Based upon the first published novel by horror maestro Stephen King, the horror drama Carrie was also the first major success for director Brian De Palma. A modest low budget production, there's a lot to be admired in this film, which is regarded as a classic of the horror genre.
The film tells the story of Carrie White (Sissy Spacek), a shy, awkward teenage girl who is a social outcast at her school. It begins with a harrowing incident in a locker room, where Carrie is bullied and humiliated by her fellow students. Shortly afterwards it's revealed that Carrie has (or is developing) telekinetic powers, demonstrated by her destroying and knocking things over. The only person who appears to have any sympathy for Carrie is her gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley). Her home life is equally bad - her mother (Piper Laurie) is a cruel religious fundamentalist who believes that just about everything is a sin, and who sees Carrie's powers as witchcraft. Two of Carrie's classmates take an interest in her - Chris (Nancy Allen) wants to hurt her, and Sue (Amy Irving) seemingly takes pity on her. Sue convinces her boyfriend to take an understandably suspicious Carrie to the prom. The buildup to the prom and the event itself comprise the bulk of the film, and it is where the film's unforgettable climactic scenes play out and where Carrie's telekinetic powers are fully unleashed.
The story is actually fairly basic - my summary above covers it quite well, I think. The film's more character-driven than plot-driven, and as such it works very well. There's no 'horror' in the conventional sense; the horror comes in a more realistic form - the horror of cruelty. Most of the supporting characters are sketchily drawn and two dimensional, but believable enough to drive the story forward. It's the main characters, Carrie and her mother (and in particular the conflict between them), that are the heart of the story. Carrie is sympathetic and real, and her plight is one most people can relate to - not fitting in, but desperately wanting to. It's easy to root for her and share in her joy when things seem to finally be going well, which is what makes the final events so gut-wrenching.
The screenplay and De Palma's direction work hand in hand in laying the plot and character groundwork to set up the final 40 or so minutes. There's a great buildup of tension as the final act arrives, and while it's predictable, it never felt contrived and I never felt cheated by it - the film truly earns its tragic and shocking payoff. Despite what she ends up doing, Carrie remains a sympathetic figure who was molded into what she was by those around her, and it's easy to understand her actions. As with many of De Palma's films, there's a signature scene featuring slow motion and editing between characters and actions that sticks in your mind long after the film's over. It also features some striking imagery and great camerawork. The only element that really fails completely is De Palma's use of the famous violin motif from Psycho - it's unintentionally funny when it's meant to be scary.
Everything else that work's in the film would be for nought were it not for two great performances. One is Piper Laurie as Carrie's mother. Her performance is so over the top that it ought to be ridiculous, but it ends up being kind of scary. People doing horrible things in the misguided belief that they're doing the right thing is the scariest kind of villainy, and it's easy to believe that Laurie's character believes in all the bullshit that she spouts. The actor whose shoulders the film rests on most is Sissy Spacek, who does a wonderful job as the eponymous protagonist. Despite being quite attractive, she's still convincingly awkward and out of place. Her character goes through the gamut of emotions and Spacek always feels genuine and never drops the ball. The rest of the cast are alright, but no one really stands out. Except John Travolta, who's (I think unintentionally, but I'm not sure) really funny as Chris's (the villainous girl) boyfriend.
In short, Carrie's a compelling horror drama that's let down a bit by some silly 'scares', sketchily written supporting characters, and a ho-hum supporting cast. It's a flawed classic that's definitely worth checking out.