“You will know her name,” the posters have been telling us for I don’t know how long – a year? or is it two? – as if we did not already know Carrie White from Stephen King’s novel and Brian DePalma’s 1976 film version (not to mention a made-for-television remake). This assumption of cluelessness on our part did not bode well, suggesting that the filmmakers themselves might be more than a bit clueless about the challenges of remaking a classic property. Unfortunately, this ill omen is mostly born out in the new version of CARRIE, which is not nearly as bad as it might have been and yet never provides a compelling version for revisiting the well-remembered story.
In fact, CARRIE is almost a textbook case study in the pitfalls of remakes. The script for the 1976 film, adapted by Lawrence D. Cohen (who receives co-credit here) boiled King’s overwritten novel down to its essence, omitting superfluous material and a padded ending that stretched the book well past its climax. The dilemma facing the new filmmakers was essentially whether to stick to the previous adaptation or incorporate more elements of the book; they tried to split the difference, mostly following the old scenario while reinstating some parts of the novel.
The result is that this version of CARRIE includes both the essential elements – and some non-essential elements, just for good measure. Their presence here serves best to remind us why they were not included the first time out. Do we really need to know that Mrs. White thought her pregnancy was a cancer, right until the moment she gave birth? Or that Sue Snell is pregnant with Tommy Ross’s child?* Do either of these elements change our understanding of Carrie White’s story in a fundamental way?
On top of this, the casting of the new film is problematic. Judy Greer is a fine substitute for Betty Buckely as gym teacher Ms. Desjardin, but the rest of the supporting case looks like a bunch of also-rans: they’re not bad, but they are not distinctive. Ansel Elgort eventually warms up as Tommy, but Gabriella Wilde and Portia Doubleday never manage to etch distinctive portraits of the the good-hearted Sue and the vindictive Chris. (The innovation here is that the hair color of the characters has been reversed: unlike Amy Irving and Nancy Allen in the original, the good girl is now blonde, and the bad girl is brunette.)
In the title role, Chloë Grace Moretz makes a game effort, but her acting skills cannot hide the fact that she is badly miscast. Unlike Sissy Spacek, who figuratively disappeared into the role, Moretz is hampered by screen persona that includes the homicidal Hit Girl from KICK-ASS and the homicidal vampire from LET ME IN. She is too obviously pretty, and looks too much like a confident young woman with her act together, to convince us that she is a shy introvert victimized by her peers. When she dons her gown to attend the prom, any sense of transformation is lost: we are not seeing a new side of Carrie; we are simply seeing Moretz the way she has always looked to us – only the clothing has changed.
As Carrie’s mother, Julianne Moore would seem to be the only actress with even a chance of approaching Piper Laurie’s Oscar-nominated turn; alas, the film simply cannot elevate the character to the stature achieved in the old film. Part of the problem is the passing of time, which the filmmakers overlook (except insofar as adding texting, tweets, and YouTube videos to the script). Back in 1976, it might have been somewhat radical to portray a devout Christian as a religious nut; now, it’s simply old-hat – a safe target.
Surprisingly, in spite of the remake’s problems, Stephen King’s story is strong enough to shine through in the middle portion. You actually do get a little bit involved as Carrie starts to see a ray of hope in her life, and the film becomes entertaining if not essential.
But in the end CARRIE cannot pay off. The demarcation line between a great horror film and every other kind of horror film – good, bad, or indifferent – is defined by DePalma’s version, which achieves the almost unthinkable. When we pay to see a horror movie, we pay to see the good stuff – the horror – and we can’t wait for it to appear on screen. Yet, in the 1976 film, when Carrie and Tommy are crowned prom queen and king, you cannot help wishing – to the point where you almost believe it – that the Chris’s cruel prank will not go off as planned, and the bucket of pig’s blood will not destroy Carrie White’s dreams, turning her into a vengeful monster with lethal consequences for her classmates.
In CARRIE (2013), however, you really do find yourself wishing the bucket would fall and kick things into high gear; the film never makes you feel the sense of tragedy that would make you yearn for an alternate cut in which everything works out for its troubled teen heroine.
The mayhem, when it ensues, is marred by some CGI hijinx, which ups the ante on the level of destruction but lacks the visceral punch of the old film’s mechanical effects. Also, director Kimberly Peirce simply cannot orchestrate the chaos as well as DePalma, and the film suffers from blunting its horrors, killing off the complicit characters while letting the innocent live (as in the book, but not the DePalma film, Desjardin survives).
It certainly doesn’t help that Moretz acts rather like a conductor at a symphony, waving her hands around as if using magic powers. Peirce should have reminded her that Carrie’s telekinetic powers are mental, requiring no prestidigitation. Portraying psychic powers on screen has always been difficult (how can the actor convey mental effort?), but this particular solution ill serves the film and the character. It makes Carrie seem too deliberate in her actions, when what we should be seeing is an uncontrollable rage that erupts on almost reflexive level. Yes, Carrie is getting even with those who humiliated her, but inside she’s not so different from the rest of us; fortunately, our explosions of mental rage usually dissipate without killing dozens of people, thanks to our lack of telekinetic powers. Making Carrie more deliberate in her destructive actions turns her more into a movie monster, making her less like one of us.
After that it’s all downhill, as the familiar mother-daughter relationship plays itself out, without proper context: the statue of St. Sebastian is missing, which undercuts the irony of Mrs. White’s being speared to death, and Moore’s last gasp hardly compares to Laurie’s orgasmic final exhalation. And just to top it all off, the filmmakers realize that they cannot recreate the original film’s memorable last-scene gotcha, so they substitute something else. It’s a shot that perfectly encapsulates the remake: it cannot recreate the greatness of the original, but when it tries to do something different, it is simply not as good.
- Strictly speaking, Sue merely worries she is pregnant in the novel, because her period is late. I suppose it’s possible that she really was pregnant, and when her period returns, its symptomatic of a spontaneous abortion, but I’m not sure that was King’s intention.
CARRIE (October 18, 2013). Directed by Kimberly Peirce. Screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen and Robert Aguirre-Sacasa, based on the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Julianne Moore, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Zoe Belkin, Ansel Elgort, Samantha Weinstein, Karissa Strain, Judy Greer, Katie Strain, Barry Shabaka Henlsey. Rated R. 100 minutes.