The new Carrie is not the old Carrie, nor is it the original Carrie. Somewhat surprisingly, it is a reimagining of the source material, not simply a beat-for-beat remake.
The differences between the three key versions — we’ll ignore the ostensible sequel The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999), as well as the TV movie Carrie (2002) — can be laid at the feet of Kimberly Peirce, Brian De Palma, and Stephen King, respectively. King’s novel, the fourth he completed, though the first to be published, is the work of a nascent writer, one with a distinctive point of view, a developing voice, and raw talent to burn. He created characters and a setting that focused on a pitiful high school outsider and then gave her the ultimate power of life and death, well before she knew what to do with it.
De Palma’s 1976 film version, drawn from a screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen that arranges the events of the novel into a logical order, was a wonderfully florid affair, the first in which De Palma’s taste for gothic horror connected fully with young audiences. Less intense than Sisters, more relatable than Phantom of the Paradise, and less indebted to a particular antecedent than Obsession, De Palma’s Carrie ebbs and flows in harmony with the quiet subtlety of Sissy Spacek’s impersonation of a teenage girl who really just wants to be left alone.
Peirce is about 10 years older than De Palma was when he made his version of Carrie, and that’s relevant because Peirce brings another decade’s worth of life experience to the story. That’s life experience as opposed to filmmaking experience, in that Peirce has only made two features previously: the remarkably haunting Boys Don’t Cry (a 1995 short expanded into a feature in 1999) and Stop-Loss in 2008.
Unlike De Palma, Peirce doesn’t have any signature visual preferences to exploit or fall back upon; she sticks rigidly to telling a story in a fairly straightforward but unhurried manner; she allows scenes to play out with a minimum of noticeable edits, which keeps the focus on the characters. A disconcerting percentage of close-ups involve faces peering directly into the camera; it may only be a handful of shots like that, but it’s startling in its effectiveness.
Under her hand, and a screenplay credited (again) to Lawrence D. Cohen — is that because a surprising amount of dialogue is taken directly from the earlier film? — and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (TV’s Glee (?!) and Big Love), the 2013 version of Carrie White emerges as a young women with a developing sense of empowerment.
Chloe Moretz, who at 16 is the age of the character, does not have Spacek’s powerful ability to suggest what she is thinking by the merest movement of her eyes; instead, her strength is her control of her body, so that when her character shrinks back, her body holds itself still, or limits movement to the absolute minimum motor requirements. Later, when she gains confidence in her supernatural abilities, her body straightens and and flexes mightily, as though she were shedding an outer layer of skin and dancing in the sunlight for the first time.
Julianne Moore, stepping into the role that earned Piper Laurie an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress, is homicidal from the moment she is introduced, determining to slay her infant while the little thing is still attached to her umbilical cord. Her homicidal instinct continues to manifest itself throughout the story, part and parcel of a woman who is far more dangerous to herself than to others; banging her head against the wall is evidently a commonplace maneuver on her part, so much so that he exasperated daughter has little patience for the gesture.
Now, it takes the balance of the film for these character traits to become manifest, and for the true nature of the conflict between mother and daughter to be resolved, and I question whether the film ever comes to grips with the most divisive issue at hand, which is: What does Carrie want?
But the fact that such a question is raised at all is a testament to the accomplishment of the filmmakers in tackling material that is so well-known. Peirce and company have not made a film that is better than De Palma’s, but neither have they made one that is demonstrably worse. (And let’s be fair, as memorable and enjoyable as De Palma’s film remains, it’s not an unassailable classic, without flaw.)
Really, the new Carrie proves to be its own thorny, gory little horror beast, a superpower heroine who wants to flex her muscles and see what she can do, a girl who loves her mother and could love all kinds of people, if only she were given the chance to figure what it is, exactly, that she wants to do with her life.
The film screens at selected locations beginning tonight, and opens wide across the Metroplex on Friday, October 18.