On April 5th 1974 Stephen King’s epistolary horror novel Carrie was released. Written on his wife’s old type writer (the same he used for Misery) in the run down trailer that they were living out of, Carrie became his first published novel. It was the fourth that he had written, and it would have been lost at the bottom of a trash can if it were not for his wife, Tabitha. She fished the pages of the infamous shower room scene out of the trash and forced him to finish it. Taking her advice, King expanded it from a short story into the novel we all know. Thus the book was dedicated to her.
For those not familiar with King’s writing process (I highly recommend his autobiography/writing tutorial On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft), many of his stories start out as questions. In this case: what would it be like to be raised by such a mother as Margaret White? With the supernatural accenting the awkward process of a girl experiencing her first period, the novel features the eponymous Carrie White, an extremely sheltered high-school girl who uses her newly-discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who tease her. The fury of Carrie's tortured soul pushed too far forces her to destroy her high school, most of her home town, and her own mother. When you play with matches, you'll eventually get burned.
The success of the original left me questioning the intentions of a remake. Filmmakers seem to be stuck in a rut with the constant onslaught of remakes and reboots. However, there's certainly a case to be made for revisiting Carrie given the alarming prevalence of teenage bullying, public cyber-humiliation, and fatal acts of retaliation in the post-Columbine era. One of the most alluring aspects to the tale of Carrie White is the poignant way that it deals with the pains of maturing as a teenage woman and bullying on both a simplistic and an extreme level. If you gut the story down to its bare essentials, it’s merely a story about a troubled teen who is pushed to the edge, snaps, and lashes out in a violent and unexpected way. There is no doubt that this is a horror film, but the monster is not something lurking in the shadows or crawling out of an unmarked grave. No, the monster in this horror tale is the one that hides within all of us. Whether it’s the prideful monster tormenting an awkward girl or the smaller, whimpering monster that evolves into a powerful rage of judgement, the main point is that evil inherent in us all.
For this film Marvel comic writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa took his first stab at a Hollywood script with assistance from Lawrence D. Cohen (writer of the 1976 Carrie). This was not Aguirre-Sacasa’s first time adapting King’s work (in 2008 he published the first issue of a comic book version of King’s 1990 post-apocalyptic opus The Stand) which should have readied him for this task. The film even has a sensitive interpreter in director Kimberly Peirce, who so powerfully evoked the inner world of another tortured, misunderstood individual in 1999′s Boys don't Cry. You would think that this combination of creative minds could have brought a solid contemporary version of King’s classic novel, but the addition of Cohen and Peirce's close relationship with Brian De Palma may have prevented any meaningful deviation from the original. Sadly, this is another uninspired remake that—in spite of some good points—stumbles and falls flat on its own face.
Peirces feature eschews De Palma’s diabolical wit and voluptuous style in favor of a somber, straight-faced retelling (an issue I have with many of the King adaptations). All of the emotion and pathos that King puts into his work are gutted out and left with a carcass that is overly serious and too focused on the technical aspects. The film is also the proverbial vessel for cliché modern horror idioms of fast flying sharp objects, shuddering cacophonies of instruments/over-zealous sound effects (Marco Beltrami’s score did nothing to accent the emotions that it should have), and of course blood--gallon upon gallon of dripping, oozing, cgi blood. Uniformly following a commercial pattern, especially in the effects-heavy closing reel, you wonder if Michael Bay was co-directing this film.
Notably, De Palma’s luridly funny sensibility is little in evidence; Peirce has excised every dirty chuckle and whisper of camp from the material, nudging the story in a more realistic direction, but also adding dimension to some of the characters. The hateful Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and conflicted "good girl" Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) are well fleshed out, and Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) begins to experience a flicker of self-worth as she spends time cultivating her telekinetic powers. This is suggestive of the origin story of a comic-book super-heroine, or a more adult version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.
Perhaps Peirce’s shrewdest calculation is to play the Carrie-Margaret White (Julianne Moore) relationship almost completely straight (though “I can see your dirty pillows” still gets a laugh). Crucially, the characters’ arguments are not just shrill screaming matches but careful negotiations of power and control (complicated at one point by Carrie’s own impressive command of Scripture), which can suddenly give way to moments of striking tenderness. One senses that the love between mother and daughter, twisted beyond recognition though it may be, is chillingly genuine; they truly have no one else but each other.
For her part, Moretz can scarcely be blamed for falling short of one of the most iconic performances in horror cinema; Spacek may have given the remake her blessing (as has De Palma), but no other actress could capture that hauntingly lost quality she brought to the role of Carrie White, making her not just a shy, misunderstood waif but a mesmerizingly alien presence. By contrast, Moretz, though superficially de-glammed with a strawberry-blonde mop, is still rather too comely to resemble the pimply, slightly overweight figure described in King’s novel, and her efforts to look downcast and withdrawn strain credulity at first.
Up until the epic conflagration of the prom scene, which seems to play out at twice the length and with far more Grand Guignol overkill than the original, Carrie (2013) sustains interest as a moody psychological/paranormal drama with a melancholy undertow that at times tilts into genuine pathos. When Carrie puts on her dress and strolls into the prom on the arm of handsome Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), it’s hard not to feel a rush of bittersweet emotion, as well as anticipatory dread, as this Cinderella story proceeds to go terribly wrong. What happens next is a letdown: the prom fiasco feels less like an explosion of teenage id than a snazzy visual-effects showreel, the climactic set pieces are borrowed directly from the 1976 version, and the denouement is pretty limp, especially when compared with De Palma’s literally groundbreaking kicker. It’s a disappointing wrap-up to a movie that, at its infrequent best, suggests there’s more than one way to adapt a classic.