From the start I’d like to say that I do like Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Stephen King’s CARRIE. I don’t see it as a classic of the horror genre by any means, but it’s mostly solid stuff, and was given a real boost by De Palma’s distinctive aesthetic and Piper Laurie’s terrifying turn as Carrie’s mother. I’d heard mixed things about Kimberly Pierce’s remake, yet another film that claims to be returning to the source material but that still ends up making reference to the earlier cinematic adaptation (see also: TOTAL RECALL). All-in-all, I thought Pierce’s Carrie was pretty decent, at least as good as De Palma’s and with a different enough take on the story that comes from having a female director at the helm of a film about being a woman.
The book, and both films, follow Carrie White (here played by Chloë Grace Moretz), an introverted teenage girl raised by a fanatically religious mother (Julianne Moore). Carrie becomes terrified by the simultaneous onset of her first period, and the discovery that she can summon destructive telekinetic powers in moments of emotional upset. After being cruelly mocked by her classmates for her ignorance about the way a woman’s body works, she is rescued by her kindly PE teacher (Judy Greer) who makes sure the lead bully (Portia Doubleday) is excluded and banned from attending the highschool prom. As her tormentors plot humiliating revenge against Carrie, she researches and learns to control her powers, and only needs someone to push her too far again to unleash hell.
The kick-off point for the plot of both films, the now infamous shower scene is executed much more tastefully and sensitively by Pierce. As well as the shock factor, it works much better as a dramatic moment here as Moretz really sells Carrie’s horror and confusion. De Palma’s version always felt too seedy, and he seemed to be enjoying spending time in the steamy girls’ locker room a little too much. This scene is followed by an amusingly awkward conversation in the office of Carrie’s principal (Barry Shabaka Henley) who is desperately trying to avoid talking about the intimacies of the female anatomy with Ms. Desjardin, who has just come to Carrie’s rescue. He clearly just wants to get them out of his office as soon as possible and not have to deal with, or understand the situation, a reaction many men would have if the subject came up in conversation.
It must have taken a great act of willpower for Chloë Grace Moretz to bury her natural charisma so deep inside to play Carrie White, contorting herself into an awkward stance and a nervous vocal performance without ever quite becoming a caricature. Sissy Spacek naturally felt like the out-of-place individual that Carrie is meant to be, but Moretz’s performance is arguably more impressive simply by the virtue of being so different to everything she has done before.
Julianne Moore makes for a far more sympathetic Margaret White. Whereas Piper Laurie in De Palma’s film was an irredeemable almost cartoonish monster, Moore’s character is a worn-down shell of a woman. Her religious zeal drives her to do horrible things, but her pathetic, fragile nature held together only by self-harm and unshakable piety never allows us to not pity her. Carrie could conceivably be considered more the antagonist in this version of the story, even when Moore’s version of her mother (perhaps inevitably) dons Piper Laurie’s nightdress and proffers a kitchen knife in an creepily familiar way whilst booming out scripture. Carrie seems to get a handle on her powers much earlier on in this film, perhaps even to the extent that she could be accused of premeditating her vengeance rather than just becoming thrall to her powers. It’s still a horror about the paranoia of monstrous femininity, but Pierce, who clearly has more of an insight on the subject than De Palma or even King, suggests that if such a gift/curse of a power did manifest in a teenage girl, she might just have some fun with the utter chaos she could cause. I mean, just look at Moretz’s expression as she waves her hands around like a teen Jean Grey to psi-murder her classmates – if that’s not ecstasy brought about by horrible death, then I don’t know what is!
I didn’t really like what the film did with Carrie’s bullies. They weren’t the most memorable characters in De Palma’s film, but at least they were consistent. Here, though Chris is irredeemably nasty throughout, and she and her boyfriend Billy (Alex Russell) take far too much pleasure in slaughtering a pig one moment, then they get cold feet about their evil masterplan the next. I’m not exaggerating when I say that in a single scene they both flee the scene of their crime in Billy’s car, in a panic about what punishment they will be subject to if they’re caught, then not 30 seconds later, Carrie appears and Chris orders Billy to run her down.
It is perhaps inevitable that a remake relies more heavily on spectacle, and Pierce certainly makes the most of advances in visual effects in depicting Carrie’s terrible power. Still, the final act doesn’t quite fit comfortably with how restrained the rest of the film is. It’s an extravagant action sequence complete with buildings collapsing, gruesome deaths and explosions, one of which, Carrie almost walks away from in slow-motion. It certainly isn’t dull though, and apparently it depicts more closely what occurs in King’s novel, ideas that were discarded in De Palma’s version for budgetary reasons. The more sophisticated effects allow for moments of quiet, eerie beauty as well as action, such as when Carrie smashes a mirror in a bathroom at school and makes the shards float to reflect a distortion of her smiling face back at her. But the slo-mo is overused by Pierce and is unintentionally funny when combined with a game show “action-replay” effect used in the most iconic scene in the story.
I guess the main thing that Pierce’s Carrie is missing, crucially for a horror film, is any real scares. King is a master of delivering abject horror on the page, and De Palma and Spacek made “Creepy Carrie” live up to her name, and had Piper Laurie on hand to provide the genuine fear factor. I can’t really fault Pierce, Moretz and Moore taking the characters in a new direction and updating the story for today’s audiences, but if a horror film isn’t scary, no matter how well filmed and performed it is, then it has unavoidably failed in what it set out to do. SSP