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carrie-2While Brian DePalma’s film of Stephen King’s novel Carrie is famous as a horror movie, the blood doesn’t flow until the last act, and even most of that is fairly stylized. The film’s real “horror” comes not from the gore but from its razor sharp depiction of American teenage life. The film packs a wallop, but its power results not from its violence and contrived fears but from its nasty reminder of the four years of perdition known as high school.

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is an awkward, repressed teen picked on by everyone. She experiences her first period in the shower after gym class. Ignorant of what is happening, she panics and screams for help, only to be viciously teased by the other girls. When their instructor punishes them for their cruelty, the nastiest of the girls, Kris (Nancy Allen) hatches a grotesque practical joke for revenge. When the trick is sprung on Carrie, she goes berserk, killing all and sundry as her telekinetic powers are uncontrollably released.

DePalma shoots and cuts this story with a mastery that alternates between sympathy and cynicism, but it is Spacek’s performance that makes the film. She manages to turn Carrie into more than a stick figure who sets the bric-a-brac flying. Painfully pathetic and ignorant, Carrie is nonetheless not a whining pain, because Spacek burrows down deeply into the character. The fact that Carrie’s mother (Piper Laurie) is a Bible quoting monster helps build our sympathy with the character, but it is Spacek that moves beyond the stereotypical conventions of the situation to make us care and believe in her plight.

The genre requires the mother be depicted as such an over-drawn caricature. The callow, shallow hedonistic barbarity of the other teens is far more realistic, if drawn satirically, and thereby much more frightening. Their depiction, particularly Kris, is all too accurate. Whatever Carrie’s social awkwardness, nothing she does warrants the way she is treated by these bored little snots who are sadistic out of sheer pettiness. That evocation of teenage hell makes it easy for us to project all of the slights and abuses from our own adolescence on to Carrie.

Which, however, points to the film’s biggest problem. The film’s glib, superficial, but undeniably accurate social commentary does not sit very comfortably with the horror excesses. This is, after all, a story about a girl with supernatural powers implicitly linked with the forces of evil. The film flows with a compelling sureness of touch. You don’t have time to question it and DePalma’s opulent style keeps you wrapped up in the situation, no matter how implausible. When Carrie is over, however, absent the rich, smooth unfolding of sight and sound, it quickly falls apart in the memory because there just isn’t enough to hold it together. To say it is a realistic film about telekinesis therefore pretty ably captures its contradictions and the limits of its success.