Carrie: five films that influenced Brian De Palma’s teen-horror classic

“If you got a taste for terror, then you have a date with Carrie…”

Neil Mitchell
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Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

It’s been 40 years since social pariah Carrie White (Sissy Spacek) first took that ill-fated walk onto the stage at the Bates High School senior prom to be crowned its queen alongside her king, Tommy Ross (William Katt). Four long decades since the ultimate mean girl Christine Hargensen (Nancy Allen) and her delinquent boyfriend Billy Nolan (John Travolta) pulled the rope that dropped the bucket of pig’s blood down onto the unsuspecting couple. The humiliating, vindictive prank would be brutally avenged by Carrie White as she unleashed the full fury of her latent telekinetic powers.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

One of cinema’s most stylishly executed set pieces, the prom night sequence in Carrie, climaxing in a chillingly prescient high-school massacre, is just one of the many reasons why this 1976 teen-oriented horror is a regular fixture in listicles and polls debating the genre’s high-points.

Directed by the prodigiously talented ‘New Hollywood’ filmmaker Brian De Palma, beautifully scored by Italian composer Pino Donaggio and adapted for the screen by Lawrence D. Cohen from Stephen King’s 1974 debut novel of the same name, this coming-of-age tale of bullying, revenge, supernatural power, religious fanaticism and emergent womanhood would subsequently have a huge influence on the wave of teen-focused horror and comedy movies that appeared in its wake.

Carrie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

With nine feature length films already under his belt, including Sisters (1973) and Phantom of the Paradise (1974), De Palma had been searching for a box office hit, and with Carrie he hit pay dirt. Released to little fanfare by an unconvinced United Artists on 3 November 1976, the $1.8m budgeted flick would go on to take over $33m, transforming both De Palma and the then fledgling author King’s subsequent careers in the process.

The Oscar-nominated performances of Spacek, as the titular downtrodden, telekinetic teen; a gloriously unhinged Piper Laurie as Carrie’s religious nut of a mother, Margaret; the deeply uncomfortable opening shower-room sequence; Margaret’s death by flying kitchen utensils; and the oft imitated hand-out-of-the-grave scene… these have all helped sustain Carrie’s reputation as a landmark entry into the horror canon.

Spawning countless imitators, two inferior remakes, an unnecessary sequel and a short-lived stage musical, Carrie’s impact on and place in popular culture is as strong and secure today as it was back in 1976. Which films, though, had an influence on Carrie? Here are five that had an impact – consciously or otherwise – on De Palma’s enduringly popular teen-shocker.

Vertigo (1958)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

The influence of Hitchcock’s body of work on De Palma’s career is well documented, with many of Hitchcock’s favourite themes, technical traits and stylistic predilections being integrated into the New Hollywood director’s own distinct style. The dazzling and symbolic 360-degree camera movement that circles Scottie (James Stewart) as he embraces Judy/Madeleine (Kim Novak) in Hitchcock’s critically lauded psychological thriller, for example, was recreated during the prom night sequence in De Palma’s film, as Carrie and Tommy dance and then kiss. In both scenes the characters are observed caught up in a heady mix of illusion and reality – with the world, and their lives, seemingly spinning out of control.

Psycho (1960)

Director Alfred Hitchcock

Psycho (1960)

After the stylistic influence Hitchcock’s Vertigo had on De Palma and Carrie, another of the original master of suspense’s films also played a part in shaping the adaptation of King’s novel. In Psycho’s case, though, it was the work of the great composer Bernard Herrmann that caught the ear of De Palma and Carrie’s Italian composer Pino Donaggio. The discordant, staccato violin motif that appears each time Carrie White’s telekinetic powers are displayed is an obvious nod to Herrmann’s iconic musical score to Psycho’s shower scene. Anguished and jarring, both pieces aurally reflect the on-screen disruption.

The Power (1968)

Director Byron Haskin

The Power (1968)

It’s fair to assume that Brian De Palma and Stephen King would have had their imaginations piqued by the TV shows and films in the late 60s/early 70s that dealt with some form of psychic phenomena. Reflecting society’s then growing interest in the area – the period when Uri Geller became a household name – the likes of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Byron Haskin’s big-screen sci-fi thriller The Power posited scenarios in which latent psychic abilities ran amok. Telekinesis is just one of the forms of psychic power on show in Haskin’s now rarely seen tale of mind control, military-funded research and superhumans.

Deliverance (1972)

Director John Boorman

Deliverance (1972)

Though De Palma’s teen-shocker and John Boorman’s bruising, and symbolic, backwoods thriller Deliverance have little in common thematically, one brief jolting scene in the latter would inspire one of Carrie’s most iconic sequences. Having survived a physically and mentally shattering weekend-from-hell in the remote Georgia wilderness, city dweller Ed (Jon Voight) has a nightmare in which the bloated hand of a corpse emerges from the fictional Cahulawassee River. Four years later, De Palma reworked Deliverance’s jump-scare in another nightmare sequence as Carrie White’s dead hand reaches out of the grave to grab hold of the arm of Sue Snell (Amy Irving), Carrie’s psychologically scarred, guilt-ridden final girl.

Black Christmas (1974)

Director Bob Clark

Black Christmas (1974)

Initially released to mixed reviews, but subsequently growing in stature, Bob Clark’s Canadian Black Christmas had a weighty impact on the horror movie genre. Produced by Clark himself and written by A. Roy Moore, this psychological proto-slasher was set in and around a sorority house, and helped establish the templates for the slasher sub-genre and horror movies set in educational establishments. Swap the sorority house for a high school and an unknown killer for a telekinetic teen and you have the teens-in-peril narrative framework still seen in countless horror movies to this day. The two films form an integral part of the modern horror genre’s evolution.

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