Director Kimberly Peirce Offers an Unsettling, Perceptive Take on Horror Classic 'Carrie'

The knee-jerk tendency to decry remakes, particularly in the world of horror cinema, is well-meaning but misplaced. It would certainly be nice if Hollywood was more willing to finance original projects that aren’t gimmicky or pre-branded, but that won’t happen until people start paying to see the excellent original horror flicks that do make it to theaters. In the meantime, we’d do well to remember that some of the best genre films of the past few decades—John Carpenter’s The Thing and David Cronenberg’s The Fly immediately come to mind—have been remakes.

Not that Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberly Peirce’s take on Carrie is in the same league as either of those esteemed redos, but it’s a very good film that deserves to be seen, both as a reinterpretation of a classic story and on its own merits.

Whether Peirce has made a remake of Brian De Palma’s 1976 movie or a re-adaptation of Stephen King’s 1974 novel is up for debate. Peirce and screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen (who scripted Carrie’s first and still canonical big-screen adaptation) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa have hewn close to De Palma’s film, while giving it tweaks that are by turns obvious and eerily subtle. No contemporary tale of bullying gone horribly awry is complete unless someone is victimized via social media, but Peirce has found other, ginchier ways to distinguish her version—especially when it comes to the two damaged women at the center of the film.

Peirce gives Carrie White and her mother, Margaret, their most dramatic and disturbing introduction to date. Carrie begins with Margaret (Julianne Moore) screaming her way through unassisted childbirth. In a scene that foreshadows Carrie’s humiliation at the hands of her classmates years later, Margaret doesn’t know what’s happening to her; she assumes that whatever is moving inside her is a cancer inflicted upon her by God as punishment for real or imagined sins. Her first instinct is to kill the infant that writhes out of her; she doesn’t, of course, and soon 17 years have passed and Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) is about to have one of cinema’s most crushingly awkward life events. Carrie thinks she’s bleeding to death when she gets her first period in her high-school locker room. The astonishingly cruel taunts that ensue are captured on cellphone video by mean girl extraordinaire Chris (Portia Doubleday), who uploads the clip to Facebook. One of Carrie’s tormentors, the basically kind-hearted Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), has a change of heart and tries to make amends by convincing her gallant boyfriend to escort Carrie to the prom, but we all know it won’t end well.

Plot-wise, there are no surprises in Peirce’s do-over. Where she digresses from De Palma’s iconic film is in her treatment of the characters, most notably Carrie herself. Moretz, best known for playing girls with a marked penchant for brutal, vindictive violence, seems miscast at first. She appears ill at ease as the mousy girl, abused both at home and at school, who begins to develop telekinetic powers.

And then comes Peirce’s most dramatic departure from De Palma’s film: This time, Carrie is much quicker to see the potential of her strange ability, and takes a far more active role in cultivating it. In De Palma’s version, it’s easy to equate Carrie’s prom-night freakout to some sort of psychotic break; in Peirce’s world, Carrie is all too aware of what she’s doing. This new Carrie isn’t the center of a paranormal meltdown; she’s the enthusiastic perpetrator of a calculated, bloody school massacre. The fact that we can’t help but cheer her on makes for an unsettling experience. The amped-up climax is disturbing, grisly and, yes, thrilling. This Carrie doesn’t lose control—she finds it. That’s an important distinction, and a very uncomfortable one.

It’s predictably fascinating to see a woman’s take on the material, especially now that ideological struggles have put gender politics back in the national spotlight, but the differences aren’t as dramatic as you’d think. Peirce doesn’t fetishize the female body in that cheeky way that De Palma did, but her version of Carrie is loaded with echoes of distinctly feminine body horror, from the opening childbirth scene to the jagged gashes that open up in doors and streets, alternately spitting out damaged, bloodied people and threatening to swallow them whole.

To many, Peirce’s remake will seem faithful to the point of redundancy. But I think the subtlety of the tweaks is part of the director’s point. Carrie is more relevant today than it has ever been, and needed very little in the way of an update. By making judicious adjustments rather than a sweeping modernization, Peirce makes King’s tale of devastating abuse and gory revenge seem even more alarmingly prescient than it already did.

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