Ever since it was published by then-unknown author Stephen King in 1974, the novel, “Carrie,” has inspired various adaptations, yet only one has been hailed as a triumph. Brian De Palma’s 1976 film set the bar so high that none of its successors—including a 1988 stage musical, 1999 sequel and 2002 TV movie—had a prayer of reaching it.
Yet if anyone could succeed at equaling the power of King and De Palma’s vision, it’s Kimberly Peirce, the director whose 1999 debut feature, “Boys Don’t Cry,” was one of the most devastating portraits of an abused “misfit” ever made. In the last 15 years, Peirce has struggled to get several projects off the ground (I interviewed her in 2011 about her subsequently abandoned crime thriller, “The Knife”), and only managed to get one made (2008’s flawed war drama, “Stop-Loss”). A “Carrie” remake would seem to be her ticket to a career rebirth. So how does her version stand up to the original? Let’s take yet another stroll down that doomed gym floor to find out (consider this your one and only spoiler alert)…
We’re all sorry about this incident, Cassie.
“It’s Carrie!” protests the telekinetic adolescent with enough indignant anger to flip an ashtray (or, as it turns out, burst a water cooler). For decades, Cass—er, Carrie has stood as an indelible embodiment of teenage agony fueled by school bullies and parental zealots. Sissy Spacek was entirely deserving of her Oscar nod for her scorching lead performance in De Palma’s film. With her angular face and aching vulnerability, she resembled something akin to an alien life form, making her an instantly believable outcast in the oppressive halls of her high school.
Though Chloë Grace Moretz is an immensely appealing screen presence, her effortless charisma and pretty features are an ill fit for King’s soft-spoken heroine. There’s something wrong when Carrie is cuter than any of her “mean girl” adversaries. Peirce has said that this role allowed Moretz to graduate into more “adult roles,” but the truth is, Moretz has played nothing but adults throughout her childhood, from the foul-mouthed superhero in “Kick Ass” to the wizened vampire in “Let Me In.” Moretz is less successful at portraying characters her own age, and her Carrie seems too intelligent and grounded to go where she must in the final act.
These are godless times, Mrs. Snell.
Piper Laurie delivered these words with the fierce bravado of a veteran televangelist in De Palma’s picture, nailing the role of Carrie’s fearsome mother, Margaret, a hermetic madwoman who justifies her self-loathing with misquoted Bible excerpts. When I interviewed Laurie, she told me that her Playhouse 90 experiences gave her the confidence to tackle emotionally turbulent scenes, such as Margaret’s shattering climactic monologue, without a rehearsal. This brought a spontaneity to her work that surprised everyone, including De Palma, who often had no idea what the actress would do next.
For her death scene, Laurie came up with the brilliantly twisted idea that Margaret would be elated and aroused be her imminent demise. Not only did this make the scene all the more unsettling—and darkly amusing—it fit perfectly within the demented logic of Margaret’s character. Gone are any sexual yearnings in Peirce’s drab take on Margaret, played by Julianne Moore, who takes no pleasure in chasing her daughter with a butcher knife. When confronted by the apologetic Mrs. Snell, Moore’s demeanor is chillingly grave rather than theatrical. A fine choice, though nowhere near as memorable.
You eat s—t!
These are the words that opened De Palma’s film, as Carrie found herself humiliated once again in gym class—first by her inept attempt at volleyball, and then by the hateful words of Chris (an impeccably whiny Nancy Allen). In Peirce’s film, Chris (Portia Doubleday of “Youth in Revolt”) is more calculating in her evil deeds, while judging the alleged kindness of others. One improvement Peirce and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (“Glee”) make to the plot strengthens the motivation for Sue (Gabriela Wilde, a pale shadow of Amy Irving) to hatch her good-hearted yet misguided scheme.
When Chris charges that Sue has suddenly showed compassion for Carrie simply because she doesn’t want to endanger her chances of going to prom, Sue seems to question her own motives, thus leading her to selflessly ask her date, Tommy (Ansel Elgort, a slight upgrade from William Katt), to take Carrie instead. Elgort’s Tommy may be a charmer, but he’s also deluded, hilariously equating his celebrity status with that of Tim Tebow. Judy Greer is also likable as Carrie’s gym teacher, but she lacks the righteous fire that made Betty Buckley such a knockout in the original film. Similarly, the bullies in Peirce’s movie simply don’t provoke the sort of maddening outrage that De Palma’s did so splendidly. Peirce also falls short of exploring the dysfunctional romance between Chris and her sleazy boyfriend, Billy (unforgettably played in De Palma’s film by John Travolta, who later reteamed with Allen in 1981’s “Blow Out”).
They’re all gonna laugh at you.
And now comes the make-or-break set-piece of the entire picture, as Chris’s cruel practical joke on prom night causes Carrie to transform a festive gymnasium into a raging inferno. This is where Peirce’s film truly falls apart, succumbing to digital overkill that neither thrills nor terrifies, while Moretz abandons the stillness of Spacek’s homicidal trance, conducting explosions as if they were instruments in her own personal orchestra of carnage. Regardless of one’s status as a “jock” or a “nerd,” everyone knows what it feels like to be consumed by emotions of insecurity in high school, and that’s what makes “Carrie” so frighteningly relatable—not to mention timely, considering the many tragic instances of school violence in recent years. Often these emotions are so overpowering that they blind one to the reality of their lives, obscuring the truth within a haze of paranoia.
What’s so poignant in De Palma’s film is that everyone is NOT laughing at her—the majority of teachers and students regard her blood-stained skin in appalled silence. But the few chuckles that occur at Carrie’s expense cause her to believe that the entire room has conspired against her, as her gaze suddenly morphs into the crosshairs of a rifle, envisioning each of her victims (including Buckley’s innocent teacher) as if they were cackling hyenas. The subsequent split-screen (a De Palma trademark) causes us to regard the senseless violence from an eerily detached perspective (resembling the surveillance footage from Columbine). Peirce’s slo-mo sensationalism is not only tone-deaf, it’s also numbing to the senses.
The devil has come home.
The utter failure of Peirce’s “Carrie” to register as even remotely scary is most apparent during its painfully flat denouement, as a crestfallen Sue places a flower on Carrie’s defaced grave, before walking away. The camera rests on the grave as it begins to tremble with anger. That final image has no resonance beyond the hollow promise of a sequel few people will care to see. What a pathetic variation on De Palma’s iconic final scene, which borrowed a key image from “Deliverance” to create one of the greatest jump scares in cinema history. The entire 98-minute feature is, in fact, one meticulously constructed, brilliantly executed build to that final, transcendently jarring moment. De Palma’s film makes it clear that Sue’s visit to the grave is a dream sequence, though the audience is unaware of this until the poor girl awakens screaming.
Sue’s remorse over bullying Carrie and crippling guilt over the events that followed have ended up invading her subconscious, as she dreams of placing flowers on her dead classmate’s resting place, only to have a bloody hand pop out of the ground and wrap around her wrist. Spacek insisted on playing “the hand,” and De Palma shot much of the scene backwards, layering in a subtle surrealism. With the sound muted (aside from Sue’s scream), our ears are laser-focused on Pino Donaggio’s hypnotic score, which suddenly shifts gears as soon as Carrie’s hand makes its encore appearance. I’ve played this scene on a small television in a well-lit room and watched several friends and family members jump out of their chairs during this scene (apologies to my dear sister). Now that is the mark of great horror cinema. Peirce’s film, while certainly intriguing and watchable, won’t even cause the most jitter-prone viewer to lose a wink of sleep.