‘Carrie’ (1976): A classic go-to for Halloween season

A spiffed-up, bonus-heavy collector’s edition of the Stephen King horror classic.

By Paul Mavis

Here in the Midwest, when the leaves start turning and the doughnuts and cider are pushed to the front of the grocery aisles, the primordial urge to watch a scary movie on a Friday or Saturday night is instinct that quite simply cannot be denied (thank you oh spirit guides The Ghoul and Sir Graves Ghastly!). And if you’re like me, and you’ve been burned lately by some of the more recent horror outings (I swear to Christ: every one of those wretched It kids deserved to get eaten…), it’s always a smart move to go back to a classic for your weekend scares.

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A few years back, Shout! Factory’s Scream Factory label, along with MGM, released a sweet Blu-ray of Carrie, the 1976 telekinesis shocker originally released by United Artists, directed by Brian De Palma, produced by Paul Monash, written by Lawrence D. Cohen (adapted from the Stephen King novel), and starring Sissy Spacek, John Travolta, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, William Katt, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, P.J. Soles, Sydney Lassick, Stefan Gierasch, and Priscilla Pointer. Intended by UA to be a quick, low-budget horror filler for the bottom of a double bill, Carrie turned out to be a huge hit with ticket buyers and the critics, even garnering exceedingly rare (for the horror genre) Oscar nods for Spacek (Best Actress category) and Laurie (Best Supporting Actress category).

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Scream Factory has piled on the extras for this two-disc collector’s edition, including brand new interviews with Allen, Buckley, Katt, Laurie, Soles, Edie McClurg, scripter Cohen, cinematographer Mario Tosi, composer Pino Donaggio, and editor Paul Hirsch. As well, a sparkling 4K scan of the original negative has yielded—in most spots—a beautifully crisp, rich new 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1 transfer (and a peppy DTS-HD master audio 5.1 audio track).

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Who doesn’t know poor Cassie (“It’s Carrie!”) White’s story? Okay, here goes: After blowing the volleyball game in gym—yet another in a series of seemingly lifelong humiliations for shy, awkward high schooler Cassie (“It’s Carrie!”) White (Sissy Spacek)—a truly terrible injustice is visited upon her. In the locker room shower, poor, innocent Carrie has her first menstruation period…and is blindly, hysterically terrified, since her fanatically religious mother, Margaret White (Piper Laurie), never explained this “sinful” coming-of-age process to Cassie.

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As if this mortification isn’t enough for Cassie (“It’s Carrie!”), her gym class, led by pretty, popular girls Sue Snell (Amy Irving), Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen), and Norma Watson (P.J. Soles), assaults Cassie, screaming insults at her (“Plug it up!”) while throwing sanitary napkins and tampons at the panic-stricken girl. Gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) is furious at the girls’ nasty behavior and seeks to punish them through suspension and the refusal of their prom tickets—a richly-deserved penalty lessened by bumbling Principal Morton (Stefan Gierasch) to a week’s detention with Miss Collins.

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Mean girl Sue, feeling guilty about her involvement in the assault, somehow convinces her boyfriend, handsome hotshot jock Tommy Ross (William Katt), to take Cassie to the Senior Prom, a development in Cassie’s social life that galvanizes mother Margaret, who sees it as yet another step towards sin and degradation for her daughter. Really mean girl Chris, out of the prom for smarting off to Miss Collins (who seriously belts Chris one), and with the aid of her stupid lout of a boyfriend, Billy Nolan (John Travolta), has other ideas for Cassie’s big social debut. But what none of them realizes, until too late, is that Cassie (“It’s Carrie!”) has the power of telekinesis, and she’s going to use it to exact her ultimate revenge.

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Just randomly picking several website forums that have apparently new viewers commenting on Carrie, as well as my having seen its subsequent small and big screen remakes and reboots over the past few years, it seems that De Palma’s little drive-in flick has morphed into a bona fide mythology and been adopted by a surprisingly large “school of resentment” crowd. For them, Carrie is the ultimate “victim” opus, thanks to the convergence of two of the biggest SJW bugaboos going around today: bullying (they don’t like that) and Christian bashing (they like that).

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Fans of the movie prior to the internet and the resulting era of perpetual social outrage liked Carrie for its scares and its laughs, which were heightened and deepened by the personal, private tones the movie managed to touch amid the jokes and the blood. Now, for a large number of new viewers (and apparently some unimaginative screenwriters and directors, too), Carrie is just another SJW weapon employed for superficial sociological and political posturing, a familiar touchstone referenced in anonymous forums as a means to gain dubious moral high ground over perceived enemies of social enlightenment (i.e.: anyone who disagrees with them). The bullied have become the bullies (Carrie White would not be amused).

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But self-perceived “losers” and “victims” don’t own the movie (“self-perceived,” because we used to be taught in school that you were only one of those, if you let yourself be one of those). Carrie has remained a fresh-feeling classic because it has a basic, primitive, universal appeal to our good side…and our bad. Despite claims of exclusivity by an increasing number of social sufferers, everyone at one time or another has felt how Carrie White feels: left out or misunderstood growing up; pushed around by an unsympathetic, uncaring adult; the pleasure and embarrassment of falling in love for the first time. And, like every child who sets up blocks only to knock them down, or who unknowingly role plays out their frustrations and aggressions with dolls or action figures, what kid—or adult, for that matter—hasn’t innocently fantasized about having the power to exact revenge on their tormentors, moving them around like puppets before smashing them to bits, just as Carrie does?

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Critics and viewers have lauded De Palma and Cohen for “getting” high school down in Carrie; I know when I first saw it at a drive-in re-release (with the dreary Robert Wise reincarnation snoozer, Audrey Rose: oy vey that hambone Anthony Hopkins…), the characters, despite the actors’ ages, were recognizable from the halls of my high school. Having watched Carrie so many times over the last couple of decades (always a solid go-to title around Halloween), its scares are necessarily lessened. However, that perverse, distanced De Palma humor is more appreciated.

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Who else but De Palma would give us that utterly brilliant opening? The cold, geometric lines of the volleyball court, shot from a pitiless Hitchcock “god’s eye view” P.O.V., are inhabited by predators and victims (Allen’s mean line reading, “You eat sh*t,” certainly seems out of proportion to Carrie’s “crime” of missing the volleyball), before De Palma immediately confuses us with a switch to gauzy, innocent, slo-mo eroticism, showing us these mean girls now happy and laughing—and totally nude—as Pino Donaggio’s sweet, sad remembrance music swells over their locker room frolicking. Frump-on-the-court Carrie White, momentarily released in the cleansing shower, is shown, in half-lit profile in the steamy spray, to surprisingly sensual effect, before her first period begins (like an innocent Eve discovering a bewildering sin) and De Palma discombobulates us further by switching to exceedingly uncomfortable sadism, as the girls taunt and terrorize a suddenly deglamorized Carrie (that rather shocking fish eye lens capture of Spacek’s nude body, looking like a creature out of Bosch). It’s a remarkable assembly of wildly opposing, clashing tones, and it puts the unsettled viewer on edge for the remainder of the movie.

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The rest of Carrie is just one more rug-pulling set-up after another for the viewer, through De Palma’s twisted, self-reflexive humor (past critics’ one-dimensional arguments about De Palma’s supposed misogyny are now quaintly moot: even before the increasingly hilarious “me too” witch hunts, the “film intelligentsia” branded him guilty of heresy just for being white, male and old). Repeat viewings only underscore how amusing Carrie is—particularly at the moments when we’re most strenuously not suppose to laugh.

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In a transcendent, brilliant performance (she was robbed at the 1976 Oscars), Piper Laurie manages to imbue Margaret White with a laugh-out-loud floridness that’s completely at odds with the horrible things she does to Carrie (even though Cohen and De Palma cut her some measure of understanding via her religious mania). We shouldn’t laugh at her adopting a deep, butch voice to make Carrie read, “Eve was weak!” but clearly De Palma was chuckling at Laurie’s insane twinkle in the eye. Travolta and Allen, hilarious together, are the movie’s overt comedy relief…at the same time they’re the movie’s most vile villains (sultry dream girl Allen’s memorable c*cktease scene with dumb oaf Travolta is both hysterical and sexy as hell). De Palma can’t even let us innocently swoon along with Carrie when she finds first love at the prom, as he counter-spins the camera to Carrie and Tommy twirling insanely on the dance floor: they laugh delightedly…while we feel like throwing up.

As for the prom itself, it’s delightfully garish and cartoony, as De Palma has a ball crawling and swooping with the camera, setting up the bickering Travolta and Allen as sensation-seeking numbskulls who pull the ultimate sick-joke high school prank. Having Travolta pulled out from under the stage, only to hit his head on a cymbal for Looney Tunes “Ta da!” punctuation, is the real De Palma, as Carrie’s horrific humiliation becomes total. Having suckered the audience, De Palma turns on the Grand Guignol, looping Margaret’s insane, screeching “They’re all gonna laugh at you!” as he executes the giallo-lit bloodletting with cold precision (the split screens aren’t just a stylistic gimmick: they help remove any potential sympathy for the victims by further isolating and boxing them in on the screen).

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Carrie’s final confrontation with her mother is even more baroquely deviant, with the utter sadness of poor Carrie reaching out to her equally emotionally wounded mother followed not by catharsis…but by a literal backstabbing and laugh-because-you’re-scared combat, complete with twirling little knives that sound like huge samurai swords slicing through the air, and an elevator ride straight to Hell (to those who think it unfair that Carrie is condemned at the end…she did kill a score of innocent kids in the process of eliminating her tormentors). By the final twist, we know something is up when De Palma has Sue inexplicably trancing in dreamy slo-mo to Carrie’s final resting place: De Palma scares/cracks us up one last time…while giving no quarter to any of his characters.

Particularly when we’re in the controlled studio interiors (such as the prom), the new 4K scan of Carrie’s original camera negative looks positively socko. Noted for its frequently gauzy 1970s cinematography (which tended to fog out in previous transfers), fine image detail in the new Blu-ray 1080p HD widescreen 1.85:1 transfer jumps significantly over the previous Blu release. Grain is very tight (except in a few scenes in the high school offices, perhaps due to the lower light levels and the slower film stock), while colors are correctly valued and skin tones more natural (the cartoony giallo colors at the prom sensationally pop here). Only during Sue’s walk to Carrie’s grave—particularly with that insert of the sign against the dark sky—did I see a noisy image.

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The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is full-bodied, with some impressive separate effects during the final conflagration. Volume levels are jacked up over the previous Blu release, but no distortion (dialogue and music sound exceedingly crisp and clean, with no hiss). The movie’s original mono track (split here) is included for purists. English subtitles are available.

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As for the extras, they’re more than plentiful…but if you listen to them all, they begin to repeat the same info from one to the other. New to this edition are a series of interviews with many of the principle cast and crew members (sorry: no new De Palma or Spacek or Irving, and no Travolta at all). First up: Writing Carrie (29:05), has Lawrence D. Cohen discussing, in interesting depth, how the script for Carrie was brought about, and the movie’s circuitous production timeline. Some context to what Cohen was doing prior to this assignment would have helped, while the extended discussion of the subsequent, troubled Carrie musical wasn’t particularly interesting (and couldn’t someone have moved that camera to break up one half hour of Cohen staring at us?).

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Shooting Carrie (15:22) features cinematographer Mario Tosi giving his perspective on how he became involved in the shoot (kind of mind-blowing to hear him suggest De Palma didn’t actually frame the shots here…). Tosi’s stories are fascinating, but subtitles would have helped us with his heavy Italian accent. Cutting Carrie (25:09) has editor Paul Hirsch giving his memories of the Carrie shoot. Some cool insight to the problems they had shooting the prologue and the finale (despite what he says, there is one brief shot in the final cut where you do see stones rain on the outside of the house—the 5.1 really brings out their presence, too).

Casting Carrie (16:05), has casting agent Harriet Helberg tell some fun stories about old-school casting (telephone calls, not email), as well as some tidbits that help fill in the movie’s history (it doesn’t help she apparently forgot to bring to the interview her list of actresses that were considered for the Carrie White role—she does mention Sondra Locke—while Louise Fletcher was on the short list for Margaret White). More Acting Carrie (20:19) has new interviews with William Katt, Betty Buckley, Piper Laurie, Nancy Allen, P.J. Soles, and Edie “Mrs. Marv Mendenhall” McClurg. A lot of repeat info from the older interviews included on this short, there are some amusing remembrances—Laurie says De Palma was the perfect director (“He told me nothing,”), while Katt claims, somewhat dubiously, that De Palma told Tosi to keep shooting when the prom set fire went out of control.

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Bucket of Blood (23:53, in Italian with English subtitles), is an absorbing interview with composer Pino Donaggio, where he spends a lot of time talking about working with De Palma (the love theme from Carrie is actually taught in Thai schools?). Unfortunately, the last of the new stuff is John Clark in one of those embarrassingly broad location revisits, Horror’s Hallowed Grounds. Movie location “expert” Clark hilariously shows us a real gym where he believes the prom sequence was shot (it was actually all shot on a soundstage set). Whoops there, Mr. Expert.

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Old stuff (shot full frame in 2001) from an earlier release of Carrie include Acting Carrie (42:42), which features interview clips from Sissy Spacek, Brian De Palma, Amy Irving, Piper Laurie, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, William Katt, P.J. Soles, Priscilla Pointer, and art director Jack Fisk. Excellent background on the movie (watch this one before you watch the new actor interviews), including Spacek using the fact that De Palma didn’t want her for the role, and Laurie confirming that De Palma was really shooting for satire, not straight horror. Visualizing Carrie (41:32) had De Palma, Fisk, Cohen and Paul Hirsch giving detailed info on pre-production (good stills of the cut “rain of stones” prologue scene, the construction of the house model). A Look at Carrie: The Musical (6:23), only goes so far as declaring the troubled musical dead in the water (it apparently came back). An original trailer (2:06), as well as trailers for the subsequent, inferior Carrie sequels and reboots are included on disc one with the feature. On the bonus disc with all the other interviews, there are also TV and radio spots (3:05 and 1:29, respectively), a still gallery with rare behind-the-scenes photos, posters and lobby cards (4:54), and finally a text gallery (17:03) detailing Stephen King’s writing Carrie the novel.

PAUL MAVIS IS AN INTERNATIONALLY PUBLISHED MOVIE AND TELEVISION HISTORIAN, A MEMBER OF THE ONLINE FILM CRITICS SOCIETY, AND THE AUTHOR OF THE ESPIONAGE FILMOGRAPHY. Click to order.Read more of Paul’s film reviews here. Read Paul’s TV reviews at our sister website, Drunk TV.

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