The Tytell Timeloop: “Carrie” (1976)

Welcome to the Tytell Timeloop, a column where I (Tytell) look at old teen movies from different decades in chronological order (a Timeloop) to see what different times have to say about the teenage experience.

Carrie (1976)—Angstus teenagus variety: emotional damage

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is a high school girl who lives with a hyper-religious mother and goes to a school where almost everyone (including school staff) bullies her practically non-stop. After Carrie’s gym class torments her for being afraid of her first period, their gym teacher Miss Collins (Betty Buckley) punishes them, forcing them to choose between going to detention or getting their prom tickets revoked.

The prom quickly becomes the focal point of the story, as we see characters’ differing plans for that night. Sue (Amy Irving) and her boyfriend Tommy (William Katt) feel bad for Carrie, and Sue arranges for Tommy to bring Carrie to prom to make her happy for once. Chris (Nancy Allen) is infuriated that her actions cost her her prom tickets and decides to take it out on Carrie. She and her sexually manipulated boyfriend Billy (John Travolta) orchestrate a plan to ruin Carrie’s night. Unfortunately for them, Carrie has been developing telekinetic powers that threaten the entire town.

Social critique: Bullying hurts everyone?
(Spoiler warning.) Every 15 minutes or so, I just sat in front of the screen shouting “why?” over and over again as I tried to piece together some meaning from this emotional torture fest. The film tries to show that everybody who abuses Carrie gets punished; symbolically, Carrie starts the movie with (period) blood on her but by the end everyone is covered in blood of some sort. (This is a horror movie by the way, in case that wasn’t clear.)

However, by leaning too hard into the “burn it down” ending that makes this movie so memorable, they sacrificed the thematic consistency of the film. After the most iconic scene in the movie, the entire audience laughs at her. So she kills them all. This part makes narrative sense. The problem is that she doesn’t spare the (few) people who have been on her side the whole movie, like Miss Collins who has always defended her. There is no sense of righteous revenge; everything is just sad and upsetting.

This isn’t like “Chicago,” where all of the characters are terrible people and the point is that there is no justice. This is just watching people be mean to a teenage girl for 98 minutes. I don’t understand the appeal of this movie, and I don’t understand why anybody would voluntarily watch this.

Modern perspective:
“Carrie” is an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, which makes sense since the entire movie is drenched in “men writing women” energy. It features two distinct showering scenes with full teenage(!) nudity. The girls’ motivations revolve almost entirely around prom and the guys who take them there. They are spiteful, manipulative and petty and generally have simple, selfish motivations. Granted, the men in this movie are practically devoid of character as well, but given that the movie focuses almost exclusively on women I expected a little more depth.

“Carrie” feels to me like it was written and directed for men to watch and feel like they are superior to the women in the movie. The most interesting part of this movie for me was realizing just how much worse things used to be in the 1970s when this sort of movie was socially acceptable. The crazy religious mother character is probably the only thing in this movie that still has relevance.

Teenage Take: What did the 1970s have to say about being a teen?
This movie doesn’t really have a message for what a teenager should be, and I don’t think the rest of the decade does either. I tried to find a 1970s teen movie like the other decades, but there just aren’t any good ones. The most notable teen films of the decade are explicitly period pieces of decades prior: “Grease” and “The Last Picture Show” take place in the 1950s; “American Graffiti” takes place in the 1960s. “Carrie” is quite the outlier as it is one of the only unabashedly ‘70s teen movies.

Unfortunately, “unabashedly ‘70s” is a Merriam-Webster-recognized synonym for “very dull and unmemorable.” Apart from disco and bad haircuts, there wasn’t much tying the decade together like the ‘50s or the ‘80s. It’s not a complete surprise that the 1970s never added as much to the teenage canon as James Dean or John Hughes. Notably, none of the most famous movies of the decade are really remembered as “‘70s” movies; they are all remembered for defining their genres and not the time they came out. (Think “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and “The Godfather.”)

Expect lots of:
Evangelism, gratuitous nudity, gratuitous slow-mo, Christian iconography, domestic abuse, relationship abuse, teacher abuse, verbal abuse, animal abuse, gym class, slapping, frilly ruffle suits, slow-mo, bad 1970s kaleidoscope effects, manipulation and far too many candles.

Should you watch it?
If you like watching mindless torture for the sake of watching mindless torture, then this still probably isn’t worth watching. “Carrie” goes by very slowly, as practically nothing happens in the first half of the movie. Scenes go on too long and barely develop the plot or the characters. It only ever focuses on how upset Carrie is the whole time, and I personally can’t comprehend how that would appeal to someone.

The prom scene is incredibly famous and worth watching if you care about film history, but you would probably be better off just reading a one-paragraph plot summary of the movie and watching that scene. There are better horror movies out there. There are better teen movies out there. Don’t waste your time.