Carrie versus The Shining (movie edition)


The Shining (1980)

***Note: the following discussion contains spoilers for the movies Carrie (1976) and The Shining (1980).

I recently reviewed Stephen King’s classic horror novel The Shining and in that discussion I take a closer look at Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic version versus King’s book. I love the movie – always have – but I can also plainly see its flaws and where it becomes an entirely different story than the one King wrote. In many ways, The Shining is a brilliant film, but in many ways it fails as an adaptation.


Carrie (1976)

Today I want to look a little more closely at another famous King adaptation – Brian De Palma’s Carrie. But rather than compare it to King’s book, I want to see how it stacks up against Kubrick’s acclaimed cinema masterpiece. For a lot of film fanatics, critics and horror fans, Kubrick’s The Shining is the superior movie, a stylistic work of genius that fairly vibrates with terror and suffocates the viewer with its unsettling and provocative atmosphere. I’m here to convince you however, that based on three criteria, Carrie is actually the better film and by far my personal favorite.

1. Acting
Scene for scene Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie deliver brilliant performances that far surpass what the indomitable Jack Nicholson offers and his weird and wacky counterpart Shelley Duvall. Jack is Jack. Jack is always Jack. His performance in The Shining is not all that different from what audiences watched him do just a few years previous in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Enjoyable yes. Memorable certainly. Worth parodying always. Yet, paling in comparison.

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek | Carrie (1976)

Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek | Carrie (1976)

Spacek and Laurie are practically Method in their approach to their roles — becoming Carrie and her religiously zealous mother. Nicholson on the other hand almost can’t stop himself from hamming it up and goofing around. His performance is so over the top in parts to merit laughter rather than awe or fear. Simply put, Spacek and Laurie become other people — Jack doesn’t ever stop being Jack (Nicholson that is) and in my mind, fails to ever become Jack Torrence.

2. Memorable Scenes
Both films have memorable scenes, or we wouldn’t still be watching them and talking about them this many years later. There’s no doubt that Kubrick was a cinematic genius and that he composed his shots like an artist. Every prop, every angle — everything meant something. Kubrick directs The Shining with an acute hyper-awareness where “the look” of the film is as important, if not more important, than what’s going on in the story and between the characters. It makes for a visually stunning experience, but it’s also a very technical and cold approach to the art of storytelling.

De Palma’s Carrie is the exact opposite. He is telling the story of a young girl who is tormented by bullies, relentlessly abused by her domineering, mentally unstable mother, and terrified of her psychic powers. It is an emotional story, told with great sensitivity. De Palma wants to shock us, and scare the crap out of us, but he also wants us to feel empathy and sorrow at the tragedy of Carrie White’s short life. There is no empathy or sorrow in The Shining — there is no sense of tragedy. While King’s novel is rife with it, Kubrick has other cinematic goals to achieve with his movie that excludes the emotional in favor of the visceral and cerebral.

Memorable scenes The Shining:
1. Danny cycling the Overlook’s maze-like hallways until he encounters the Grady twins.
2. Jack entering Room 237 – the old woman in the bathtub.
3. Wendy finds out that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
4. Heeeere’s Johnny! – axing through the bathroom door

Memorable scenes Carrie:
1. The opening shower scene – Plug it up! Plug it up! Plug it up!
2. Eve was weak!
3. The dropping of the bucket of pig’s blood
4. Carrie crucifies her mother with kitchen utensils.

All of these scenes are memorable, but for me the more memorable and satisfying are the scenes from Carrie because they are so emotionally loaded, not just scenes relying exclusively on primal shock and terror. I wasn’t just scared out of my mind by the end of Carrie, I was overwhelmed with sadness too.

shining frozen

Jack’s frozen corpse after a night  in the hedge maze.

carrie grave

Carrie’s bloody hand reaching up out of the grave.

3. Shock ending
Speaking of shock and terror, as shock endings go Carrie has The Shining beat here as well. Jack running around in the dark in the maze during a blizzard and then the quick shot of him the next morning frozen to death simply can’t compare to Sue Snell’s dreamy walk to Carrie’s graveside and as she places the flowers the bloody hand shooting up out of the ground to grab her by the arm. That’s an ending to make you scream.

According to Stephen King: “When that hand comes out of the grave… Man, I thought I was going to shit in my pants.” Even in his ending, Kubrick can’t resist going for the cerebral, ambiguous final shot of the portrait hanging in the Overlook dated 1921 with Jack smiling in a tux. What the hell? Whatever the itchy questions this raises, what it doesn’t do is stop your heart in stark, cold terror and make you sleep with the light on that night.

In an interview Stephen King goes on to further elaborate about seeing Carrie for the first time and that shock ending:

The first time I saw Carrie with an audience they previewed it about a week and a half before Halloween….The theatre was entirely full of black people. We looked like two little grains of salt in a pepper shaker, and we thought: This audience is just going to rate the hell out of this picture. What are they going to think about a skinny little white girl with her menstrual problems? And that’s the way it started, and then, little by little, they got on her side….These two guys were talking behind us, and we were listening to them, and at the end they’re putting on their coats and getting ready to leave. Suddenly this hand comes up, and these two big guys screamed along with everyone else, and one of them goes, “That’s it! That’s it! She ain’t never gonna be right!” And I knew it was going to be a hit.

Stephen King

Stephen King

He wasn’t wrong. Carrie was a hit and earned both Spacek and Laurie Oscar nominations for Best Actress in a Leading and Supporting Role respectively. It’s been almost thirty years, and I can still watch this movie and be profoundly unsettled by it. Even after repeated viewings, it still has the power to scare me and I jump, no matter what, when that bloody hand comes shooting up out of the grave. Even though my mind is expecting it, my body is a slave to the involuntary startle reflex.

The Shining on the other hand, no longer has the power to really scare me. After repeated viewings, Nicholson’s  exaggerated performance doesn’t hold up. Now it’s as if he’s parodying himself. While I still enjoy it, I can no longer sit through The Shining and forget I’m watching a movie. I watch it for technique now, appreciating Kubrick’s rich cinematic canvas. The Shining is a technically perfect film, but it has no heart. I would argue that De Palma’s Carrie is all heart, an emotional experience that is only enhanced by the director’s imagination and empathy for his subject.

Some final thoughts:
Since my feelings for De Palma’s Carrie are so very strong, I have little to no interest in seeing the impending remake starring Julianne Moore as Mrs. White. When the original performances are that vivid and remarkable, any attempt to catch lightning in a bottle twice is bound to fail miserably. The risk of it coming across as a cheap imitation is too great. It may look more modern and slick, but that doesn’t mean it will be a better movie. So why remake it at all if you can’t improve upon the original? I would feel just as strongly if somebody tried to remake Spielberg’s JAWS. I’m not anti-remake, but I do believe there are certain films that need to be exempt, and Carrie is definitely one of those for me.

Leave a comment


  1. Thoughtful, well-considered, beautifully written review. I disagree with nearly every part of it (The Shining is and always will be in my top five most terrifying movies, and Carrie would not even crack the top 25), but I can see where you’re coming from. King HATED what Kubrick did to his story, for many of the reasons you mention. But DePalma just steps on everything SO HARD. I NEVER felt scared during Carrie. It is undeniably entertaining (though, unlike you and most everyone else, I HATED the “twist” at the end. Totally trope-y.). But The Shining gets under my skin, makes it crawl, chills me to the bone. Nicholson is fucking terrifying, and Shelley Duvall completely sells the despair of witnessing the disintegration of a loved one, his descent into psychosis.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, and with such passion! I know I’m in the minority here with this opinion, and it’s certainly not my intention to detract from what Kubrick accomplishes with The Shining. There’s no denying it is a MASTERFUL piece of filmmaking, and upon first viewing, mesmerizing and terrifying to boot.

      I seek out story more than anything, not just in books, but in movies too, because with story there’s emotion and motivation. I’ll always feel that while technically perfect, Kubrick’s The Shining is sorely lacking in both emotion and motivation. I guess it comes down to which characters you feel a kinship to, and find believable and sympathetic. If I don’t care, I don’t scare.

      Any feelings of empathy I feel towards the Torrence family exist because Stephen King gave them to me, not Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick approached horror very intellectually, almost like a scientist, with exacting precision — if I do this, they will experience this. In contrast, King and De Palma approach horror very emotionally, understanding that true horror is a product of the gut and not the intellect.

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