At the risk of courting controversy, I don’t think that Brian DePalma’s take on Stephen King’s “Carrie” is worthy of its reputation. That’s not to say it’s a bad film, but a movie so clumsily edited and void of subtlety can hardly be called a masterpiece. So naturally, I was perfectly fine with the notion of a remake, especially after four decades of advances in special effects for that prom sequence.
More importantly, the subject of bullying is a really hot topic right now. Cyberbullying, teen suicides, and school shootings have all dominated headlines for the past several years, especially during that overwhelmingly violent holiday season we had last year. With all of this context taking place around us, it just feels right that this generation should have its own take on “Carrie.” Though come to think of it, just about any Stephen King adaptation might have worked toward this purpose. Bullies seem to crop up a lot in his work, just saying.
So here’s Carrie (2013), which came out to a critical reception that could charitably be called “middling” (49 percent Tomatometer, as of this writing). Not that I particularly cared, of course. Since I had so little reverence for the original film, my expectations had already been sufficiently lowered. The reviews had warned me to expect a warmed-over retread of the original film, but that’s not exactly what happened.
To start with, the film doesn’t open with Carrie’s first period. Instead, the movie opens by showing us Carrie’s birth. Not only does this establish her mother as a dangerous religious nutjob, but it also shows her ignorance toward feminine biology (which naturally becomes important during Carrie’s high school years) and it shows how close she came to murdering the newborn Carrie. As to why she didn’t go through with that… well, that point is pretty weak. But I’ll get back to Margaret White later.
From there, we cut to Carrie’s gym class, though the volleyball game is now set in a pool. Maybe this is to establish water as some kind of metaphor, to be paid off during the prom catastrophe? Beats me. The film has many of the same religious/bloody symbols that were seen in the original film, but doesn’t really do anything new with them.
Anyway, it bears mentioning that this film was directed by Kimberley Peirce, previously known for directing Hilary Swank to a Best Actress trophy by way of Boys Don’t Cry. I’m sincerely grateful that a woman directed this go-round, and that she decided to forgo Brian DePalma’s uncomfortably pervy tone. Of course, Chloe Moretz (here playing Carrie) isn’t legal yet, so it’s not like she could’ve done any nude scenes anyway, but still.
Yet in a way, that first period scene had a much greater impact under DePalma’s direction. He was bold enough to show Carrie’s body in an up close and intimate way, which led to a more gradual and effective shock when things go wrong. In the remake, Carrie drops a bloody bar of soap and that’s all we get. Turns out it’s not all that easy to do body horror when you can’t show a body. If only this premise had a middle ground that didn’t involve softcore porn with underage characters.
Sorry, but it’s sort of inevitable that this review will be mostly comprised of comparisons to the original. The film invites such comparisons, considering how many scenes and lines of dialogue are shared between versions. Not that I mind that necessarily: The two films are based on the same source material, so of course there are going to be similarities. And in all fairness, there are some notable improvements in the remake. The pacing and editing are much tighter, for example, and Carrie was given a much better arc with regard to her developing powers. Of course, it certainly helps that the remake got rid of all those godawful “Psycho-style” violin screeches that DePalma was so fond of.
Additionally, the film largely did away with the campiness that pervaded so much of the original film. The school principal is a good example. In the original, the school principal was a blithering idiot. In the remake, Principal Morton (now played by Barry Shabaka Henley) is more of a bureaucratic oaf who gets uncomfortable at the mention of fertility cycles. He’s still incompetent, but at least now he’s more understandably so.
On the other hand, we’ve got Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan, here respectively played by Portia Doubleday and Alex Russell. Somehow, these two were even more two-dimensionally wicked than in the remake. Sure, John Travolta played Billy as a preening punk, but the remake’s Billy is played as a straight-up psychopath. And as for Chris… sweet mother of bacon. I thought this bitch was over-the-top evil in the original film, but Jesus Christ. For the life of me, I can’t understand how anyone could take a film seriously when it features a bully so annoying, vindictive, and stupid beyond all reason. Even worse, at least the DePalma film had a kind of unintentional hilarity that helped make these characters somewhat watchable. Without that excuse, the remake’s portrayals have nothing.
Chris and Billy are unique in that the remake somehow made them even worse. Compare that to Sue Snell (now played by Gabriella Wilde) who’s by far the most improved character of the bunch. I love how the film gave Sue additional screen time and a slightly more active role in the plot. Sue is here presented as the story’s moral center, and that’s exactly as it should have been. Alas, I still have to knock a few points away for giving Sue a worthless sorta-plotline that doesn’t really amount to much. I know that it was carried over from the book (according to the Wikipedia synopsis, anyway), but the book did more with it.
Then we have gym teacher Ms. Desjardin, played by Judy Greer (this is the Miss Collins character in the DePalma film, now with her original name from the book). Greer does a fine job with the character, though she’s hindered for having less screen time than the original film offered. Still, it’s the ending where Desjardin really gets shafted. Desjardin got killed off in the DePalma film, and she lived to resign her position in the book. The remake tries to land somewhere in the middle, and the result is appropriately half-assed.
As for Tommy Ross… well, there’s not much to say. Guy had all the personality of a mannequin in the original film and not much has changed.
Moving on to the story’s foremost characters, let’s address Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Margaret White. This is the role previously made famous by Piper Laurie, whose depiction of the character at least pretended to be an upstanding and God-fearing human being. She might have been a complete lunatic, but she still went door-to-door trying to spread the word of God in a cheery manner. Compare that to Moore’s portrayal, which shows no hint of any such effort.
In the remake, Margaret is a complete shut-in. We plainly see that she has no shred of patience for anyone else, she’s prone to fits of self-flagellation and mutilation, and I’m pretty sure she’s completely unfamiliar with the concepts of laughter or joy. Moreover, her skin is all waxy and pale, her hair is unkempt, and her eyes have no spark. Put simply, this woman is a hollow corpse. She’s a zombie. Margaret isn’t living, and she doesn’t want to live. She’s just shambling her way to the grave and making everyone else miserable on the way there.
On the one hand, this makes for a very haunting portrayal. On the other hand, it does some damage to her character where Carrie is concerned. We’re told that Margaret spared her daughter’s life and brought her up because Margaret loves her that much. Horseshit. This whole portrayal hinges on the notion that Margaret’s life is nothing but misery and isolation. There’s no way that this woman could have a shred of love for anyone, even for herself. I mean, Piper Laurie’s brand of crazy may not have been quite this compelling or frightening, but at least I could believe that she really did love her daughter in her own demented way.
This brings me to the namesake character herself. Spacek turned in a wonderful portrayal of Carrie in large part because of how homely and plain she made herself look. By comparison, Chloe Moretz has a kind of vivacity that she just can’t seem to bury, though she’s clearly putting in her best effort. Then again, since the remake puts a much greater emphasis on Carrie gaining more confidence through harnessing her powers, I guess a bit of added gumption is appropriate. Also, I’m sure the makeup department could have put in a lot more help: It’s obvious that Carrie runs a comb through her hair every now and then, especially when she’s standing next to Margaret.
Yet in a way, this brings a different kind of tragedy to Carrie. There’s a sense that Carrie could have been a very beautiful girl if she didn’t have all the energy and confidence quashed out of her. It’s sad to think that in another life, with a different upbringing, maybe Moretz’ version of the character would have been voted prom queen fair and square. Compare that to Spacek’s version of the character, who would never have won any beauty contests in any alternate reality.
And so we come to the main event: The prom disaster. On one level, it’s spectacular. This isn’t a bunch of clunky split-screens and goofy effects with a fire hose. No, this is brutal mayhem. Though some kills are admittedly more stupid than others (Two kids get trampled to death. Seriously.), this is still carnage and destruction on a level that DePalma could never have imagined back in the day. The death of Chris and Billy is a great case in point. In the original film, it was just a laughably cheap rollover effect and a big explosion. In the remake, they are made to suffer in drawn-out fashion — slowed down so we can savor every frame — before they die horribly painful deaths. And then they’re blown up in a MASSIVE explosion.
Yet this raises a significant problem with the remake. It’s a subtle distinction, but a tremendously important one.
In the original film, Spacek just stands around looking all catatonic while everything goes to shit around her. She’s not really doing anything that we can see. As such, you could make the argument that Carrie isn’t really in control, and all the emotional trauma has caused her powers to go haywire. There’s a distinct possibility that Carrie doesn’t know what she’s doing.
Compare that to the remake, in which Carrie clearly knows exactly what she’s doing. She isn’t just orchestrating all the slaughter, she’s enjoying it. She’s toying with these people, playing with her prey before killing them. That’s a crucial difference. It’s easy to defend a girl who doesn’t know what she’s doing. We can hope that she learns better and atones for the crimes she inadvertently committed. But when she intentionally abuses her powers to torture and slaughter an entire town’s worth of men, women, and children, it’s a lot easier to root against her. Though many of Carrie’s bullies were shrill and annoying characters, and I’m glad that they’re not in the movie anymore, I found myself hoping that the mass murderer would end up getting killed herself.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the bullshit ending. The closing moments are more or less identical to those of the DePalma film, except that DePalma covered his ass by showing it in a dream sequence. The remake, however, seemed to imply that it wasn’t a dream. In which case, shame on this movie and its grotesque sequel-baiting.
Last but not least, a bit of discussion is in order regarding modern technology. It goes without saying that the remake had to address cell phones, YouTube, and other technology that didn’t exist in the 1970s. Sometimes, the tech was effectively used in terms of story, clearing up a few minor plot issues. Other times, it only served to make Chris look like even more of an impossibly huge twat.
Using the DePalma film as a starting point, Carrie (2013) takes a step forward for every step it takes back. There are some improvements here, but not quite enough to justify the remake’s existence. The story continues to suffer for its gratingly two-dimensional characters, though many of the actors (particularly Moretz, Moore, and Wilde) try their darnedest to bring some depth to their roles.
I don’t particularly like the film, but I don’t really hate it either. In fact, that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about the original. Neither of them are exactly bad, but I wouldn’t call either of them masterpieces either. I wonder if the original book is either that awful or that unfit for adaptation to the screen. I must remember to read it sometime.