Carrie: Film Review

More effective and less overblown than many unnecessary horror remakes, but it can't compare with the original.

Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore star in Kimberly Peirce's remake of the 1976 horror classic, based on the novel by Stephen King.

While 1970s horror is a long way from 1950s romantic comedy, Sissy Spacek’s performance in Brian De Palma’s Carrie left no less indelible an imprint on the role than, say, Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina or Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. And as the folks behind the lifeless '90s remakes of those films learned the hard way, messing with a classic -- particularly one with such an iconic lead -- is a losing proposition. So it’s surprising that Kimberly Peirce’s respectful Carrie overhaul is as entertaining as it is, even if the prom-night bloodbath never escapes the long shadow of its predecessor.

Pauline Kael summed up the singular pleasures of the De Palma film, calling it “a terrifyingly lyrical thriller.” She went on to describe its “perverse mixture of comedy and horror and tension, like that of Hitchcock or Polanski, but with a lulling sensuousness.” The lyricism and playfulness are both in shorter supply here. But while the remake is at times too self-serious, it’s never boring or dumb, which is often the case with horror updates.

What’s more, it captures the tender, tortured mother-daughter conflict at the center of Stephen King’s indestructibly compelling story in vivid performances from Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, as the title character and her nut-job religious-fanatic parent, Margaret White.

Having made only three features over 14 years, Peirce remains best known for the searing sensitivity of her 1999 breakout drama, Boys Don’t Cry, which like Carrie, is a story of outsider hostility taken to extremes. The pairing of a director new to the genre and the promise of a return to King’s source novel made it natural to expect a fresh stamp on the material. However, the remake is less faithful to the book than was the 2002 television version, with Angela Bettis and Patricia Clarkson. In fact it frequently seems like a slavish homage to De Palma’s film, recycling much of the same dialogue. Both adaptations share a screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, working here with Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa.

Perhaps the most startling departure is the prologue. In a scene lifted from the novel, Moore’s Bible-thumping Margaret wails her way through unassisted childbirth, alone in a clapboard suburban house that creaks and groans throughout the entire movie. She resists the urge to kill the consequence of her sin, and the baby of course grows up to be Moretz’s painfully shy telekinetic teen, Carrie.

Gym class becomes pool volleyball, teasing us with the queasy expectation that Carrie’s traumatic first experience of menstruation might happen right there in the shallow end. But Peirce sticks to the original model, ushering Carrie off to the showers, minus De Palma’s displays of slow-mo nudity.

The big difference this time around is that when Carrie’s terrified response to her first period makes her an instant laughing stock, one of the mean girls participating in her humiliation films the incident on her smartphone. When that video is posted online, Carrie’s mortification unleashes the full force of her telekinetic powers. She understands and masters those gifts far more intuitively than in previous versions, a choice that robs Moretz’s performance of some vulnerability.

Like last year’s off-Broadway attempt to salvage the legendary flop 1988 musical adaptation, this update again uses bullying in the age of social media to heighten Carrie’s victimization. But Peirce and her screenwriters mercifully refrain from hammering the contemporary relevance, keeping the influence of technology on the story to a minimum.

The basic plot points remain the same. Remorseful over her involvement in Carrie’s ordeal, willowy blonde Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) persuades her jock dreamboat boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take the lonely misfit to the prom. But what should be a glorious night for a girl finally given a taste of social acceptance and liberated from her abusive, overprotective mother instead goes horribly wrong. That’s thanks to the hateful scheme of class bitch Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and her vicious boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell).

Making Chris the spoilt daddy’s girl of a slick, bullying lawyer (an uncredited Hart Bochner) was a nice touch. But the high-school populace here is a colorless bunch, lacking the personality of their counterparts in the De Palma movie. The exception is Judy Greer, who brings warmth, female solidarity and smarts to her scenes as the concerned gym teacher (Betty Buckley in the original).

The film’s nods to De Palma are often amusing. Peirce also slips in a wink to another '70s genre landmark, The Exorcist, as Carrie sharpens her telekinesis skills with some bedroom levitation.

In general, the director goes for intensity grounded in reality, eschewing the usual fallback of jump scares and cheap shocks. The character-driven human story that interests her is that of a frightened outcast confused by what’s happening to her body, torn in her loyalty to a dangerously unhinged mother, and jolted by peer cruelty into violence. Some of the most effective scenes are those in which Carrie takes charge at home, stopping her mother in her tracks with some unholy tricks that feed Margaret’s escalating hysteria.

In a role that calls for over-the-top, Moore is terrific, bringing just the right hint of restraint. She’s less of a fire-and-brimstone loon than Piper Laurie in the 1976 film, but still plenty crazy, shuffling around the shadows like a J-horror ghoul. With her long witchy hair and dowdy sack-dresses, Margaret is an unnerving figure, railing against a godless world in a quiet mutter rather than a thunderous roar. Giving her a self-mutilation habit seems a bit much, but her troubled relationship with Carrie is deftly drawn, revealing the love and pain beneath the warped bid for salvation.

Moretz is an imperfect fit for the role but as always a captivating presence -- hunched over and folded in on herself in an effort to be invisible at school, or trembling at the damnation hurled by her mother until she summons the strength to fight back. She’s at her loveliest in the calm before the storm at the prom, when she finally trusts Tommy enough to relax and enjoy the magically unfamiliar sensation of being a normal teenager. She doesn’t come close to the heartbreaking fragility and ethereality of Spacek in the part, but who could?

Some will see it as an interesting choice and others a banal one that the filmmakers have rendered Carrie a more modern girl. When her moment of radiance at the prom was shattered, Spacek shifted into catatonic trance mode, virtually sleepwalking through Carrie’s trail of pitiless vengeance. Moretz puts the character in control of the paranormal hellfire she’s unleashing, twisting her head and arms in angular movements that are part alien, part Balinese dancer, part Norma Desmond.

Advancements in digital effects technology since prior versions mean the climactic mayhem predictably gets kicked up a few notches. Familiar as the developments inevitably are at this point, the prom scene is still suspenseful and horrifying, even if the action becomes too chaotic to catch everything that’s going on.

The aftermath is more uneven. Peirce indulges in silly excess in stretching out the payback dealt to vile Chris and Billy. Sometimes less is more. The fate of Margaret is better handled, with the director wisely borrowing from De Palma, who borrowed from Saint Sebastian imagery. However, a perfunctory snippet of Sue being questioned at the subsequent inquiry adds nothing, and a reference to the original’s closing scare is cheesy.

The movie looks polished and is well paced, though less sparing use of Marco Beltrami’s lush score might not have been a bad idea. If De Palma’s version was one part adolescent dream, three parts nightmare, with a sly streak of satire running through it, Peirce’s is a more earnest yet still engrossing take on the story that should connect with contemporary teens. At the very least it might send fledgling horror buffs scurrying to their Netflix queues to watch a vintage masterpiece of the genre.

Production: MGM, Screen Gems, Misher Films
Cast: Chloe Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Judy Greer, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Gabriella Wilde, Ansel Elgort, Barry Shabaka Henley
Director: Kimberly Peirce
Screenwriters: Lawrence D. Cohen, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, based on the novel by Stephen King
Producer: Kevin Misher
Executive producer: J. Miles Dale
Director of photography: Steve Yedlin
Production designer: Carol Spier
Costume designer: Luis Sequeira
Editors: Lee Percy, Nancy Richardson
Visual effects supervisor: Dennis Berardi
Music: Marco Beltrami

Rated R, 99 minutes