Warning: as the original has been out for almost 40 years and the general plot is more or less common knowledge, this review contains a few spoilers.
Carrie was Stephen King's big break. It sold more than a million copies when it was published in paperback in 1974. Its first film adaptation in 1976 was Brian De Palma's first true commercial success, earning $33.8 million at the box office and two Oscar nominations for its leads. And it ignited an inkstorm of critical debate, not least because it was the first movie to deal explicitly with menstruation. Over the past thirty years it has become a bit of a playground for film theorists strung out on a witches batch of hardline feminism, Marxism, and post-Freudianism (with some semiotics sprinkled on top).
But there's room at this party for the theologians, especially with Kimberly Peirce's (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss) decent new adaptation. She brings a feminist slant to the film—and allows some pleasant rays of grace into the story that are all her own. Stylistically, this version can't touch De Palma's—but it's a pleasant (and chilling) enough remake considering the shoes she had to fill.
This suburban legend is about ugly duckling Carrie White (played by Chloe Grace Moretz this time around) and her abusive religious mother Margaret (Julianne Moore). One day in the showers after gym class, Carrie gets her period for the first time. Because her mother never explained it to her, Carrie believes she is bleeding to death and breaks into hysterics, begging her mean-girl classmates for help. Instead the girls, led by Chris (Portia Doubleday) and Sue (Gabriella Wilde), pelt Carrie with tampons and chant "Plug it up! Plug it up!" in an iconic scene of film history.
While traumatic, this passage into womanhood activates Carrie's latent telekinetic powers. If she concentrates, she can make things move. Kindly gym teacher Ms. Desjardin (Judy Greer) punishes the girls and takes Carrie under her wing. And things actually seem to look up for Carrie when lacrosse star and hunky-bro extraordinaire Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) asks her to the prom. But Chris has a prank planned that will make Carrie . . . angry.
Peirce's remake is pitched as a return to King's original story for modern audiences—a pure-of-heart adaption reeking of fidelity to the text. But don't let that fool you: this version knows its cinematic predecessor, too. Peirce makes some strong choices of her own, and is in full, sometimes frame-by-frame conversation with De Palma's movie.
Peirce updates the telling for a modern audience, incorporating cyber-bullying and texting while maintaining the creepy comedy tone and the pace of a short story (King's book was only 200 pages). She adds some good jokes of her own—the literal Bible-thumping is done cleverly, without hitting viewers over the head. And she has a few inventive ways of offing teenagers (you'll be scared to sit on bleachers ever again).
While she pays homage to De Palma in several shots, Peirce is also clear about where they differ. The first is the feminism (or style of feminism—I'm not yet convinced that De Palma was a misogynist). Peirce is obviously conscious of the body of criticism that exists around the first film, and she deliberately rolls up her sleeves and turns some things around. For example, some scholars disliked the fact that Chris and the girls were so mean to Carrie—they saw this as reinforcing stereotypes of women as "catty."
This strikes me as a weak claim, like a Christian complaining that Margaret White exists simply to poison everyone's opinions of all Christians. Unfortunately, there just are some mean young ladies in high school—and some nasty old ladies with unbiblical views of sex in the church.
But Peirce switches it up. Chris is no longer the mastermind of the pig's blood prank. Rather, she's a victim of patriarchy—it's her boyfriend Billy's idea, and he pressures her into it. He even inducts her into the boy's club by offering Chris the knife (saying "here man," no less) to take her own stab at the pig. She takes the knife from him and strikes, to the glee of the boys—this makes the scene, otherwise a homage to Lord of the Flies, a nod to the feminist idea of unconsciously seeking the "male gaze," of women getting a kind of Stockholm Syndrome when it comes to patriarchy. The inclusion of Chris's alpha male father in the film—present in the book but not the De Palma adaptation—reinforces this. And Peirce also got rid of De Palma's main "phallic symbols," replacing them if not subtly then at least reservedly with feminine anatomical symbols.
And finally, Carrie's character: Moretz portrays her surprisingly well, given that Spacek was much odder-looking. But Moretz adds the dynamic of extreme youth: she is convincingly undeveloped compared to the girls around her, whereas Spacek looked young but not childlike.
The most important change in the main character, though, is that she grows to control her telekinesis and use it much more consciously. In De Palma's film her telekinesis was linked more directly to hormones, unconsciously lashing out. This Carrie has control over it—but her love of the power, visible in Moretz's transformation from innocent youth to sinuous Succubus, are a new element in her downfall.
But as interesting as the various takes on the gender issues in the Carrie story are, the most surprising contrast between De Palma and Peirce is their approach to Christianity.
As Joseph Aisenberg points out in his landmark book on Carrie, Brian De Palma's adaptation is all Law. He let Piper Laurie (who played Carrie's mother) think the film was straight satire for much of the original shoot, and it shows. He has no explicit patience for religion—but his sense of justice speaks volumes. The director once said of the plot that "obviously, Carrie should be able to go to the prom. And obviously, when all those people do all those terrible things to her, they should 'get it.' And they do get it. And obviously her mother, who is trying to kill her, should get it, and she does. And obviously, when [Carrie] committed matricide, she should die, and she in fact dies."
He offers no escape from the guilt that haunts every one of his characters. It's a Lovecraft thing rather than a Hammer Horror film. The famous final scene when Sue seeks absolution by laying flowers at Carrie's grave only to be gripped by the arm of her eternal accuser plunging from the earth, says that life is a prison made of sin, guilt, and death—and there is no escape. For De Palma, the only response is the absurdist's, where humor and terror mingle so closely that there's no difference between laughing and screaming.
Peirce, on the other hand, offers hope.
Margaret White is played much more sympathetically this time around, telling Carrie she loves her (which Piper Laurie deliberately refrained from saying). Julianne Moore doesn't try to match the heights of Piper's intensity; she goes a different route with a sinister economy of words and melodrama. And Carrie counters her mother's weird denunciation of sex (marital included) not by saying "religion sucks, woohoo!" but by pointing out that Margaret's nonsense isn't even in the Bible and is actually contrary to Scripture.
Peirce goes even further by rewriting the scene in the book and original film, where Tommy shines by reading a poem that Carrie likes. In this version, though, Carrie is called to the front of the class to read a segment from her favorite poem. She reads a few lines from Milton's Samson Agonistes: "O wherefore was my birth from Heaven foretold / Twice by an angel, who at last in sight / Of both my parents all in flames ascended." This poem (which has been given psycho-sexual readings itself) sets up Carrie as a Samson figure—as Tommy says, the one "who brings that whole temple down." She is a feminine Samson, with a love of violence and the power to act on it but tormented by sadness, guilt, and alienation. She's a captive in a foreign land—but one who finds peace in death if not in life, as opposed to the eternal nightmare De Palma offers.
Which might be why Peirce bookends the film with images of birth—chances not only for new lives, but old life to be born again. And that brings us again to Sue. Sue Snell is doubly a sinner in this version of Carrie—she joins in the shower teasing and later on has premarital sex, which in horror movies is usually the kiss of death. But Peirce lets her live. Sue's repentance and her outstretched hand pleading to Carrie for forgiveness leave her alive. It's a scene that won't win any awards, but is a touching reference again to Agonistes, where Delilah approaches Sampson, seeking forgiveness by just the touch of hands. But Sampson responds, "Not for thy life, lest fierce remembrance wake / My sudden rage to tear thee joint by joint . . . At distance I forgive thee, go with that."
For all these grace notes, though, there is something about De Palma's tragedy that cannot be replicated, or at least isn't here. Maybe it's his use of long takes, set pieces, and slow motion, as opposed to Peirce's traditional close-ups and quick cuts and angle changes. Maybe it was his soupy, dreamy cinematography and the pleasure of non-CGI special effects. Maybe it was the economy of words and subtlety of exposition, while Peirce and screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sagasa's dialogue engages in a bit of spoonfeeding. And certainly Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie cannot be remade.
Maybe there's something we cannot help but love in the kind of tragedy that ends with a scare like De Palma's—an idea that Milton discusses in his prologue to Agonistes.
Peirce's remake is not as good as the original. It's not close. But it brings enough to the table not to be an affront to the source—after all, they could have turned it into a slasher film churned out for a quick Halloween dollar. Instead, we have a decent scary movie that stays faithful to the core questions of Carrie. It will reward the thoughtful viewer of appropriate age by starting a conversation around deep questions of psychology, religion, and sex—with some tongue-in-cheek fun and scares to go along.
This version of the film is surprisingly tame for the R rating. There is no nudity this time around, though there are still some sexual scenes: Sue has several seconds of dimly lit sex with her boyfriend in a car, and three characters spend a moment on a bed with some sexual tension. There are some very gory and disturbing scenes—Margaret White raises scissors while thinking about killing her baby, and cuts herself for pleasure several times. A high school mean girl goes up in flames. Language is bad: several uses of the f-bomb and the s-word.
Timothy Wainwright is a writer based in New York City. He enjoys writing about culture, politics, and religion. You can follow him on Twitter at @Tim_Wainwright.