By the early 1980s, Stephen King was such a juggernaut that any movie made from his work was immediately "a Stephen King movie," but in 1976 he was just a guy who'd written one successful novel, and thus Brian De Palma may be the only director who ever made a Stephen King movie without the burden of the author's huge fanbase to deal with. I don't know if that has anything to do with why Carrie is such a great movie, but it certainly feels like De Palma's film from start to finish, even though it adapts King's book pretty faithfully. It's an excellent marriage of material and director, and De Palma knows exactly how to handle every element of the story, creating that nauseating sense of teen isolation just as well as he evokes horror and helplessness during the movie's climax.
Sissy Spacek is just as key to the movie's success, giving one of her best performances as the scared, vulnerable and defiant Carrie White, the sheltered teen girl who discovers her telekinetic powers and takes bittersweet revenge on her heartless classmates. One of the great things about Carrie is that it isn't some sort of crowd-pleasing revenge story -- sure, mean girl Chris Hargensen (Nancy Allen) and her thug boyfriend (John Travolta) deserve every bit of their grisly fate, but the other students at Carrie's school range from hapless bystanders to genuinely concerned people, including Sue Snell (Amy Irving) and her amiable boyfriend Tommy Ross (William Katt), who escorts Carrie to the prom. The movie is horrifying because it's tragic -- for Carrie, for her mother, for her fellow students. Instead of being cathartic, the final massacre is unbelievably sad, and that's what makes it powerful.
And De Palma knows how to play on those emotions. Even though I've seen the movie numerous times, I still found myself riveted during the lead-up to Carrie's getting doused in pig's blood at the prom, hoping irrationally that Sue would spot Chris in time and stop the whole thing. The suspense comes not so much from the danger (although even if you're not familiar with the movie, you'll know that Carrie is dangerous when she's angry) but from the extreme empathy, the feeling of wanting Carrie to have her tiny moment of happiness. Spacek does a great job of playing meek and reserved, but she blossoms so beautifully when Carrie stands up for herself and gets dolled up for the prom that your heart goes out to her even as you know what horrors are about to unfold.
De Palma's penchant for long takes and elaborate tracking shots dovetails nicely with the story, casting an unblinking eye on the cruelties of teen life and refusing to look away from Carrie's humiliations. Carrie is my favorite King movie not only because it captures the humanistic spirit of the author's approach to horror, but also because it's a bravura piece of filmmaking on its own, a tense, fevered examination of repression and retribution.
How far to Castle Rock: Although the book takes place (of course) in small-town Maine, the movie was shot in sunny California, and it actually works well for the story, contrasting the laid-back environs with Carrie's draconian home life.