Carrie: A Possibly Unnecessary Remake of a Still-Resonant Horror Story
There's a scene in the original Carrie that made me tear up the first time I saw it, at age 12 or so. It's not one of the movie's famous scare scenes—not the ones at the prom, not the pants-peeingly unexpected shock ending, not even the senseless murder of a pig—but it's one that resonated for being profoundly upsetting in an entirely different way. It's the scene when Carrie, on her way to prom in a simple, handmade dress, is confronted by her feverishly religious mother, who begs her not to leave for the dance with the handsome Tommy Ross, who, inexplicably, has convinced her to go. "They're all going to laugh at you," shrieks Margaret White, and in Carrie's face we can see the thin hope she held on to, the idea that maybe her mother would let her have this one moment of pride or possibility, vanish. The scene is so heartbreaking in part because it flips the script on the narrative of the high-school outsider: It should be Carrie worrying, "They're all going to laugh at me," and her mother putting a reassuring hand on her shoulder or offering a hug. The realization that a parent would consciously, cruelly short-circuit a blossoming sense of self was as painful to a naive young viewer than any of the more overt high-school hostility around which Carrie is built.
That scene is one of many in the new remake of Carrie that is almost deferentially faithful to the original, and I'd be curious to know whether it's as effective now as it once was. After all, the cruelty of both teens and adults is in much more abundant pop-cultural supply these days than it was in 1976, when Brian DePalma's film adaptation of Stephen King's 1974 novel was released. And to moviegoers and TV watchers who have grown up in a world wallpapered with stories of children victimized by adults, from The Hunger Games to Penn State and beyond, Carrie's core of dysfunctiontional mother-daughter love may not be shocking enough. For a film that adds an origin-story prologue that features a mother attempting to stab her newborn baby with an oversized set of sewing scissors, that's saying something.
Carrie has already had a long life in remakes. The 2002 made-for-TV movie added contemporary touches borrowed from self-referential neo-horror hits like Scream, in addition to an odd feel-good gal-pal reworking of the original's ending. Even more inexplicably, Carrie has emerged in musical form not once but twice (a Broadway production that premiered in 1988 was remembered as a "nightmarishly campy $8 million flop" by the New York Times; it was revived in 2012 after changes to the script and score). And the fact that none of the above attempts could top the simply stated horror of the original screen version is evident in Kimberly Peirce's new screen version, which deviates so little from the original that it feels…well, kind of pointless.
That's not a wholesale pan of the film, which has a lot going for it. Chloe Grace Moretz—most famous in some circles as Kick-Ass's Hit Girl, in others for being Jack Donaghy's teenage nemesis on 30 Rock—is Carrie; her mother is played by Julianne Moore, who imbues Margaret with less wild-eyed fanaticism and more doomy pathos than her predecessor Piper Laurie. (In Peirce's version, Margaret also has a self-mutilation habit that's never explained, but maybe it doesn't have to be?)
Carrie is unique in the pantheon of classic horror movies for being entirely a women's story, and it's a credit to this version that it remains so. It would have been easy for Peirce to try an appeal to a larger, more heavily male audience by padding out the few dude roles in the film with more backstory or dialogue, but that would have fundamentally changed the focus on the five women central to the story—Carrie, Margaret, sympathetic gym teacher Miss Desjardins, repentant bully Sue Snell, and unrepentant bully Chris Hargensen—and their interactions. Perhaps it's weird to applaud a movie based on literal girl-on-girl violence for being a paragon of modern Bechdel Test–passing, but I'm going to do it anyway.
Still, it's easy to get the sense that Peirce's love for the story made her reluctant to update too much of it, even in places where that might have been both appropriate and useful. Take the nod to cyberbullying that modernizes the opening shower scene, better known as the scene where Carrie is pelted with tampons and pads to a chorus of "Plug it up!" (And if you were ever a teenage boy, even better known as the scene where there was a lot of gratuitous full-frontal nudity.) The menstrual-product assault is recorded on one character's phone and eventually uploaded online, but there's no inference that anyone who isn't a student at the high school knows about it. With no sense of place or cultural context, the movie loses a chance to showcase just how dramatically technology can magnify instances of bullying—you might find yourself thinking, "Well, it could have been worse—she could have wound up on Gawker or Jimmy Kimmel." And the fear of female sexuality, promptly translated into slut-shaming, that characterizes Margaret's view of the suddenly lovely, prom-ready Carrie is so of a piece with the fundamentalist rhetoric that's permeated American political culture that it seems like an oversight not to connect the two.
One place where I'm not alone in wanting the new Carrie to be most faithful to DePalma's original is the end. That final shot—whether it was Sue Snell's bad dream or the very real, very undead revenge of Carrie on the one person she had left to destroy—is one of the original amazing "gotcha" moments in horror movies, and remembered as fondly as horror-movie scenes can be. I get that it's a difficult task to recreate something so iconic with a fresh twist, but what the L.A. Times called a "ridiculously sanitized" ending robs the remake of some of the original's power. Then again, by now we already now that horror stories about bullying, cruelty, and the policing of women's bodies by religion never truly die—perhaps the new ending was Peirce's way of making that literal without being all, well, grabby about it.
Entertainment Weekly critic Owen Glieberman, in the story linked above, enthuses that the original Carrie is still a touchstone for him because "it’s one of those rare, very special movies that attains the quality of a dream." In some ways, I feel the opposite—rather, that Carrie resonates for women in particular because it touches on so much of the horror of becoming female that it's almost too real. I love that Kimberly Piece chose to honor that horror faithfully, even if it doesn't make for a radical re-visioning.
Related Reading: The Feminist Power of Female Ghosts.
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