When director Brian De Palma delivered his version of Stephen King’s novel Carrie, two years after the book was initially published, it was the first screen adaptation of a story from the then fledgling novelist. It also went some way to making Stephen King a household name, as the film was not only groundbreaking within the horror genre, but in mainstream cinema as a whole.
Focusing on High School student Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), the story explores her relationship with her abusive, Christian fundamentalist mother Margaret (Piper Laurie), and the way this impacts her relationship with society. As a result of her ultra-Conservative and repressed home life, pubescent Carrie is mercilessly bullied by her peer group at High School. As her situation worsens, she becomes aware of her developing powers of telekinesis and gradually realizes they can be used to catastrophic effect.
Carrie was groundbreaking in its time due to its deeply feminist themes. For example, the way in which Carrie and Margaret both react to the onset of the teen’s menstrual cycle reflects the way in which this necessary, natural phenomenon is regarded with repulsion in patriarchal societies as a whole. The realization and harnessing of her telekinetic powers as a teen reflects the same phase in the development of girls’ individual femininity and sexuality. The way that those around Carrie respond to her psychic powers with fear and prejudice reflects the way in which patriarchal societies respond to femininity and female sexuality. Most significantly, the way in which Carrie ultimately uses her newly developed powers to literally destroy the town and the patriarchal society that festers within it reflects both male fear of social equality, and the desire of those who seek the same to change the status quo.
But a film with such themes would have gained little traction in 1976 without the benefit of incredible performances from a legendary cast. The central roles of Carrie and Margaret are delivered with stunning and haunting precision by two of the most talented actresses in film, and they’re supported by strong turns from Amy Irving, John Travolta, William Katt and Nancy Allen. To be sure, there could have been no better introduction for the work of Stephen King to cinema audiences than Brian De Palma’s Carrie, the screenplay for which was written by Lawrence D. Cohen.