Silver Screen: Carrie **
In the spirit of Halloween, let’s perform an autopsy.
Two, actually. As for the subjects, don’t mind them. They’re little-loved, already forgotten, belonging to no one. Don’t be hesitant. They might look bad and smell worse, but they’re empty and dead on arrival. They won’t feel a thing.
Let’s draw our knives and study the anatomy of a flop.
The movies may not be in need of any more pop-culture regurgitation, but as remakes go, Stephen King’s Carrie isn’t a bad choice. It’s an ideal fable in the age of anti-bullying. Poor Carrie White, humiliated by her classmates until at last she gets her bloody revenge, was a fictional precursor to very real modern-day horrors. She was the O.G. of school shooters. (King’s much more literal short novel Rage, which he’s since pulled from publication, literally predicted the trend.) Christian fundamentalism, Carrie’s other driving force, is resurgent. It’s not too hard to imagine her shrill, zealous mother as a screaming Michele Bachmann or, perhaps worse, a shrewdly winking Sarah Palin.
Why, then, does Kimberly Pierce’s 2013 update not work?
For starters, there’s nothing wrong with Brian De Palma’s original, which is both more lurid and grounded. After its leering shower-scene opening, the 1976 version recreates the high-school experience with real verisimilitude. Social outcast Carrie is shunned by her peers, ignored by teachers, and abused by her mother. It all culminates in the most notorious prom night in American fiction, when Carrie’s barely repressed telekinetic powers explode in a fury of fire and blood.
Pierce’s modernization follows De Palma and King’s playbook almost to the letter. Once again the naïve and socially inept Carrie (now played by Chloë Grace Moretz) gets her first period in a high-school locker room, prompting a group of mean girls (led by Youth in Revolt’s Portia Doubleday) to mock her and pelt her with tampons. A well-meaning gym teacher (Judy Greer) punishes the girls, which only stokes their ire. Thus they plot the infamous prom prank— stuffing the ballot box to name Carrie queen, only so they can dump a bucket of pig’s blood on her head— that unleashes deadly, repressed rage.
The new Carrie fails in part because it doesn’t update the story enough. Pierce’s version, from a slightly updated script by playwright and comic-book writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, opens with the girls playing volleyball in their high school’s swimming pool. What a perfect way to put a fresh twist on the public-menstruation sequence, yet Pierce passes it by, schlepping Carrie out of the pool and into the locker room for a toothless restaging of the familiar scene. The slight modernization of having the incident video recorded and uploaded to Youtube adds a bit of relevance but doesn’t make the moment any more affecting. Similarly, Pierce and company opt not to reimagine the ill-fated prank; the notion of a modern American teenager slaughtering a pig to get its blood seems both too crude and hands-on for a generation of kids raised playing indoors on videogames, and when local family farms are all but nonexistent.
One of Stephen King’s great strengths as a horror writer is not to overplay his hand early. King’s stories tend to start slow and build a credible, familiar world before warping it with freaks and phantasms. Almost from the outset of 2013’s Carrie, however, the girl’s telekinetic powers are undeniable. When she freaks out, objects levitate and spin around the room and doors splinter. Sure, modern special effects make this easier to accomplish, but that doesn’t mean it aids the story. In De Palma’s original, prior to the climax, Carrie’s supernatural flashes are limited to blowing out a lightbulb and cracking a mirror. Rendering her more powerful doesn’t add to the suspense and foreboding; it only makes her less real and relatable, and diminishes the shock of the big payoff.
The primary failing of Pierce’s Carrie, however, is all in the casting. Julianne Moore is tremendous as the supremely unhinged Mrs. White, her wide eyes full in equal measures of fear and disdain. She’s perfect. Moertz, on the other hand, is all wrong for the part. She’s a talented actress, but she’s far too conventionally pretty and warm-looking to convey Carrie’s brittleness and vulnerability, much less to seem convincing as an outcast. It’s a fundamental disjunction the movie can never overcome, and all the expensive effects shots of her even more wide-ranging, bombastic revenge can’t cover it up. What Pierce fails to understand is that the real horror of Carrie isn’t our girl laying waste to kids with the fiery flick of a finger, it’s the feelings of ineptitude and alienation that the real Carrie Whites of the world, powerless and afraid, can never overcome.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.