For the last 25,000 words or so, we’ve been talking about something that seems unimaginably distant: the world of cinematic horror in the time before Stephen King. Although he’s written plenty of screenplays, scripted a handful of comics, and directed just one (and only one) unforgettable, disastrous feature film, King is first and foremost a novelist. Yet no other creator has had as much influence on the last five decades of horror movies. Almost every King novel has been adapted to film — Carrie has been adapted to film no less than three times — and the results include a staggering list of modern classics, both inside the horror genre (e.g., The Shining, 1980; The Dead Zone, 1983; Misery, 1990) and out (Stand by Me, 1986; The Running Man, 1987; The Shawshank Redemption, 1994). The finest of these films tend to be auteur-driven, cases where King’s story resonated with the obsessions of the filmmaker, who made it his or her own. Ultimately, though, these are all still King’s stories, and King’s imagination is the place where the last few generations of American filmgoers (and readers) met some of the first things that really scared them. His work is no less potent today: the 2017 adaptation of King’s massive 1986 novel, It, is (as of this writing) the top-grossing horror film ever released…and it’s still in theaters. King’s legacy all began quietly enough in April 1974 with the debut of Carrie, “a novel of a girl with a frightening power.”
“It’s a skinny little thing,” King would say of Carrie in a 2009 interview with Kerri Miller (video), “but it made me what I am.” Carrie — a dark Cinderella story about a teenage girl who unleashes a psychic fury on her bullies — is indeed a slight book, closer in length and structure to the novellas that comprise King’s Different Seasons (1982) and Full Dark, No Stars (2010) than to the mammoth epics for which he’s best known. But Carrie also just feels different from his later work.
As King notes in the same interview, his literary output prior to Carrie was dedicated to publication in “mostly the sort of magazines where, you turn ‘em sideways, the picture falls out.” He wasn’t writing pornography; “gentlemen’s magazines” of the era, patterned after Hugh Hefner’s Playboy, often ran general interest prose pieces. (Most of these stories appear in King’s 1978 collection, Night Shift.) Carrie’s engine turns on the succinct language and brisk pacing of latter-day pulp fiction, a far cry from the campfire storyteller’s style King would establish in his next novel, 1975’s ‘Salem’s Lot, and would rarely deviate from afterward. Missing is the local color that would define him as the quintessential Maine writer — although Carrie takes place in small town Maine, the setting isn’t evoked in any way that makes it unique (or risks alienating a wide readership) — but more jarringly absent is the warmth and humor, the humanity, that characterizes so much of King.
Carrie is a cruel story, told from a detached remove. It’s tempting to speculate that King sheared away sentiment in the editing process, chopping the novel down to deliver maximum performance. He was, after all, accustomed to writing with tight word counts in mind, and to competing for the reader’s attention against nubile nudes. But King probably wouldn’t agree with that conclusion, nor with any explanation for the book’s coldness that boiled down to simple aesthetics. In his 1981 non-fiction book, Danse Macabre, he points to the “difficult personal circumstances” he labored under while composing Carrie, and says that “I…[now] get a peculiar sort of feeling from it…as if I had written it while suffering from a bad case of mental and emotional flu.”
As he discusses in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft (1999), King was in his mid-twenties, married, a father, and in desperate poverty when he conceived of Carrie. He began work unsure the result would be saleable. And he was discouraged by the dawning awareness that — in embarking upon a novel about young women — he might be in over his head: “I had landed on Planet Female,” he writes. King threw away the first three pages, but his wife found them. Tabitha King, herself a writer, saw what her husband could not, and insisted he continue. He knew nothing about what it was to be a girl in high school, he said. She assured him she would help with that.
Carrie isn’t quite alone in the King canon — King would go on to write a few novels with female leads, like Dolores Claiborne (1992) and Lisey’s Story (2006) — but in his most industrious period, the 1970s and 1980s, he seemed hesitant to revisit “Planet Female.” Though King’s women are usually drawn sympathetically and well, nearly all of his most popular novels are driven by male protagonists. Despite King’s dominance of the genre in the years to come, however, horror films led by women were soon to become the norm. Carrie was a catalyst.
Horror in 1976
Jaws (1975) was a smash hit. Well, no. Jaws was the most successful film of all time — at least until 1977, when Star Wars premiered. In the wake of such a phenomenon, one might have expected film studios to model their horror vehicles on Jaws’ technical ingenuity, or its focus on character as the impetus for drama, or the way it grounded its suspense elements in the stuff of real life for heightened believability. But of course what actually happened was they made a truckload of movies about killer animals, and all of them were godawful.
The biggest problem these films faced — beyond the questionable talents of their makers — is that most animals don’t inspire fear. The average animal stands somewhere on a spectrum between “this animal exists” and “awwww.” The bloodworms of Squirm are definitely gross; when one character dies screaming as he sinks into a living whirlpool of worms, it’s simultaneously nauseating and hilarious. But it isn’t scary. The gigantic chickens (!) of The Food of the Gods (“based on a portion of the novel by H.G. Wells”) are quite something, but they’re only marginally scarier than the gigantic rats, which aren’t scary at all, and which appear to be actual rats turned loose to scurry around on dollhouse-sized sets and climb over toy cars. Director William Girdler — who had already shamelessly ripped off The Exorcist (1973) with Abby (1974) — now shamelessly ripped off Jaws with Grizzly, in which forest rangers hunt (but, for most of the film’s runtime, somehow fail to locate) a people-hating, fifteen-foot, two-thousand-pound bear, culminating in a final confrontation that can only have one possible ending (video). And then there’s Dogs, a film that pits an overqualified cast (including “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”’s David McCallum) against…dogs. That’s it. A bunch of regular old dogs. The dogs have had enough of humanity, and it’s hard to argue with them. Because they’re right to feel that way, probably, and because they’re dogs.
With horror the biggest game in town, Hollywood was in the mood to throw money at prestige projects, too. Most notable was Richard Donner’s The Omen, the story of an American diplomat (Gregory Peck) who discovers that his little boy is the Anti-Christ. The film’s wintry London setting casts a gloomy pall, and Jerry Goldsmith’s classic, much-parodied theme song (“Ave Satani”) lends the affair an operatic gravity. Packed to the rafters with preposterous, occasionally gruesome moments — a balletic decapitation, a priest (“Doctor Who” star Patrick Troughton) impaled by a flying lightning rod, a baboon attack, a truly spectacular suicide involving both hanging and reverse defenestration (staged at a child’s birthday party), and so on — The Omen should be over-the-top, but Donner’s stately direction and Peck’s indefatigable dignity keep it classy.
Dan Curtis’ Burnt Offerings is another big-ticket production, but it seems cheap and campy anyway. A couple (Oliver Reed and Karen Black) rent a California estate for the summer, where they will live with their young son and the patriarch’s mother. The house psychically feeds on the family’s pain, leeching away their vitality to restore itself; in the film’s only truly disturbing sequence, said mother (Bette Davis, somehow), a hale and hearty older dame, is reduced to a whimpering wreck, then expires. Curtis has a fantastic ensemble at his disposal, and can conjure a mood. But Burnt Offerings drags. By the end, reality is so warped we no longer know what’s happening. But we do know we’ve been watching it happen for a long time.
The most interesting films were exploitative oddities, cases where low budgets meant low stakes, and the freedom to get weird. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a surreal Freudian psychodrama about a woman whose childhood sexual abuse has twisted her need for love into a compulsion for sex and murder. J.D.’s Revenge, in which a straight-arrow law student is possessed by the ghost of a murdered pimp, is a serious inquiry into modern masculinity. Jodie Foster stars in The Little Girl Who Lives down the Lane, the story of a teenager whose parents have vanished under mysterious circumstances, and whose solitary existence is threatened by a stalker (Martin Sheen). God Told Me To is a gritty police procedural that begins with our hero tracking down a cult leader, but unfolds into something deeply bizarre, with a central twist that must be seen to be appreciated.
Then there’s Assault on Precinct 13. It was the second feature from a complete unknown, but you’d never guess that from the way he plastered his name all over the credits like it was the greatest selling point in the world: written, scored and directed by John Carpenter. (Carpenter also edited the film, but in an apparent moment of modesty, attributed that task to a pseudonym.) His high self-opinion was warranted — Assault is electrifying. In it, a street gang declares war on a recently decommissioned police station, and the small group of cops and prisoners inside must band together for survival.
Assault is an action thriller, but the army of silent, relentless hoods laying siege to the station may as well be zombies (or a legion of satanically-influenced street people, as in Carpenter’s 1987 Prince of Darkness). And its treatment of violence speaks the language of horror. The story is set in motion by a murder that is unbelievably shocking, both in terms of what the film shows and how blunt that depiction is. Violence here is not sport or entertainment, but an annihilating event. Our protagonists are early sketches for the swaggering tough guys who would populate so many Carpenter films, but the danger they’re in is oppressive, their victory by no means assured.
Carpenter was, from the outset, a strong and singular voice, an auteur with a clear passion for making movies. But it’s not clear that he had any attachment to a genre. Behind him was a sci-fi comedy, and at decade’s end there would be TV movies, including an Elvis biopic (which, fatefully, would team him for the first time with Kurt Russell). Still, Assault on Precinct 13 showed the promise of a genius for horror in his work…a promise that would soon be fulfilled.
Our Feature Presentation
You know the story. High school student Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), already a social pariah, gets her first menstrual period in the shower after gym class. Carrie is so sheltered — and her school is evidently so ill-equipped to impart the basic facts of life — that she has no idea what’s happening to her. Naked, her hands and thighs covered in blood, her eyes wide with terror, Carrie emerges from the shower screaming, begging her classmates to help her. They don’t. And as a result, by the end of the film, almost all of them will be dead.
Carrie is telekinetic — that is, she smashes ashtrays and shatters light bulbs and knocks bratty little kids off their bikes with her mind — and the onset of her abilities coincides with the dawning of her sexual maturity. There’s an impulse to seize on that and read the film as a feminist parable. If so, however, this is feminism courtesy of director Brian De Palma, who begins Carrie with a (literally) steamy stroll through a ladies’ locker room, where he treats the viewer to the sight of what must be a dozen nude, barely-legal girls with bodies like exotic dancers, sauntering in slow motion. Yours Truly does not, of course, suggest that Carrie lacks a sincere interest in the inner lives of young women. But the film’s brazen fetishization of its subjects does complicate matters.
Carrie is dismissed from school for the day (“Go home, take care of yourself, Cathy,” the principal says), and we discover the nightmare that is her private life. Her mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie), is a black-clad ascetic devoted to some intense, homegrown version of fundamentalist Christianity. Margaret makes her own clothes (including a pretty spiffy cape) with a sewing machine, and funds her lifestyle by harassing her neighbors with the Good News about Jesus until they give her money to go away. If she were alone in the world, Margaret might just seem sad and creepy. Unfortunately for Carrie, Margaret is not alone.
Carrie has been Margaret’s victim from birth, but today something has changed. Carrie tells her mother of the disaster at school, of her terror and incomprehension, of her classmates’ vicious, gleeful mockery. Margaret, naturally, interprets her daughter’s normal and inevitable blossoming into womanhood as the work of Satan Himself. But in the face of Margaret’s rantings, Carrie has only one question: “Why didn’t you tell me, Mama?” Margaret browbeats Carrie into submission and shoves her into a closet to pray for absolution. The girl’s companions will be a weathered Bible and a strange, sad-eyed crucifix that looks like a voodoo doll. She is no stranger to the place. When she is released, hours later, Carrie kisses her mother goodnight and goes to her room. Carrie stares at herself in the mirror. It shatters. She tells her mother the sound was nothing.
The only authority figure who has Carrie’s back is her gym teacher, Miss Collins (Betty Buckley), but — in the film’s dark logic, where any act of kindness serves as a gateway to greater injury — Miss Collins’ effort to punish the girls who teased Carrie leads to Carrie’s tragic climax. The girls must surrender themselves to Miss Collins for a week of detention, or lose their prom privileges. Detention amounts to drill instruction, and snotty senior Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) isn’t having any of it. Chris barely endures an afternoon of this humiliation before mouthing off. Infuriated, Miss Collins slaps her, and Chris is out of the prom. She will be attending anyway.
For help with the diabolical scheme she’s concocted, Chris turns to her boyfriend, Billy Nolan (John Travolta). (De Palma would team Allen and Travolta again, on 1981’s Blow Out.) Billy is a behind-the-times greaser (punk rock must still be a few years away from this backwards burg), and everything bad and dangerous in him meets a match in Chris. Together, they speed into a night-world of drag-racing and drunk driving for the hell of it, a realm where life is meaningless, where sensation is all that matters. This nihilism may make it easier to beat a pig’s brains in, as Chris would have Billy do, but it doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain the joy taken in it.
It’s shocking when Billy casually strikes Chris for being rude to him — and then, moments later, hits her again — and it speaks volumes. Miss Collins was just as vicious to Chris. Margaret is even more abusive to Carrie. These are not isolated incidents. Trapped in a tiny nowhere town, it’s no wonder that stressed-out, anxious people would unleash their frustrations upon one another. Carrie has, almost at random, become the target of Chris’ free-floating life-rage…but if Carrie weren’t there, the target would be somebody else.
But not just anybody else. There’s a social hierarchy at work — teacher over student, man over woman, woman over lower-status woman. Chris may try to defy it by lashing out at Miss Collins, at Billy, but she can’t beat the system. Beautiful and popular, Chris exerts effortless control over the other girls in her class, but that’s not enough. Her anger can only be satisfied by destroying a human being. Perhaps the sight of Carrie, screaming and begging and soaked with the evidence of her own femininity, showed Chris something she recognizes in herself, and hates…Margaret’s “weakness of Eve.” But it might be simpler. Carrie is poor, and weird, and friendless. She’s fair game. She’s easy prey.
Still more inscrutable are the motivations of Carrie’s only sympathetic classmate, Sue Snell (Amy Irving). Although Sue instigated the bullying of Carrie, she’s the only one of the girls who shows any remorse. Alone among her peers, Sue seems destined for better things. It’s no surprise that she would feel ashamed of herself, or that she would attempt to undo the damage. It is a surprise, however, that she would try to set things right by sending her own boyfriend, football hero Tommy Ross (William Katt), to the prom with Carrie.
Tommy skates through life on every known variety of privilege, but he’s not the type to inspire resentment. He’s a positive, likable guy, and he projects a laidback confidence that, in a happier story, might ultimately lead him to a job selling insurance (successfully), or governing the state of Maine (badly). Carrie falls for Tommy on the basis of a poem he wrote for class, a plea for tolerance that has her (and us) thinking Tommy is deeper than he lets on…but then it turns out he didn’t write it. So who is the real Tommy? Why does he go along with Sue’s idea, and why does he pursue Carrie after she spurns his initial invitation, thinking it’s a trick? Katt’s layered performance convinces us there is a reason, even if Tommy himself couldn’t name it. Carrie captures an impulsivity, a sense of being swept away by larger forces, that feels true to the experience of young adulthood.
The prom is named Love among the Stars, and the aluminum foil stars that dangle from the ceiling, catching the light, cast a humble magic upon the proceedings. The band is cheesy, the tuxedos ridiculous in a uniquely ‘70s fashion. Yet there is something beautiful, for those open to seeing it. “It’s nice,” Carrie says dreamily. “It’s like…being on Mars.” Another film might make a joke of Carrie’s naivete, but no: she is transported, and so are we. At home is her awful mother and the praying closet and a thousand other miseries, but Carrie is intoxicated by a heady brew of hormones, high romance, and wild-eyed excitement for a potential future she never thought possible until tonight. If the film kept an ironic distance, let us laugh even a little bit at Carrie’s innocence, the film wouldn’t work. We have to believe in Carrie, hope against hope for her, and we do.
If we didn’t, it wouldn’t hurt so much when all her hope is — at a stroke — taken away.
You know the story. Carrie, covered in pig’s blood, is the image you see on the poster; in 2017, Carrie, covered in pig’s blood, is a Funko Pop! figure. She’s as iconic as the Alien, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Jigsaw. And yet Carrie is not truly a villain here. She is the woman wronged, anointed with war paint, bathed in blood like a wrathful Kali. What makes Carrie a horror story is not what Carrie does at the end, but all that’s been inflicted upon Carrie before that. The villain is a society that would treat a person this way, that wouldn’t merely be indifferent to her suffering, but would revel in it. The world of Carrie is an evil one. And in destroying it, Carrie White becomes our heroine.
Next Time: But school’s not out quite yet! Be here for a look at 1977, and Dario Argento’s Suspiria.
(All images appearing in this article are intended for editorial use only.)