When Carrie was released in 1976, critic Pauline Kael was quick to point to Brian De Palma as the owner of “the wickedest baroque sensibility in American movies.” The Washington Post backed her up bycalling the film, “The Psycho of the present generation.”

The story of a butt-of-all-jokes high-school teenager, Carrie is a revenge-of-the-nerds tale, made all the more eloquent by its binary oppositions of light and shade, gothic imagery and, thanks to Lawrence D. Cohen’s script, intricate characterisation. The film’s overarching concern, however, shows a mythic view of woman as Force of Nature, a Furie whose destructive capacity is unleashed by primitive rites of passage brought on by the flow of menstrual blood.

De Palma had been making experimental, caustic social satires since 1968. Beginning with Sisters in 1973, however, he wanted to create films with more polish and professionalism. This first unsettling psychological thriller was followed by Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and Obsession (1976). But it was Carrie that marked the epicentre of his ‘red phase’, which culminated with Body Double in 1986, and was briefly resurrected in 1992 with Raising Caine.

De Palma has since gone on to win a grudging mainstream success with his action blockbusters, but his ‘red phase’ still remains problematic for many. One reason why audiences may find this phase of his career so unsettling could be because of the films’ subliminal content. By that I mean that his films masquerade as slick modernist parables while, on a subterranean level, they continue an archetypal discourse which destabilises our view of a rational order with brutal, symbolic truths.

Let’s take, for example, Raising Caine. On one level it is a split-personality absurdist thriller of the stranger-within variety. Yet, running beneath that, is a record of one man’s journey towards self-actualisation as a larger-than-life woman — a kind of steeped-in-blood hermaphrodite rising out of the ashes of a formerly split and uncertain male self. In De Palma if men are not hyper-masculine (Scarface [1983], The Untouchables [1987]), they are often in danger of sliding into some form of ritualistic transsexualism or, at the very least, sexual ambiguity (Dressed To Kill [1980], Phantom of the Paradise).

Carrie is a ‘woman’s film’ of a peculiar kind. Although it does not altogether exclude men from the screen, in the manner of George Cukor’s The Women (1939), it portrays a world from which men are either absent (Carrie’s [Sissy Spacek] father abandoned his family, Sue Snell’s [Amy Irving] father is never mentioned), or relegated to the periphery as awkward headmasters and ineffectual boyfriends, manipulated by the women. Nor does Carrie enlist our sympathies through the portrayal of maternal self-sacrifice for the benefit of a beloved daughter in the style of Stella Dallas (King Vidor, 1937) or Mildred Pierce (Michael Curtiz, 1945).

Carrie White’s world is a danse macabre, a medieval tableau of grotesqueries, freaks, angels and demons; of murk and gloom, with occasional flashes of light and poetry that are quickly swamped by more chthonic darkness.

In many ways, this troubling tale is closer to and predates the world portrayed in Zhang Yimou’s Raise the Red Lantern (1991). In both films we are privy to an enclosed, oppressive female space, in which the women turn on each other in vengeful combat. And just as Zhang penned his concubines inside a gilded cage, which slowly turns into a stifling prison, Carrie subverts our expectations of traditionally ‘safe’ architectural spaces to heighten the tension.

In De Palma, the intrusion of the uncanny into everyday life turns homely, domestic architecture into an inescapable torture chamber: Carrie’s home is no less a fiery pit straight out of Dante’s Hell than the school hall, decked out for the fatal prom dance. This is nowhere better exemplified than in the opening gymnasium shower sequence, in which the slow-motion, innocent sensuality of the girls in naked play is irrevocably shattered when they turn into a raving pack and metaphorically stone Carrie with sanitary napkins. It’s a brutal reality check from which we never recover, and it reminds us of the theme of duplicity at the heart of De Palma’s oeuvre.

This sequence always reminds me of Jean-August-Dominique Ingres’s painting, The Turkish Bath (1862). Filmed from a low angle, almost as if a Peeping Tom were crawling beneath the screen of steam, the sinuously gliding camera recalls the round peep hole which frames Ingres’s painting. Behind the obvious voyeuristic sensuality of the scene, there is an almost disturbing view into the world of female autonomy, free and at play, away from the influence of men. There’s an element, too, of Blake’s song of Innocence about to explode into harsh Experience.

But mostly it’s The Bacchae that comes to mind. In the latter part of Euripides’ play, Pentheus’ brief idyll of spying on the god Dionysius’ female followers is brutally shattered when they turn on him and rip him apart for his transgressions. Euripides describes Pentheus’ spying game in almost erotic terms as he slowly builds the tension and eventual eruption of violence. Similarly, it’s a brutal coming-down-to-earth for the cinematic voyeur in De Palma’s film who, having encroached on sacred female space, sees more than he bargained for. It’s a view of woman, as alluring yet potentially duplicitous and dangerous, that will be reinforced at various stages of the film. If the connection between the play and film seems spurious, all we have to do is recall that De Palma had filmed Dionysius in ’69, a split-screen documentary of the play, in 1969.

As is to be expected from De Palma, in Carrie nothing and no one is what they seem. Piper Laurie’s scripture-spouting Margaret White is an evangelical zealot in a saintly guise. Garbed in priestly black, she seems to absorb light and exude a malignant darkness. Sexy, blonde Chris Hargenson (Nancy Allen) is a spoilt, vindictive bitch who plots to destroy a classmate for no particular reason. They are the film’s two central deceptive faces of evil. But not even Amy Irving’s goody two-shoes Sue Snell is as faultless as she seems.

Tellingly, the only truly stable and reliable character appears to be that of Tommy Ross. As played by William Katt, Tommy comes across as a sexually ambivalent, seraphic-looking tragic heroine, complete with pre-Raphaelite golden locks cascading around his beaming feminine countenance. As his initial reticence towards Carrie melts, and his heart begins to soften towards her, he becomes Eros incarnate. In one of the film’s memorable sequences, a golden nimbus of light surrounds his head as he seemingly dances on air with a transported Carrie, who can’t believe her luck.

Throughout the film, Carrie wears a key on a string around her neck. Spacek revealed that the key is used to unlock a box kept under her bed, which contains, among other things, a photograph of Tommy and her father (these scenes were excised from the final cut). In a Freudian sense, Carrie has collapsed father into object of desire, and keeps them both imprisoned in her box. We can hardly overlook the echoes here of Ovid’s retelling of the incestuous tale of Myrrha and her father Cinyras in Metamorphoses.

In Greek and Roman mythology, the Furies were goddesses who avenged crimes, and particularly offenses against the family. In one version of the myth, the three sisters were engendered by the drops of blood that fell upon the ground after Kronos, the primal Father, was castrated. In Stephen King’s book (on which the film is based) it is stated that Carrie’s father is the bearer of the ‘telekinesis gene’, which he has bequeathed upon his daughter. Seen from young Carrie’s point of view, the absent father is like a distant god who descends to plant his seed in a mortal before ascending the heights of Olympus, never to be seen again. Although she lives in an earthly matriarchy, Carrie is very much under the spell of a patriarchal force which keeps her in thrall.

But the key has deeper symbolic significance. Firstly, it symbolises Hecate, Greek goddess of Shades and sorcery. It is also symbolic of mystery or enigma, and represents the unconscious. Carrie would appear to be on the threshold of uncovering a magical potential which, when unleashed on her tormentors, will make a sorceress of her. And, as we discover in the final moments of the film, give her a kind of power over death itself, thus justifying Margaret White’s constant referral of her daughter as a ‘witch.’

To compliment her director’s vision, for the part of Carrie White, Sissy Spacek borrowed her intense, expressionistic body language from early Christian icons of tortured saints and martyrs. De Palma’s visual aesthetic seems to have been derived from Bosch’s paintings, via the mordant humour and charnel house poetry seen in the Universal horror films of the 1940s.

Despite the occasional humour, and John Travolta’s delightfully whacked-out comic performance, nowhere in Carrie is there a sign of redemption from original sin, which locks all its female characters in a preordained, cyclical blood-bondage.

In De Palma, blood outside the body, apart from representing a memento mori, signifies a break in normality. After the opening shower sequence, the next time we see blood will be during the prom sequence, when the blood that is normally contained within the body rains down on the hapless girl, thus bringing an otherwise normal prom dance to a cataclysmic end. In Dressed To Kill, the first sign that the end is near comes when blood erupts, like a weird red mouth, to the surface of Angie Dickinson’s palm — a scene oddly reminiscent of Jean Cocteau’s surrealist visual poem, Blood of a Poet (1930). But in Carrie blood also takes on a pagan resonance, which is supported by an Old Testament view of the world.

Margaret White’s prayer, “And the Lord visited Eve with a Curse, and the Curse was the Curse of Blood” is Judeo-Christianity’s pronouncement on women for challenging the will of God. But traces of menstruation as occult stigma can be found earlier and outside of Christianity. There are reports that many African and South American native cultures considered a girl at puberty as unclean, and a possible source of disease. Elaborate rituals were devised to halt her impurity before it contaminated the community. (In some Australian Aboriginal tribes, it was believed that if a man were to come in contact with anything a menstruating woman had touched he would perish.)

Moreover, as the very sight of her was dangerous, a girl at puberty would be isolated for up to several years in elaborately constructed houses. Intriguingly, an African tribe called these shelters ‘house of the Awasungu’, that is, ‘of heartless maidens’ — a term that may be applied to Carrie after she annihilates the best and brightest of Bates High School. But, in the early stages of the film, only Carrie’s tormentors can be thus termed. In yet another ironic touch, Carrie’s maniacal mother will prove to have the least heart where her daughter’s welfare is concerned.

The dark vortex, or the ‘house of the Awasungu’ in Chamberlain, is the faux gothic, ironically named, White House. It is from this location that De Palma will enlarge his malefic female space to encompass the entire town. In his revised universe, the tiled, echoing school shower room (an ambivalent space at the best of times) becomes an extension of the house of the heartless maidens, and Carrie’s own blood, now smeared over her face, hands and thighs, becomes her symbolic anointment and rebirth into the mysteries of womanhood, made to stick with vitriol from other members of the gang. “You’re a woman now,” her mother will later say.

Certain Indian tribes of California believed that a girl at her first menstruation was possessed of a particular degree of supernatural power, and one of the injunctions against her was that she may not look about her, lest she cause the crops to wither. In light of this, we can see a certain kind of primitive magic at work when Carrie’s nascent capacity for telekinesis first erupts during the shower sequence. Later, once Carrie consciously acknowledges her power, she will harm her enemies by looking or focusing her attention onto them.

When good girl Sue Snell asks her boyfriend, school jock Tommy Ross, to take Carrie to the prom, she pushes him towards Carrie at the worst possible time. Sue is trying to make up for her part in the shower-room caper, but she unwittingly paves the way for Tommy’s destruction. As the only man to come into close contact with Carrie after she begins menstruating, he pays the ultimate price by becoming the epicene sacrificial lamb at the feet of the goddess during prom night.

Fear of the freak? Yes, possibly, but ultimately, the film shows a social conscience arguing unsuccessfully against a fear of woman. After establishing Carrie as an outcast, the film’s middle section is a process of defanging the monster. A great deal of time and energy is devoted into turning the skulking, sullen girl into a princess ready for her entry into acceptable society. Tommy woos his intended relentlessly. Carrie sews a new pink dress, and even tries on eye makeup. Even other women collude to bring Carrie into the fold.

It’s the kind of rescue mission to save a damsel in distress De Palma is known for. And as will happen in Blow Out (1981), De Palma will fail to rescue the girl. But, in the final analysis, you can’t keep a good woman down. It’s as futile as Darren’s attempts to stop his wife Samantha from using her witchcraft in Bewitched.

As fate would have it, during her night of romance at the prom, Carrie is forced into unleashing her repressed daemonic self. In the process she turns into a deranged Furie whose appetite for vengeance can only be sated by blood, before she sinks back into the Underworld. The film’s coda is ‘Carrie White Burns In Hell’. But, as the true sorceress incarnate that she is, Carrie’s influence will persist beyond the grave, and into the nightmares of those who would make a sport of torment. As one in a long line of femme fatales, her power has no beginning and no end.