Carrie That Weight
What can possibly be gained by comparing the two film versions of Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie? Beats me, but their recent and sudden appearance on Netflix streaming, combined with vague curiosity and less vague boredom, led me to find out. I’m an unapologetic booster of Brian De Palma, and a big fan of his 1976 big-screen adaptation of the book (which had come out only a few years before, when King was still a struggling writer and not the most famous, most prolific, and wealthiest novelist on the planet), but I hadn’t seen the 2013 remake helmed by Kimberly Peirce, most notably the director of Boys Don’t Cry. I was somewhat intrigued to see how the book would fare in the hands of a woman, and a woman with a more modern, if less spectacular, filmic sensibility, so I queued the two up one after the other and took a few notes.
Since I’ve seen the De Palma version a half a dozen times or so, it didn’t hold a lot of surprises for me, and most of what there was had to do with the cast. The shower scene that opens the film seems pretty gratuitous, even for a scene set in a high school girl’s locker room, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing in context; more on this later. It’s also a stark difference in the way the two films start; since Chloë Grace Moretz, who replaced Sissy Spacek in the lead role, was only 16 at the time, all sorts of shenanigans would have been called were Peirce to start the films the same way. Carrie’s schoolmates are a fun bunch of ’70s actresses at the start of their careers; Nancy Allen and Amy Irving went on to substantial screen fame, and the ever-adorable P.J. Soles — dressed throughout like she just came off the set of Rock ‘n’ Roll High School — looked like she might as well. William Katt, future Real American Hero, does wonders for the blond poodle-perm, and John Travolta is suitably detestable as a high school dirtbag who probably is really into John Travolta.
There’s a lot of slapping in the movie; Piper Laurie slaps Sissy Spacek, Betty Buckley (the actress, not the wife of William F. Buckley, though wouldn’t that have been spectacular casting) slaps Nancy Allen, Nancy Allen slaps John Travolta, and Brian De Palma slaps everyone with the unforgettable image of Edie McClurg, America’s perpetual middle-aged midwesterner, playing a teenager. De Palma is already up to all the tricks that would make cinephiles the world over either love him or hate him; from the opening shower scene, where he ramps up the cheeseball erotica right before pulling out the rug with Carrie’s menstrual freakout, to the agonizingly slow crowning of the prom king and queen, where he sends the camera creeping around every inch of the gym to keep us in maximum tension waiting for what we all know is going to happen; I personally love that shit, and have defended it against its detractors for decades, but Peirce, in her version, pretty much makes my argument for me, showing what a bore the movie would have been without De Palma’s pyromaniacal show-offs.
The 2013 version has a lot of problems, not the least of which is that it has no compelling reason to exist. Peirce and the directors, not wanting to be all crass and go with the “we want to make a pile of money” explanation, insist that their aim was to make a version of Carrie that’s closer to the novel. I can’t say if they accomplished this or not — I haven’t read the book in over 20 years — but in terms of plot and story, the two movies are so similar as to seem like shot-for-shot remakes much of the time, so I’m not quite sure what, if any, substantial changes De Palma made in the first place.
Where the remake does diverge, it usually does so to its own harm; Moretz’s Carrie, for one thing, is a bit too worldly, in this age of cell phones and social workers. Combined with Julianne Moore’s performance as her mother, which is extremely competent in the Julianne Moore fashion but not as terrifyingly over-the-top as Piper Laurie (who famously played what is, after all, a ridiculously overwritten character in the broadest way possible, in the belief that she was filming a comedy), it leaves you with an odd sensation. While Spacek really made you believe that she had no existence outside of school and her mom’s prayer closet, Moretz just seems a little shy and under the sway of an abusive parent, but otherwise pretty normal. This makes it hard to believe her from the very start; she certainly doesn’t act like a kid who has no idea what menstruation is.
This suspension of disbelief is critical: this is, frankly, a ludicrous story about a telekinetic teenager who murders her entire high school with magic powers because they dump pig’s blood on her at the prom. Acting like any of that makes sense does no one any good, and that’s why De Palma’s version — all high-strung hysterics, wailing strings on the soundtrack, Piper Laurie going A-1 bonkers, and the whole deal saturated in the highest level of camp artifice — works so well. Peirce seems to think the story should be treated with respect, and so it all just lays there on screen with no energy, no verve, no juice until Carrie starts killing people.
Even then, things don’t much improve; I’d have expected more from a relatively sensitive female director, but here, as in too many other horror flicks, the death of men is instant and forgettable, while the suffering of women is lingered over and torturous. (Carrie’s main tormenter, who here is outright psychotic rather than merely cruel, dies in the most repulsive way imaginable, while in De Palma’s version, we don’t even see her die.) The prom scene is over in about three minutes, sapping all the tension out of it; the addition of self-harming as a character trait for Carrie and her mother adds nothing; and De Palma’s final scene, one of the all-time great screen-shocker moments, is reduced to a completely dull bit that wouldn’t scare a toddler. (Apparently, there’s an alternate ending on the Blu-Ray, but it sounds merely gross rather than terrifying.)
There are a few pleasures in the cast. It’s fun to see the versatile Judy Greer in the role of Carrie’s gym teacher, and to play the hapless, clueless principal, they brought in Barry Shabaka Henley, who specializes in portraying exasperated bureaucrats of that sort. Julianne Moore does what she can with a role that’s been reduced from monster to merely bad parent*. Moretz herself is…well, I’ve been impressed with her before, and she does all right in early scenes despite never coming across as profoundly alien as Spacek does, but once her rampage begins, she starts doing some kind of floating goth dance party routine that just seems laughable, and all the more so because, again, we seem to be tasked with taking it seriously. De Palma may rightly be accused of winking at us behind all of his material, but he at least has a keen eye as to what material deserves to be winked at. Carrie is not a story that deserves any gravity, as Kimberly Peirce, Chloë Grace Moretz, and the audience all learn here to their detriment.
*: A more interesting take on the Carrie story might be one that’s less weirdly sympathetic to the character. She does, after all, respond to bullying by killing hundreds of helpless kids, most of whom never did her any harm; it’s a narrative that’s become pretty toxic in the wake of dozens of school shootings, but the King story remains evergreen even it its current form.