Well, it was inevitable. Given that almost every other 70s horror classic has been given the reboot treatment, it had to happen to Carrie eventually. Remaking 70s horror movies is a fruitless exercise given that the reason those movies are still beloved is because those filmmakers were able to push their content to extremes that were never seen before and sadly you can’t do that within the current Hollywood system. Still, there was hope for Carrie. After all, the original might be a masterpiece, but with Brian DePalma in charge there is a level of theatricality and 70s cheese that detracts a bit from the harsh social realism of Stephen King’s story. It’s still there, but the bellbottoms, haircuts, and dark humor do tone down the emotional impact slightly. When Kimberly Peirce was hired to direct the project, there was hope she could make a version that felt a little more harsh and real like her previous films Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss. The good news is that Peirce got the tone right. The bad news is that she wasn’t able to push the material as far as she should or could have.
The plot is pretty well untouched beyond a few mild contemporary upgrades. Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) is still a high school social outcast with an abusive, insane, and hyper religious mother (Julianne Moore). The plot catalyst is still that horrific scene of high school cruelty in which Carrie gets her first period in the locker room, freaks out because she doesn’t know what’s happening and is taunted by her fellow teens with a hail of tampons and cries of “plug it up.” However, with this story being contemporary, the meanest of the mean girls (Portia Doubleday) films the ordeal on a cell phone and uploads the video to the internet. Then just as quickly as the online bullying update is added, it disappears, and the story goes back to what it always was. Carrie starts developing psychic powers. Portia is banned from prom and plans revenge. Portia’s friend Gabriella Wild is so guilt-ridden by the even that she forces her high school football superstar boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom in her place. Carrie’s powers start getting stronger. Portia’s revenge plan becomes more twisted. Then it all builds to a pig blood fueled prom climax where the teen drama horror turns into proper genre horror as Carrie has a full on psychic meltdown on the entire graduating class. Yep, it’s a Carrie remake.
First, let’s discuss what went right. Peirce was at least allowed to cast actual teenagers in the lead roles, which increases the realism and emotional impact immediately. The director also has a gift for casting and working with young actors, so everyone feels like actual high school kids. By downplaying the theatrics, Carrie’s hallway abuse and bullying cuts far deeper than in the DePalma version and ups the stakes. That’s the whole reason to make a modern Carrie, not as an excuse to insert cell phones. When you break down the Carrie narrative to the basics, it’s a very contemporary story. Replace “psychic powers” with “gun appreciation” and Carrie is essentially a school shooting story, which couldn’t be timelier. You get the feeling in the opening scenes that Peirce is well aware of that parallel and that’s the version of Carrie she wanted to make. It’s a great idea… and now let’s discuss what went wrong.
To make a school shooting Carrie requires a slow, character driven approach. You have to get a sense of who all the major high school players are so that when Carrie finally cuts loose, the audience reaction is a mixture of cathartic comeuppance and unsettling revulsion. Sadly, Peirce didn’t get to make that movie. The plot and pacing have been streamlined to get to the prom scene punch line as quickly as possible. It’s unclear whether the movie was chopped up in editing (the release was delayed) or tampered with during scripting, but both probably happened and it killed Peirce’s unique take on the material. The audience actually becomes less attached to the characters by the time that arrives, so the finale doesn’t have the complex emotional stakes required. It just turns into a horror show and Peirce is no DePalma, so the psychic meltdown is nowhere near as exciting and marred by distracting CGI. Even though all the supporting performances are strong (especially Julianne Moore who really gets to cut loose as the bible-thumping mama), Chloe Grace Moretz is no Sissy Spacek. She may have been fun in Kick Ass and creepy in Let Me In, but those were roles that required more posing than acting. In Carrie, Moretz has to create a complex and tragic character and just doesn’t have the chops to pull it off. She’s fine, but Spacek was extraordinary. It’s a tough role that needs an actor up to the task and sadly, Moretz can’t live up to the iconic performance that preceded her.
So, what we’re left with is a Carrie remake that starts promisingly and understands the source material, but eventually devolves into a shallow remake that can’t come close to matching the power or shocks of the original. It would be interesting to see Peirce’s director’s cut if such a thing exists simply to see if she followed through on the school shooting metaphor. The prom scene always would have disappointed when stacked up against possibly DePalma’s finest set piece (and that’s a man who knows his way around a set piece), but at least the movie could have added realism and emotional resonance to make an old story feel contemporary. Sadly, that didn’t happen. So instead, we’re left with a noble failure. It’s not terrible and with the bar for 70s remakes so low, it even qualifies as one of the better entries in the troubled trend. I suppose the teenage audience that it was made for might appreciate this faithful adaptation of the book simply because the story is so strong and powerful. However, if you’re hankering to watch Carrie this weekend or this Halloween, you may as well just stick to the original. That flick is a masterpiece after all and that’s never been more apparent now that a remake exists that can’t come close to matching what DePalma, Spacek, and co. got oh so right back in 1976.