Brian De Palma’s 1976 version of Stephen King’s Carrie is not just one of the greatest horror movies ever made. It’s also one of the most empathetic. Very few other movies have managed to balance scares with genuine pangs of heartbreak. So the question then becomes: Why? Why would you ever think you could top that benchmark?
Actually, I just wish that was the only question. After watching Kimberly Peirce’s new remake of Carrie, the follow-up question is: Why, if you’re remaking a stone cold classic, would you not give the material an entirely different spin, if only to avoid being compared to something against which you will never, ever win?
Say what you will about Gus Van Sant’s widely loathed 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. At least one could make the argument that the film represented one of the most conspicuous avant-garde experiments ever attempted on a mass scale. I mean, if one was feeling charitable.
But what to make of Peirce’s Carrie, which recycles screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen’s script with about 85 percent fidelity to the original, and even stages some of the movie’s key sequences with many of the same camera set-ups and angles?
The story, which is so iconic in American lore that it hardly needs to be summed up anymore, concerns a lonely telekinetic high school outcast who belatedly experiences her first period during her senior year. Her sexual maturation doesn’t sit well with her fundamentalist mother, who has successfully kept her daughter in a tight psychological chastity belt (and ensured her status as a pariah among her peers).
A group of popular girls pulls a nasty prank on Carrie in the locker room. One of them — Sue Snell — decides to atone for her sin and gets her BMOC boyfriend Tommy Ross to invite Carrie to the senior prom. Another of the girls — Chris Hargensen — decides to escalate her assault on Carrie’s dignity by engineering the results for prom king and queen so that Carrie will win, thereby positioning Carrie in front of the entire student body when (spoiler alert if you live under a rock) she douses her with pig’s blood.
Chloë Grace Moretz tackles the role that earned Sissy Spacek her first Academy Award nomination (almost unheard of for a horror film, especially back then), and I would love to report that the actress brings with her a fresh new take on what is essentially three roles in one: a crushed misfit, a blossoming butterfly, and a mute, white hot dispenser of vengeance. It’s not an easy role to play, and Spacek’s performance is a tough act to follow, but Moretz can’t ever seem to find footing in any particular stage of Carrie’s transformations.
As Carrie’s fanatical mother Margaret, Julianne Moore makes a valiant attempt to offer a modestly more sympathetic take on the role than did Piper Laurie in the original, though Peirce stages so many scenes exactly the same way De Palma did before that she unfortunately gets repeatedly forced into direct comparison with Laurie’s wondrously over-the-top turn.
In the end, Carrie is worse than a more brazenly anachronistic adaptation would have been, even if that version had fallen on its face, which so many classic horror remakes have avoided altogether (e.g. The Fly, The Thing). The Carrie that Peirce delivers is a derivative failure.