[100 minutes. R. Director: Kimberly Peirce]
In the horror canon, Brian De Palma’s CARRIE (1976) is considered a signature work – a film that, without fail, gets frequent mention on those “What to Watch this Halloween” lists. Based on Stephen King’s first published novel, it tells the tale of the titular outcast (Sissy Spacek), who is dominated by her fundamentalist wack-job of a mother (Piper Laurie), and tormented by her peers. Along the way, she discovers telekinesis may be the best method of getting even with her enemies. Perhaps more so than King’s book, De Palma’s film became an ironic foreshadow to later acts of true-life horror in the hallways of American high schools.
That being said, is CARRIE really a signature work? Insofar as establishing the style-over-substance template De Palma would utilize for the rest of his career, sure. But as far as a resonant work of horror where fully realized story and characters is concerned, it leaves a lot to be desired.
The problems with the 1976 version stem largely from its central brain trust: King notably trashed a draft of his novel before his wife retrieved it (the rest, as they say, is history), and its clunky structure and stilted prose speaks to his limitations as a writer. Throughout his career, De Palma has been criticized for glorifying technical dexterity over emotion. At its core, his CARRIE is more concerned with look than feel (as evidenced in his use of split-screen, slow motion, and even rewind), and the best efforts of actors like Spacek, Amy Irving, and William Katt are buried beneath a bunch of aesthetic razzle-dazzle. The film was also prone to campy hysterics, courtesy of Piper Laurie’s overrated performance.
In the ensuing years, Carrie’s legacy continued as a short-lived musical (1988), a belated 1999 sequel, and a made-for-TV remake in 2002 (actually a pilot for a series that never happened). The character remains resonant in pop culture, even if the approach has never transcended King’s pages.
All of this begs the question: is a full-blown CARRIE remake relevant in this day and age, especially when the “high school outcast” archetype has chiseled out its own horror-centric gallery of familiar faces? Think Angela Bettis (of the 2002 CARRIE) in MAY; Katharine Isabelle and Emily Perkins in the GINGER SNAPS trilogy; and Mia Wasikowska in STOKER. They all successfully recycle Carrie White’s lifeblood into uniquely three-dimensional characters without diminishing her goddess-like stature among the genre’s strong females.
CARRIE 2013 sees the telekinetic terror through a distinctly (and necessarily) female perspective, and the result – while familiar – is almost revelatory. With Kimberly Peirce (BOYS DON’T CRY) at the helm, the film transforms De Palma’s parlor trick into something chilling and heartbreaking. As unlikely a Carrie as Chloë Grace Moretz (LET ME IN) makes, she sells the character with conviction and brilliance in a single scene. Ditto, Julianne Moore, who ignores Laurie’s histrionic cues to turn Margaret White into a more nuanced human monster. Even the young supporting cast sells the complexity of high school, its social strata, and the fluctuating emotions and loyalties that accompany it.
A fundamental understanding of women and their bodies is a key thematic element, and in Peirce’s hands, blood takes on a symbolism beyond mere shock value – there’s humiliation, fear, and sadness to be gleaned from Carrie’s first period. Young bodies are examined in close-up, and females are photographed with a tenderness or cruelty that transcends knee-jerk misogyny.
Opening with a sequence that would be gratuitous if handled differently, Margaret gives birth to Carrie, and is thwarted in her attempt to kill the child by her telekinetic gift; what could have been an exploitative slasher scene instead shows the power struggle between the two characters, even at that early stage. Once a sheltered teenager, Carrie is an almost androgynous outsider – as emphasized in her frumpy clothes and gym attire (a black swim cap and matching one-piece practically erase gender). Unlike Spacek, however, Moretz’s Carrie is more aware of her status and surroundings, and starts honing her craft early on – by the time the dread-ridden prom sequence occurs, we rightly expect the worst. It’s an interesting paradox, as our hearts sink in tandem with our anticipation of catharsis – for Carrie and us.
But this CARRIE isn’t all about the horror, and Peirce’s intrepid aesthetic decisions bring us closer to the character than ever before. After her first period, the “scene of the crime” is revisited during a heart-to-heart with Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer – TV’s “Archer”), emphasizing that some wounds never heal. The film uses blood to unite and implicate all involved, from Margaret’s childbirth to Carrie’s period, and to the prank that drives the last act. It’s blood in, blood out, and Peirce takes none of it lightly – the violence has a feminine character, as distinct as the natural, biological purging of blood.
While the film bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor, it is in the skillful manipulation of the well-known that it finds success. Whereas De Palma made a showy adaptation of a pulp novel, Peirce finds a kindred-spirit empathy with characters whose motives we completely understand. In the end, the emotional toll is compelling, heartbreaking, and horrifying. CARRIE is a horror remake of rare beauty, and one of 2013’s best films.
4 out of 5 stars
Jonny Numb works in the salt mines at the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and is not allowed to wield sharp objects on Thanksgiving. He also co-hosts THE LAST KNOCK podcast. Find his movie reviews athttp://numbviews.livejournal.com, and on Twitter @JonnyNumb.
(Photo from OMG Stars.)