Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie, is a grand horror tragedy in every sense. A young girl becoming a women with an added layer of personal uncertainty and shyness as a result of living with her abusive and ardently religious mother. Carrie White’s struggle for independence and her stymied attempts to get in touch with her own body are made literal and personified through her trying to get a handle over newfound telekinetic abilities. In 1976, director Brian De Palma would launch his filmmaking career into the mainstream with a well rounded, chilling, and at times and in hindsight somewhat problematic adaptation. And now, just shy of 40 years after the bestseller was first published, several imitators, and a wisely forgotten about sequel film, it has come time for the inevitable remake.
The remake marks on the third feature film for director Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), and while it’s essentially 97% the exact same film and story in every way, there’s still something refreshing about her overall approach. Not outwardly aping De Palma in terms of style every step of the way, not only does Peirce and her crew understand they are making a remake, but they decided to have some subtle and intentional fun with it all. There’s a great deal of humour within this version that only occasionally lapses into camp, but it’s all there to make a point that not much has changed for girls, the bullied, or fervent religious radicalism. In many ways, it’s almost like a Shakespeare adaptation. The dialogue is largely kept more or less intact, every plot beat remains the same, the tone remains largely unchanged, but everything about what’s happening is so enthralling – for the first two thirds, anyway – that it doesn’t matter you have seen it before. There’s a newness and a vibrancy to Peirce’s work here that allows the viewer to still be thrilled by what they’re seeing because while they know what’s going to happen, they know the actual specifics won’t really be the same.
Suburban high school teenager Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) finds herself the victim of a brutal bullying at school (which here in one of the film’s few passing updates is filmed on a phone and uploaded to the internet, a device that Peirce seems to have more fun poking fun at and sometimes forgetting about instead of taking it all that seriously). Her true believer mother (Julianne Moore) believes that just by getting her period, Carrie has become the product of sin she secretly wishes she murdered upon her birth. A somewhat backhandedly kind gym teacher (Judy Greer) gets to the bottom of the depressing to watch hazing incident and punishes the girl who started everything (Portia Doubleday), who immediately looks for ways to seek revenge on Carrie, but not the teacher. To try and make amends for her role in the incident, another young woman (Gabriella Wilde) has her boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) ask Carrie to prom. It’s a question that will bring Carrie out of her shell a bit, make her question the motives around her, piss off her self-harming mother, and ultimately lead to a blood bath in more ways than one.
Pierce knows her way around both a coming of age narrative and the story of a woman struggling with her emerging sexuality and an awakening mind, but she also shares the same “subtlety to the wind” style that made De Palma’s film so successful. There isn’t a lot of digging that needs to be done for the viewer to understand Carrie in any of its forms. It’s a simple story that obscures nothing, yet contains characters interesting enough that the entire endeavour seems natural.
As for the cast this time out, Moretz, Moore, and Greer stand out and improve upon the performances given by Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, and Betty Buckley, respectively, and that’s no small feat. Moore terrifies as a mother who can be loving and caring one moment and suddenly snapping into a rage filled thousand yard stare. It’s a great role and performance from an actor who as of late had been in danger of playing the same character one time too many. Greer puts her comedic chops to good, but subtle use as a really shitty gym teacher who still has her heart in the right place when it comes to trying to help Carrie out.
But the film obviously belongs to Moretz, who does really emotional and heartfelt work as the bullied teen who realizes far too late that she wants to be accepted as a human being rather than treated like an outcast at school and at home. Her early mousiness and sadness genuinely outdoes Spacek’s work because the character is a bit better flashed out this time. Moretz’s Carrie isn’t as naive and foolish. She’s actually quite smart, astute, and more than understandably cautious. And of course, she handles the film’s final twists and vengeful bloodletting perfectly.
But there’s a problem once the film, which had previously been doing so fine, gets around to the big set piece where Carrie’s power and hurt feelings get the better of her and everyone around her. The first problem with the final third comes from the script, where instead of transitioning Carrie into a character capable of making decisions for herself – the one edge De Palma’s film still has over Peirce’s – this version has Carrie seemingly turning on a dime in terms of her motivations leading up to the prom. It kind of abandons the film’s interesting take on someone emerging from a cocoon constructed by everyone around her. If Moretz wasn’t so consistently good, it would be a major problem.
As for the actual climax, it feels the work of a studio who watched Chronicle and said that film’s ending would work perfectly here. Which would be fine in theory since Chronicle is essentially a male version of the same themes, but it’s a bit of a letdown with the CGI taking centre stage over the brutality and the drama. It’s all very well shot, rendered, and visualized, but something about it feels a bit like a betrayal. It’s only at that point where even though everything is happening exactly as it’s supposed to with absolute minimal deviation that Carrie becomes something it was never supposed to be. And yet, it plays well enough into the film’s adherence to story and theme that it never ruins everything that came before it. It might be one of the few cases not only of a remake that’s on par with the original, but of one that makes just enough tweaks in style, performance, and theme to warrant its existence.