Remakes are funny things. There are some films that are true classics in every sense of the word, enduring through time and remaining just as relevant today as the moment they were released – films that no one should even consider remaking. On the other hand, there are films that have an interesting idea, but were never really done justice or have simply aged poorly. In the case of Brian De Palma’s 1976 adaptation of Carrie, I feel like it falls somewhere in between those two categories. The film is a legitimate genre classic, and it still holds up very well, but I believe this is a story that has plenty of opportunity to explore other avenues, to explore a timeless and poignant theme in a new and interesting way. De Palma’s Carrie is a very good movie, but I don’t think it’s sacrosanct. If a remake was able to push the story in new directions it could be legitimately worthwhile.
Kimberly Peirce’s remake does not and is not.
Even if you haven’t seen the original film or read the Stephen King novel, you likely know the drill: Carrie is an awkward, repressed, and at least a little crazy high school girl, raised by a mentally ill and religiously fanatical mother. She has her first period in the school locker room, thinks she’s dying because she’s never been taught about puberty, the other girls mercilessly make fun of her. The other girls get punished and a few of them enact a revenge plot where they dump a bucket of pig’s blood on Carrie at the prom. Carrie is unhinged and proceeds to blow up the school, her house, and part of the town with her telekinetic powers (oh yeah, forgot to mention that part).*
This remake of Carrie is a TERRIBLE movie. Full stop. That in itself shouldn’t be the cause of much surprise considering that that is the modus operandi of most horror remakes, but Carrie manages to tap into that special kind of bad where a movie that I wasn’t expecting to be good still wound up disappointing me. As I mentioned, the metaphor inherent in the story of Carrie – puberty, strange and terrifying changes, and the painful transition from child to adult – is powerful and extremely ripe with potential for new and relevant interpretations, but instead the film lazily follows exactly the formula of the Brian De Palma original, only deviating long enough to make a handful of really awful and wrongheaded narrative choices. There are moments where this film feels like an actual shot-for-shot remake of the original with a bit of the window dressing changed in a poor attempt to differentiate itself. The girls play volleyball in gym class, but this time it’s in a pool. Carrie reads a poem in English class instead of Tommy. Miss Desjardin tells the girls what a “shitty” thing they did outside instead of in the gym. All the while, the film is burdened with the most cloying and thickheaded dialogue and characterizations that walk the audience through plot points and character motivations as if they were children. To be fair, De Palma’s original was by no means a subtle film, but its lack of subtlety came from aggressive visuals and heightened style, the remake is just condescending. None of the characters in this film feel like real people, and at times I felt like I was watching one of those insipid ABC Family shows.
Which brings us to maybe the most fundamental thing the film gets wrong: Carrie herself. Chloë Grace Moretz is a very talented young actress, and I had hoped that if any part of this movie would be good it would be her, but she is stunningly miscast in the leading role. I don’t know how much of this comes down to screenplay and direction and how much of it comes down to her just not being a good fit for the role, but Moretz is never able to bring the tragedy of Carrie to life. Put simply, she just comes across as too competent, put together, and full of life to really convince us that she’s as screwed up as the story wants us to think she is. In one of many frustratingly unnecessary echoes of the original film, a kid on a bike chants in a sing-songy voice “creepy Carrie, creepy Carrie!” but the fact is, Carrie’s not creepy. At most she’s just sad. Sissy Spacek’s version of the character was WEIRD – awkward, naïve, beaten down, complete with crazy eyes – but she was also sympathetic. You feel for the character, but you also recognize that there’s something really volatile underneath the fragile surface so when it finally comes to her telekinetic meltdown its frightening and tragic and unsettling. It’s pure emotion, raw and uncontrollable, and you sympathize with Carrie despite all of the carnage because you buy that she’s not really in control in that moment. Moretz’s Carrie is a totally different story, she feels competent and in control, and when the infamous prom scene goes down, it feels like malevolent wrath rather than uncontrolled emotion. It doesn’t help that this version of Carrie is far more active in the mayhem – swooping around like a super villain, waving her hands and twisting her face – and even hunts down a few victims one by one. The film takes special time to relish in the kills, giddily capturing all of the gory detail in a way that makes it feel as if these scenes are meant to elicit cheers rather than horrify and sadden the audience. It comes across as really wrong and uncomfortable (and not in the good way). This is the section of the film that deviates the most from the De Palma film, but because the rest of the movie is so blatantly stuck in 1976, it all falls completely flat. If they had done a top-to-bottom re-imagining of this, where Carrie is a competent, but awkward girl who is bullied relentlessly until she takes revenge this all might have worked, but because the film tries so hard (though fails) to recreate Spacek and De Palma’s “crazy Carrie” it’s completely incongruous.
Ironically, the film rushes past the rest of the plot at a breakneck speed to get to the prom aftermath that it completely misses the characterizations and story moments needed to make it work. It shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how Carrie, or at least Brian De Palma’s Carrie, works. Carrie may be considered a classic of the horror genre, but the truth of it is that it’s not really a horror film. It’s a tragedy, more along the lines of something like Chronicle (to cite a recent example) than a proper horror film. Neither version of the film is scary, but at least De Palma’s original understands the emotional level of the story. The end of the remake essentially becomes a slasher flick with Carrie standing in for Jason Voorhees, and in the context of the rest of the movie it doesn’t work at all.
Outside of Moretz, the rest of the cast is basically a nonentity. It’s a combination of good actors being given nothing worthwhile to do and average to poor actors…well, also not being given anything worthwhile to do. Julianne Moore does a serviceable job as Margaret, Carrie’s mother, but again the film wants to do new things with her while also forcing her to ape Piper Laurie’s performance.
It may not be fair to compare a remake to the original film, especially when that film is a generational touchstone like the 1976 version of Carrie, but when a movie is so thorough in rehashing the original as this is, it doesn’t just invite comparison, it begs for it. It’s useless to try to divorce this film from the original because this film would not exist if not for the original. Either way, though, the 2013 version of Carrie is simply a horrible mess of a movie. It’s unfocussed, narratively confused, has really bad characterizations, and is frankly a bore to watch. There’s no reason to waste your time on this. If you liked the original just stick with that; if you haven’t seen either version, see the original; if you disliked the original, know that this is basically the exact same movie except a lot worse. There are so many great movies out in theaters right now (Rush, Gravity, and Captain Phillips to name a few) that there’s absolutely no justification for seeing this. You deserve better.
*By the way, you aren’t allowed to say I spoiled the movie when every last piece of marketing material covers the same ground.