Dance of death: Carrie turns 40

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Oct 21, 2016, 9:23 PM EDT

If you had a taste for terror in 1976, you probably took Carrie to the prom.

That's a slight twist on the marketing tagline for Carrie, Brian De Palma's screen adaptation of Stephen King's first published novel, which premiered in theaters exactly four decades ago this Nov. 3. The main character's coming-out party at her high school prom mirrored the commercial breakthrough of both her literary and screen fathers, although the latter both had less tragic results: while Carrie had been a best-seller, the combination of King's second novel, 'Salem's Lot, also becoming a sensation just as Carrie the movie became a box-office success, firmly established the young author at the top of the horror genre, where he's been perched ever since.

De Palma, meanwhile, had been struggling to establish himself as a director, ploughing through a string of little-seen films that either flickered briefly or failed outright (including two future cult classics in Sisters and Phantom of the Paradise). By the time he scored a modest hit with the Hitchcock homage Obsession in the summer of '76 -- just three months before Carrie came out -- he was poised for his make-or-break film. Carrie put him squarely on the map, leading to a career that would encompass more horror (The Fury), erotic thrillers (Dressed to Kill), sci-fi (Mission to Mars) and crime masterpieces (Scarface, The Untouchables). 

But none of this might have happened if King's wife Tabitha hadn't fished a few pages out of the wastepaper basket next to the little desk where King wrote in the trailer they lived in back in 1972. King came up with the story's infamous shower scene -- in which the awkward outcast Carrie is brutally teased by her classmates in the school locker room after she has her first period -- but threw it away after writing three pages, thinking he couldn't do it justice. Tabitha retrieved the pages, read them and urged her husband to continue. The planned short story became a novel, which sold to Doubleday in early 1973 and was published in hardcover on April 5, 1974.

The book sold modestly in hardcover but moved more than 1 million copies in paperback, and by then De Palma had read it and was interested in making it into a movie. United Artists picked up the project (King has said he was paid just $2,500 for the film rights before the paperback had become a hit). Lawrence D. Cohen worked on a script and the production was given the staggeringly high (cough) budget of $1.6 million (it later rose to $1.8 million).

In King's novel (and the movie), Carrie White -- a lonely, homely and shy wallflower who lives at home with her fanatical religious extremist mother Margaret -- is frightened when she gets her period in the locker room shower because her mother has never told her anything about menstruation (she claims it only happens to girls who sin). The teasing by her classmates reveals something else about Carrie: She is telekinetic, blessed/cursed with the power to move and control objects with her mind. It's an ability that her mother is convinced comes from Satan, forcing Carrie to keep it a secret.

When one of the girls involved in the locker room incident, Sue Snell, attempts to make it up to Carrie by having her hunky boyfriend Tommy take Carrie to the prom, it seems as if Carrie might finally break out of her shell. But another girl, Chris -- who was banned from the prom over the incident -- enlists her delinquent boyfriend Billy in a plot to humiliate Carrie once and for all: They manipulate the voting so that Tommy and Carrie are crowned king and queen of the prom and, when the couple ascends to the stage to be crowned, dump a bucket of pig blood on them. Tommy is hit in the head with the bucket and dies within minutes; everyone else stares in shock and finally begins to laugh -- sending Carrie into a rage that unleashes the full, terrifying force of her powers.

Aside from being a cracking good horror tale, Carrie touched on high school politics, small town class boundaries and the dangers of religious fanaticism and abuse. It was told in epistolary style -- broken up into a series of letters, investigation transcripts, newspaper and magazine articles, book excerpts and more, with stretches of conventional prose linking them together -- so remaining perfectly faithful to the book was out of the question. But Cohen and De Palma hit all the major plot points in the script and film, including the opening shower scene, several confrontations between Carrie and her mother at home, the execution of Chris and Billy's plot and, of course, the prom and its aftermath -- although budgetary restrictions did not allow Carrie to wreak havoc on the entire town of Chamberlain, Maine as she did in the novel.

Carrie didn't just kick up the careers of De Palma and King by a few notches: it made Sissy Spacek into a star -- she went to the audition without washing her hair or face, put on a dress she wore as a child, and got the part -- and landed her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (quick bit of trivia #1: there was a longstanding story that De Palma and George Lucas auditioned a bunch of actresses together for Carrie and Star Wars, and that Spacek was originally cast as Princess Leia in the latter while De Palma wanted Carrie Fisher for Carrie -- until Fisher declined to do nude scenes. Fisher says the story is not true). The film also boosted the fledgling careers of several other up-and-coming young actors, including John Travolta (Billy), Amy Irving (who made her screen debut as Sue), William Katt (Tommy) and Nancy Allen (who was on the verge of quitting Hollywood when she got the role of Chris). 

The film also resurrected the career of Piper Laurie, who returned to the screen after a 15-year absence to play Margaret White and earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her genuinely terrifying performance (Spacek and Laurie's nominations for a horror film were unprecedented and would not be repeated until Kathy Bates was nominated and won in 1991 for Misery -- another King adaptation). Laurie apparently thought that the character of Margaret was so over the top that they had to be making a black comedy -- despite De Palma constantly reminding her that they were shooting a horror picture.

Carrie was an instant smash with audience and critics when it came out, earning nearly $34 million at the box office (in 1976 dollars) off that measly, barely $2 million budget. Critics praised De Palma's direction and the lead performances, and King himself was said to be delighted with the movie. The film is in fact quite funny in certain passages, but overall it captures the mood and tone of King's story perfectly. Spacek and Laurie are both outstanding, with spirited supporting performances also coming from Irving, Katt, Allen and Travolta. (Quick bit of trivia #2: De Palma and Allen started dating and later married, while De Palma's friend Steven Spielberg also came to the set to reportedly check out all the "cute girls" in the film and ended up making Irving his first wife.)

Even after four decades of many more horror films and advances in special effects, the prom sequence remains incredibly powerful; watch it and tell me that you can look away from the sight of a blood-drenched, wide-eyed Carrie raining death and destruction upon her classmates and teachers (De Palma's judicious use of split-screen here -- which he cut down a lot in the editing room -- is also effective if a little dated now). And let's not forget the classic coda, in which Sue dreams that she is leaving flowers at the site of the Whites' destroyed  house, only for Carrie's bloody arm to reach out from the ground and grab her (that is actually Spacek under there, by the way -- she insisted on doing the scene). That ending made audiences jump four feet in the air 40 years ago, and can still do it now.

Carrie also remains one of the best Stephen King movies: with more than 100 movies and TV productions made from his work since, the film is easily one of the top five adaptations of the author's work, right up there alongside films like The Shining, Stand by Me, Misery and The Shawshank Redemption. A sequel (1999's The Rage: Carrie 2), a 2002 TV remake, a 2013 theatrical remake starring Chloe Moretz in the title role and a notoriously disastrous 1988 Broadway musical version all failed to capture even a hint of the essence of the original film. But the character of Carrie herself has become a permanent part of pop culture -- not bad for a girl whose sad, horrifying story nearly got thrown out with the trash.

(Carrie was just released this month in a new Blu-ray restoration by Scream Factory, also featuring new interviews with many of the cast members and filmmakers, a tour of the movie's locations today and other bonus content)