Appreciation for Carrie is predestined to an inversely parallel affection for Brian De Palma’s 1976 version starring Sissy Spacek as the titular telekinetic teenager. Those who love De Palma’s adaptation of the Stephen King novel will probably regard director Kimberly Peirce’s (Boys Don’t Cry) slavish devotion to the original as a pointless validation, but haters and newcomers are more likely to embrace this self-aware update.
Generational context is an enormous variable—I might feel like the terrible Star Wars prequels were an affront to my childhood, but only because the sounds and images of the originals were key inspirations for my young imagination. However, the original Star Wars films weren’t the basis of any cherished childhood memories for my dad—they were just good space-adventure movies.
So, in the interests of full disclosure, I’ll admit that De Palma’s Carrie was a formative cinematic experience, one of the first horror films that impressed anything more than terror on me, and I love it to this day. Therefore, no matter how well-crafted, it’s hard to watch this nearly scene-for-scene—and often shot-for-shot and sound-for-sound—remake without ticking off a mental checklist of pro-con comparisons.
However, for anyone arriving to this new Carrie without baggage, the mostly intact story is queasily irresistible. This is King’s macabre version of Judy Blume coming-of-age juvenilia, with every developmental highlight from first menstruation to prom turned into an otherworldly horror. It may be unnecessary, but Peirce’s Carrie is more than a mercenary remake, and most of what made the original film great is retained.
The modern-day action opens with a less voyeuristic version of the infamous shower scene from the original, in which the sheltered and bullied Carrie gets her first period and is tormented by the popular girls. It’s preceded by a sequence that is even more unsettling in Peirce’s hands, in which Carrie’s crazed mother nearly stabs her infant daughter straight out of the womb. Whether her hand is stayed by compassion or the baby girl’s undeveloped powers of self-protection is left unclear.
If the actress playing Carrie was anything more than adequate, this film would have worked, but Chloë Grace Moretz (Hit-Girl from the Kick-Ass movies) is overly mannered and false. She gives a child-actress performance, substituting affectation for emotion at every opportunity. That same artificiality permeates the proceedings—everyone here looks too pretty, everything feels too polished, and every theme is a little too obvious and strident.
One the other hand, Julianne Moore is excellent as Carrie’s repressive and hyper-religious mother, wisely refusing to meet Piper Laurie’s fire-and-brimstone performance from the 1976 film. Instead, Moore’s Margaret White is more defeated and haggard, turning much of her loathing and physical punishment inward. Margaret is a terrible and abusive person but also a product of abuse herself.
Some of the departures from De Palma’s Carrie are disappointing compromises, but other amendments show that Peirce and her collaborators have larger goals beyond updating King’s story for the online-bullying generation. Peirce clearly has ambitions to fashion a coherent feminist revision from a chaotic text, more consciously and carefully inviting in issues of self-mutilation, body image, sisterhood, abortion and rape.
King and De Palma obviously viewed female sexuality as scary and potentially demonic. For her part, Peirce attempts to portray Carrie’s newfound powers as more than just an uncontrollable, hair-trigger vessel for pent-up teenage hormones. That’s admirable, but admirable intentions are anathema to great horror, which thrives on disorder and the exploration of unreasonable fears.
Of course, the story builds to a bloody showdown at the prom, which is the part of the film where Carrie purists have been voted Most Likely to Check Out. The more that Carrie unleashes her latent telekinetic abilities, the more the film becomes dominated by annoying special effects and overly complicated retributions against her tormenters.
It just made me long for the genuinely disturbing and nightmarish denouement of the De Palma movie, although this Carrie is solid enough to become a formative cinematic experience for someone.