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It is not hyperbole to say that on the weekend of April 5, 1974, popular culture was upended. On the Friday, the debut novel of horror’s greatest ever writer was published, and on the Saturday, a pop group from Sweden won Eurovision 1974 and influenced pop music for over a decade.

With his debut novel Carrie, a 27-year-old school teacher from the relative backwater of Maine was propelled to stardom, and Stephen King’s name would be cemented as a household one once the film adaptation, directed by Brian De Palma and with, as we will discuss, a score by Italian singer and composer and Sanremo Music Festival regular Pino Donaggio, was released on November 3, 1976.

As we celebrate ABBA’s explosion into the limelight this weekend with “Waterloo,” so too will we celebrate the debut novel of a writer who went on to sell 500 million novels and, at present, 65 different film and television adaptations of his work. And we will also recognize how Pino Donaggio’s score helped make the film adaptation as influential to that medium as the book was to the horror novel.

Carrie: The Novel

If you’re going to write an outsider’s perspective on high school life, the best position as an observer would be that of a high school teacher. As something of an outsider himself as a student in high school, and then teaching the kids English after graduating from the University at Maine in Orono in 1970, it should come as no surprise that Stephen King’s first novel centered on high school.

Additionally, one of King’s favorite books for assignment was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and the symbolism of blood that runs through that classic is also purposefully deployed in Carrie.

Essentially, that is the magic of Stephen King’s works. He transplants the supernatural into a mundane setting and lets it loose among ordinary folk. His big calling card is not necessarily the supernatural element itself – in Carrie’s case, telekinesis – but his recording the all-too-flawed human response to it.

In his 1980 novella The Mist, the mysterious titular fog that contains creatures that pluck people away to (presumably) their deaths is a plot device to get a bunch of scared people into a supermarket. Arguably the real villain of the piece is Mrs. Carmody, the religious fanatic who drums up a mob into believe the end times are here and into engaging in outright evil behavior.

Similarly, a religious fanatic in the title character’s mother is one of two main villains in Carrie (her high school classmate Chris Hargensen being the other).

Carrie White is a high school student whose upbringing by a religious fanatic ill prepares her for teenage life. In particular, Carrie has her first period while in the school shower after gym class. Not knowing what it is (her mother later rants at her that it is a sign of sinfulness and women’s sexuality being the cause of ejection from the Garden of Eden), Carrie panics. Her classmates, led by Chris Hargensen, make fun of her in a particularly cruel way, pelting her in the shower with tampons and sanitary pads.

Carrie’s gym teacher Mrs. Desjardin sends Carrie home, and it is while waiting in the office and on her way home that Carrie discovers she can move objects with her mind. Upon her return home, Carrie’s mother locks her up in a cupboard.

At school, response to Carrie is two-fold. Mrs. Desjardin gives the rest of class a week’s worth of after school detention for ridiculing Carrie. Chris refuses, and is punished by being disallowed from the high school prom dance. Being a popular girl, she is seething, and plots revenge on Carrie. Sue Snell, another popular girl, feels sorry for Carrie and cajoles her boyfriend Tommy Ross into asking out Carrie to the prom, a gesture that Sue intends to make Carrie feel less like an outsider and more like one of the regular girls.

Two sides of high school popularity, one using her status to try include an outsider into the fold, and one using her status to exclude and ridicule.

Chris and her jock boyfriend Billy Nolan plot a ghoulish and cruel prank for Carrie, plotting for Carrie and Tommy to be voted Prom Queen and King, and pouring a bucket of pigs’ blood on their heads. After that plot is executed, Carrie’s telekinesis, that she had been only tinkering with up to that point, is fully unleashed in horrific fashion.

Carrie told from multiple viewpoints, particular newspaper reports trying to explain a town disaster that kills hundreds of people. It is a social commentary on high school, and in what would become a common theme in King’s work, how religious fundamentalism not only corrodes society at large, but also damages individuals and makes them ill-prepared from secular society. From the at-large perspective, there is the societal shame in ordinary parts of growing up (in Carrie’s case, menstruation). From the personal, there’s Carrie being bullied by her fanatic mother into timidity, and the telekinesis unleashed being the physical manifestation of all the feelings she was forced to repress.

Carrie was given an initial print run of 30,000 upon its release on April 5, 1974. It was a steady seller, earning some decent initial reviews and with sales picking up on its paperback release in April 1975.

Contemporary reviewers, such as Bob Cormier from The Daily Sentinel and Leominster Enterprise, said that “Here’s a memorable story in which character and plot are beautifully mingled to both move and shock the reader.”

“Here’s a case where a novel could have been a disaster due to the subject matter,” Cormier continued. “A girl who can cause walls to crumble? But Stephen King is no ordinary novelist. He brings Carrie to life. She becomes a real person in a real Maine town. The reader cares about her and turns the pages in dread as the book rushes towards its inevitable and tragic ending.”

Even today, Carrie is relevant and touches young readers who happen upon it. According to writer Sarah Lotz, “You couldn’t have pried it out of my hands. I was being bullied at school at the time, and completely identified with Carrie’s desire to fit in and her anguish at being sidelined. But I could escape when I was at home. Carrie couldn’t. I remember desperately hoping that she’d find a way to escape her monstrous mother. Even back then I knew that King couldn’t have ended the novel any other way – from word one it was clear Carrie was destined for a tragic end (and there’s no coming back from committing a telekinetic Columbine-sized massacre).”

Carrie: The Film Adaptation

As the novel was being shopped around publishers, so too did Hollywood take interest. Screen rights were purchased by United Artists, and Brian De Palma was hired to translate King’s novel to the screen.

Adapting King’s work has been a hit and miss affair over the years. In television, King has had hits and cult classics with mini-series and TV movies such as The Stand, The Langoliers, It, and The Tommyknockers. There have been a few critical feature film duds, such as ThinnerThe Dark TowerNeedful Things, and Dreamcatcher.

And there are outright disasters such as Maximum Overdrive, which are worth viewing for the spectacle alone. This trailer should clue you in on the cocaine-fueled insanity you are about to witness.

But when they get King adaptations right, they are home runs. Even though King himself did not fully appreciate it, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is referred to as a cinematic masterpiece by film buffs. Academy Awards came raining down on the makers of Misery, Stand By Me, The Green Mile, and The Shawshank Redemption. The Running Man, which King wrote under his pen name Richard Bachman, is a well-regarded sci-fi action starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Recently, a film adaptation of It and its sequel dominated the world box office and made a star out of Bill Skarsgard.

And so it was with Carrie. It was a box office success upon release, and despite a relatively low screen rights sale, the film helped King out tremendously with more than 3,000,000 paperback sales during and after the film’s theatrical run.

Carrie received two Academy Award nominations, with Sissy Spacek earning a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of Carrie White and Piper Laurie a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her not-at-all-subtle portrayal of Carrie’s deranged mother. Laurie’s admission of Carrie’s conception scene is worth the price of admission alone, and Spacek’s arc of timid teenager to one loosing up because she gets to go to prom to the murderous unleashing her powers is phenomenal, a frightening figure whose rage you understand because of the torment she went through.

It is well known that this is John Travolta’s debut, and he is serviceable as easily manipulated lunkhead Billy Nolan. Nancy Allen is particularly great as antagonist Chris Hargesen. If they were to do a 2024 remake of Carrie, you could see how Sydney Sweeney would work as Chris considering how she looks like Nancy Allen and, in The White Lotus, played a similarly horrible teenager.

Amy Irving, whose sister Katie performs two songs for the movie (more on that below), plays Sue Snell, while Betty Buckley plays Mrs. Collins (renamed from Mrs. Desjardin) as a sympathetic teacher, though that’s weird to say in 2024 considering she slaps at least two students. William Katt plays the nice but dim prom date Tommy Ross.

Additionally, cult actress Edie McClurg has a small appearance as one of Carrie’s lesser tormentors.

Contemporary reviews of the movie were glowing. The New York Times’s Pauline Kael wrote, “Carrie is a terrifyingly lyrical thriller. The director, Brian De Palma, has mastered a teasing style—a perverse mixture of comedy and horror and tension, like that of Hitchcock or Polanski, but with a lulling sensuousness. He builds our apprehensions languorously, softening us for the kill. You know you’re being manipulated, but he works in such a literal way and with so much candor that you have the pleasure of observing how he affects your susceptibilities even while you’re going into shock.”

King himself was largely pleased, saying “I still think [it’s] a gripping read but [it’s] impeded by a certain heaviness, a Sturm und Drang quality that’s absent from the film.”

Contemporary reviews should persuade anyone who is not convinced by the relevance of a 50 year old film. Eva Weisman wrote in 2018, “Watching the scene as a teenage girl there is something particularly chilling about seeing her onstage covered in blood, because this experience is something that haunts you. This fear of blood in the wrong place, usually spreading quietly on the back of pale jeans, shame, and of everybody seeing. Coming-of-age stories are often read as awakenings but, in Carrie, it’s recognised that this time in your life often feels like the opposite; instead of excitement and potential, most of us feel a new sort of dread. The supernatural powers Carrie discovers with puberty are, for many girls, mirrored only in the way our new bodies mean that grown men will leer at us from cars; it’s an unwanted power, and a dangerous one we can’t control.”

Though Brian De Palma is largely known as a primarily visual filmmaker – such as his famous single shot 23 minute opening and deconstruction thereof in his 1998 thriller Snake Eyes – and his visual flair is evident in Carrie, such as scenes with dominant shots of Tommy and Miss Collins in the foreground reacting to students in the background mirroring the multiple perspectives of King’s novel, the score plays an important part of the film.

Carrie: The Film Score and Soundtrack by Pino Donaggio

De Palma plays a reverse Cinderella with the prom scene. Tommy, the prince, takes Carrie out from under her evil mother, to the ball. However, instead of Cinderella’s happy ending, she is covered in a bucket of blood.

Donaggio’s score mirrors De Palma’s bait and switch effectively with two scenes in particular.

The first time is in the early shower scene, where the girls are filmed naked in an almost leering style that was popular in exploitation movies of the era (nudist resort “documentary” style and soft core nudity). The soft music then veers sharply to shrieking strings as Carrie bleeds and the braying mob are pelting her with tampons in the shower and shouting “Plug it up! Plug it up!”

The next is the prom sequence. We all know what was coming, even for first time viewers in 1974. The time Chris takes from plotting her revenge to getting the pigs’ blood and setting up the bucket above the stage to Carrie winning the rigged election takes 45 minutes or so, and Donaggio’s score helps sell the shock despite us knowing for some time that it is coming.

Donaggio also wrote two songs for the soundtrack, both sung by Amy Irving’s sister Katie Irving, that help build. Tommy spends a couple scenes trying to convince the shy Carrie to dance, and when they do it is realized as a sweet moment, sold with the ’70s soft rock “I never dreamed someone like you could love someone like me.”

Earlier, Carrie had thought she was being tricked by Tommy and it would result in him or Sue Snell pranking her. Slowly and softly, Carrie is ground down and she begins to put up a fight against her mother to accept Tommy. The final dance is still powerful, as Carrie has let her guard down after a life time of cruelty against her. For three minutes, she experiences happiness, in the arms of a boy who she likes, blissfully unaware that someone else has set her up for cruel punishment.

De Palma ekes out Carrie’s elevation from outsider to Prom Queen and her happiness, and when the dreaded inevitable happens, and the bucket of blood falls on Carrie, after a protracted and awkward silence and audience laughter, Donaggio switches it up and brings in the string section in the same manner as the high school auditorium’s doors slam shut and the telekinetic murderous spree is unleashed. The strings mirror each strike of a fire hose and slamming of a door, with a low long note underneath it all amplifying the dread.

According to The Film Scorer in 2019, “Donaggio does not completely eschew more recognizable horror music tropes. Bursts of strings and flutes erupt in chaos, teasing climaxes before tapering back into sweet moments; jarring and piercing strings accompany Carrie’s brief uses of telekinesis; and eventually abrupt crashing fills the latter half of “End Credits.””

This was Donaggio’s first collaboration with De Palma, but it would not be his last. Donaggio would work with De Palma on several more films, including Dressed to Kill, Blow Out and Raising Cain. Donaggio would return to the horror well on several movies, including Dario Argento’s Two Evil Eyes, ’70s horror schlock classic PiranhaThe Howling, and Seed of Chucky.

Pino Donaggio’s Sanremo Origins

Horror soundtracks seemed an odd career considering Donaggio’s origin. Born Giuseppe Donaggio on November 24, 1941, in Venice, Italy, studied violin at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and at the age of 14 made his radio debut. If only Eurovision Young Musicians had started earlier than 1982.

However, Donaggio switched up from classical music as rock and roll made inroads into Italy, and by 1959 switched to being a singer. In 1959, he recorded a duet with Paul Anka, and thereafter began to write his own songs.

In 1961, Donaggio entered the Sanremo Music Festival for the first time, coming in 6th with “Come Sinfonia.” Carlo Donida’s “Al di la” won Sanremo, and Roberta Corti came in 5th at Eurovision 1961 as Betty Curtis.

Donaggio returned to Sanremo in 1963, coming in 3rd with “Giovane, Giovane.” Emilio Pericoli’s “Uno Per Tutte” won and went on to represent Italy at Eurovision 1963, coming in 3rd.

Donaggio returned in 1964 with “Motivo d’Amore,” which he performed on the first night alongside Italian American actor and singer Frankie Avalon. Donaggio made it to the Grand Final, but lost out to the young Gigliola Cinquetti and “Non ho I’eta,” which went on to win Eurovision 1964. (Speaking of anniversaries, Cinquetti came in 2nd with “Si” at Eurovision 1974.)

Donaggio returned again in 1965 with “Io che non vivo (senza te)” and again was a finalist. Bobby Solo won, and came in 5th at Eurovision 1965 with “Se piangi, se ridi”.

However, Donaggio ended up with the last laugh as Dusty Springfield recorded an English language version called “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” which was a worldwide hit. It hit Number 1 on the UK Singles Charts and Number 4 on the United States’s Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.

Of course Donaggio returned to Sanremo in 1966 with “Una casa in cima al mondo,” coming in 4th. Domenico Modugno won with “Dio, come te amo.” Sadly, the legend who just eight years prior had stormed the United States with “Nel blu, dipinto di blu” (a.k.a. “Volare”), bombed at Eurovision 1966 coming in 17th and last with the dreaded “null points.”

Donaggio showed up yet again at Sanremo in 1967 with “Io Per Amore,” coming in 11th. Winner Claudio Villa came in 11th at Eurovision 1967 with “Non andare più lontano.”

Donaggio’s Sanremo final qualification streak ended in 1968, as he was eliminated early with “Le solite cose.” Sergio Endrigo won with “Canzone per te” and represented Italy at Eurovision 1968 with “Marianne,” coming 10th. (Side note: None other than Bill Owen translated the lyrics for Cliff Richard to perform an English hit version. Bill Owen is best remembered as Compo from the long running Yorkshire-based sitcom Last of the Summer Wine.)

Donaggio skipped 1969 and returned in 1970. Despite performing with Sandie Shaw, Donaggio’s  “Che effetto mi fa” was eliminated early. Adriano Celentano won with “Chi non lavora non fa l’amore,” Gianluigi Morandi’s “Occhi di regazza” was selected for Italy instead, coming in 8th. Oddly, this song was rejected before Sanremo 1970 as performed by Rosalino Cellamare.

In 1971, Donaggio was back among the finalists with “L’ultimo romantico,” coming in 11th. Again, Sanremo 1971’s winner (Nicola Di Bari’s “Il cuore è uno zingaro”) did not represent Italy, while Massimo Ranieri’s “L’amore è un attimo” came in 5th at Eurovision 1971.

Another early elimination for Donaggio awaited in 1972 with “Ci sono giorni.” Italy returned to picking its Sanremo winner this year, with Nicola Di Bari coming in 6th with “I giorni dell’arcobaleno.”

Donaggio stopped showing up at Sanremo as a performer in 1973, but returned as a songwriter in 1974 with “Sta piovendo dolcemente” for Sanremo 1974. Of course, Gigliola Cinquetti came in 2nd for Italy at Eurovision 1974 with “Si”, but it was Iva Zanicchi’s “Ciao cara come stai?” that won Sanremo 1974.

Donaggio co-wrote “Il telegramma” for Piero Coto at Sanremo 1975, which was a finalist. He also co-wrote “Se nasco un’altra volta” for Paola Musiani, which was eliminated early.

After his Sanremo run, Donaggio began scoring Hollywood movies. Despite being 82, Donaggio is still active and working with De Palma, with 2019’s Domino being their latest. Donaggio’s most recent score was for Spin Me Round in 2022, an independent comedy film directed by Jeff Baena.

What do #YOU think of Carrie and its legacy? Are there another other Stephen King works that #YOU enjoy? Let us know in the comments below, on social media, or in our forum.

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