men seeking to enter "adulthood" are a dime a dozen, but the field of girls-becoming-women movies is notably less fertile. Perhaps it's because males consider themselves men when they shove themselves up a birth canal -- which raises all sorts of questions -- but womanhood gets defined through puberty as there is one facet of biological change that becomes immediately noticeable, and it's something no man ever wants to talk about. Even I stop dead in my tracks when any one of woman friends uses the phrase "on the rag" with such horrifying frankness that I get the urge to enlist in the military just so I can one day speak so casually of bleeding for an extended period of time.
Brian De Palma keenly understands how badly every man going into the theater never wants to think about menstruation, and he stages one of the funniest visual gags in the history of cinema right in the opening credits. After a short establishing scene of young women in a high school gym class, De Palma cuts to a slow-motion shot of these nubile teens in various states of undress, playfully teasing each other as the camera moves through them, finally settling on one girl, Carrie (Sissy Spacek). De Palma cuts to close-ups of Carrie as she rubs soap over her body, letting water slowly cascade off her legs, down her neck to her stomach. Then she moves to wash genitals, and she comes back with a bloody hand. In an instant, De Palma flips the male gaze and causes all the men in the audience who were a half step away from getting off and terrifies them.
Carrie, too, is terrified, and the ingenious comedy of the moment gives way to concern for a young woman who was never told about this fact of life, reacting to her first period, well, the way any man would if he noticed blood coming out of his penis: she screams in terror and begs for help. The other teenagers, having already had their first periods and, more importantly, known about them before they even got them, mock her. The group, led by Chris (Nancy Allen), pelt the poor girl with tampons and shout, "Plug it up!" until the gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) finally intervenes, but by then Carrie is so worked up that Miss Collins has to slap her to get the woman to stop hyperventilating and crying. Later, as the teacher discusses the event with the principal, Carrie can hear her sympathize with the other students, amazed that Carrie didn't know about periods.
Still, Miss Collins and the principal take pity on the girl, and they let her go home for the day and exchange vague glances and half-words about Carrie's home life. De Palma then cuts to Carrie's mother and instantly all questions about the poor young woman's insecurities are answered. Mrs. White (Piper Laurie) is a fundamentalist Christian, traveling around the neighborhood barking her rhetoric to uninterested parents about their hell-bound progeny. When both return home and Carrie tearfully recounts her day and asks why her mother never told her about menstruation, the old woman slaps her daughter and condemns "the curse of the blood" as punishment for sins. Before Carrie (or the audience) can bother to ask how sinful that must make the mother for having lived longer, the witch locks her daughter in a closet and forces her to pray for forgiveness. Carrie just can't catch a break.
De Palma, heretofore concerned with women only so far as voyeuristic targets (up to and including the credits of this film), suddenly offers a grim portrait of young womanhood. Other girls tease, boys ignore, and parents just don't understand. Oh, but there's a catch: Carrie has telekinetic powers. We all go through some pretty big changes in puberty.
Like Stephen King, who wrote the source novel to dispel accusations of his own macho fixation, De Palma uses the supernatural powers as an exaggerated take on biological growth. But De Palma refines some of the glut of King's novel, his first published and thus not the peak of his craft. He better captures the unfocused stress of adolescence, highlighting how the tiniest thing can drive Carrie to such nervous fright that a light bulb explodes or an ashtray flips over. Small actions all of them, but they build as the pressure mounts, until she finally reveals her powers to her mother in an emotional flash, causing the woman to denounce her daughter as an agent of Satan.
Spacek was the perfect choice to play Carrie. Certainly one of the most dependable and adventurous actresses ever, Spacek had already worked on a mixture of innocence and darker energy for her breakthrough in Terrence Malick's Badlands. Here, both sides of that dichotomy are further developed. To look upon Carrie is to pity her, a young woman who does not even need to take off the stereotypical glasses and let down her hair to be beautiful, but her mother has tortured her so much that Carrie believes herself to be worthless. Because she thinks this, the cruelty of youth is happy to cater to that perspective, with people like Chris enraged at Carrie for no discernible reason. Even Miss Collins joins in, reacting to the genuine remorse of Sue (Amy Irving), who tries to make up for teasing Carrie by encouraging her boyfriend (William Katt) to ask the nervous girl to prom, with distrust because she cannot imagine anyone being truly nice to Carrie without an ulterior motive. Yet Spacek can also turn 180 degrees with remarkable speed, and when Carrie starts to stand up for herself she becomes not-so-subtly intimidating before she finally snaps.
Spacek gives such a compelling performance that you might miss some of De Palma's usual cheekiness at first. Besides that wry opening shot, De Palma also gets out his kitsch in a tracking shot of all the cruel high school girls in Miss Collins' boot camp-esque detention. The director relocates the action from a Maine hamlet to the town of Bates, and Psycho references abound in the soundtrack, with screeching violins piercing the mix often. The goofy acting common in his films can be found in spades in the supporting roles, from Laurie's wildly melodramatic performance to the hilariously sleazy double act of Allen's Chris and her boyfriend (John Travolta in an early role). And when Chris and Billy prepare to sabotage Carrie's time at the prom by dumping pig's blood on her, De Palma draws out the suspense of the moment with a sequence that would feel excruciating without the slow-motion (but of course he uses it anyway). In his previous film, De Palma ended with an endlessly circling shot of reunited father and child, an overflow of emotion that made the first great argument for De Palma as a Romantic. Here, however, a similar shot, encircling Carrie and Tommy as they share a dance, comes before the end, the clear implication being that this is as good as it will get, and it's all downhill from this moment.
When the bucket of blood finally falls, De Palma shows just how far down it can go. Carrie's climactic breakdown is not so much scary as the creepiest comedy I've ever seen. With blood dripping down Carrie's head turning her homemade, white dress red, Spacek's face tightens in a rage as she imagines the stunned and silent crowd laughing at her. The corners of her mouth stretch back and her eyes bulge out as if she managed to tighten her eye sockets as well, and her vaguely amphibian appearance looks menacing instead of comical. Carrie then goes on a psychic rampage, killing all inside and dispatching Chris and Billy when they attempt to run her down in revenge. When she makes her way home, her mother will not even try to console her, attempting to kill her daughter to deliver her from Satan. Carrie responds by driving knives into her mom, and Mrs. White dies posed exactly like the crucifix she keeps in the house, a farcical piece of iconography with arrows sticking out of Christ's flesh and absurd eyes magnified to animé proportions to stress His pain. Leave it to De Palma to give us a fundamentalist whack-job accusing her daughter of Satanism only to have that young woman use a murder to purge her of Christ.
Even the "For Sale" sign planted in the collapsed and cleared wreckage of the White home (crushed by Carrie in guilt and grief) takes on a bizarrely Christian tone, doubling as a headstone for Carrie's smothered and buried corpse. That final scene, certainly the most infamous in the film, has appeared on various lists of the scariest moments in cinematic history. However, the shot of Carrie's hand reaching out of the ground to grab Sue in her dream is as funny as the opening sequence, one last "Boo!" moment that's as briefly frightening as someone sneaking up behind you and making you jump and as amusing to De Palma as such pranks are to the people who pull them. That playful attitude defines Carrie more than any outright horror, and it's amusing how this film, possibly the one De Palma is most known for -- it's either this or Scarface -- gives people a certain view of him as a director when it's not particularly any different than his previous features. But it's fitting, considering that the grand joke of the film is on those who buy the scares at surface value.