Twenty-first century horror cinema has been dispiritingly timid (and even retrograde) when it comes to matters of gender. A few welcome and eccentric features have tackled feminist concerns head-on, among them Ginger Snaps, May, Dumplings, Teeth, and American Mary. Nonetheless, the most audacious and probing works of female-centered horror are arguably those of decades past. Looking back over landmarks such as Cat People, Diabolique, Eyes Without a Face, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Silence of the Lambs, a contemporary filmmaker could be forgiven for feeling intimidated by their formal and thematic achievements. Similarly formidable is director Brian De Palma’s 1976 masterpiece Carrie, a veritable catalog of female adolescent fears in a deliciously baroque package.
One can therefore appreciate the tension between reverence and creative confidence that simmers within director Kimberly Peirce’s new adaptation of the film. Remakes have an especially treacherous road to traverse, given cinephiles’ almost reflexive resistance to new takes on iconic works. No less a figure than Stephen King displayed this sort of knee-jerk disdain in 2011 when he reacted with bafflement at the news that his 1974 debut novel would be adapted yet again into a feature film. “The real question is why, when the original was so good?” King remarked.
Undeniably, the 1976 version of Carrie is a great work of cinematic craft, just as old-fashioned greed and creative laziness almost certainly motivated MGM and Screen Gems’ recent decision to resurrect American horror’s iconic terrorized teenager. Notwithstanding the merits of De Palma’s film and the cold-bloodedness of Hollywood avarice, however, King’s still-shocking tale of adolescent rage possesses abundant potential for fresh interpretation. Now that the 2013 adaptation has arrived, grousing about the audacity of a remake seems all the more unfounded, given that such complaints must confront the new film’s rich and thoroughly engrossing vision of poor Carrie White’s story.
It’s a tale to which almost any outcast can relate. After years of relentless abuse from her fanatically religious mother and sadistic schoolmates, the latently psychokinetic Carrie at last seems to find social acceptance just as her mental powers emerge. Unfortunately, her newfound popularity is merely part of an elaborate prank masterminded by in-crowd queen bee Chris Hargensen. The very moment that she is improbably crowned prom queen, Carrie is humiliated beneath a downpour of clotted pig’s blood. With this gruesome act, the last vestige of Carrie’s cringing flight instinct turns to unholy fight, prompting her to unleash a maelstrom of murderous psychic devastation. The film that director Kimberly Peirce makes of this story is ultimately a less potent work of cinema than De Palma’s more accomplished and nightmarish version, but at every turn it reveals crevices that are worthy of scrutiny.
Peirce’s lamentably small filmography includes the Heartland transgender romantic tragedy Boys Don’t Cry (1999) and the bluntly anti-Bush war drama Stop-Loss (2008). The dominant theme that emerges in her work, Carrie included, is the consuming impact of violence (and the threat of violence) on individuals. Despite the overt sociopolitical slant to the director’s films, it is Peirce’s insistent focus on the personal over the broadly ideological that makes her work absorbing. Admittedly, the screenplay for the 2013 iteration of Carrie gives the director little space for creative flexing. Penned by playwright and comic writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, it is far too faithful to the 1976 script, relying on similar scenes presented in the same sequence, often with nearly identical dialogue. Aguirre-Sacasa astutely updates the plot for the twenty-first century in spots – a YouTube video of a mocking locker room mob assault has a pivotal role – but it often feels like more a rewrite of De Palma’s film than a reimagining of King’s novel.
Peirce’s film utilizes both Carrie and her mother Margaret to explore responses to emotional and physical abuse, particularly when that abuse has sexual and misogynistic dimensions. It’s perhaps an unsurprising thematic aspect of the new Carrie, given the presence of a socially conscious female director rather than the shamelessly prurient De Palma. Carrie has always been a female-centered story, but in Peirce’s hands it becomes more decisively concerned with the experience of American girls. Although the aforementioned fidelity to the 1976 screenplay restrains Peirce’s Carrie somewhat, the director succeeds in creating a distinctive tone, one that is more achingly tragic than luridly macabre.
The 2013 film’s opening scene is its most conspicuous deviation from its predecessor. Where the 1976 film descended dreamily onto a high school volleyball court and then wandered in slow-motion through the steam of a distinctly R-rated locker room, Peirce’s version begins with the birth of Carrie. A plainly pregnant Margaret White (Julianne Moore, all lank hair and whispery terror) flails about in her dim bedroom, confused and horrified at the swelling “cancer” that is wracking her with painful spasms. Moore’s Margaret is more simmering and pitiable than Piper Laurie’s portrayal, which resembled a demon dowager from a Japanese opera. Moore’s incarnation of the character retains Margaret’s unhinged authoritarianism, but she is more spooked than malicious, sharing her daughter’s flinching reactions to the outside world. Consistent with King’s horror fiction, Peirce’s film portrays fundamentalist zealotry as a wellspring of well-intended but toxic evil, represented in this instance by the purity- and sin-obsessed Catholic-Protestant heterodoxy that Margaret practices.
One of the fundamental achievements of Peirce’s Carrie is how comprehensively and yet subtly the director molds Aguirre-Sacasa’s script into a post-Megan Meier tale of sexual shame, ritualized humiliation, and vindictive violence. The casting of Chloë Grace Moretz in the titular role only underscores the scathing depiction of patriarchy’s no-win viciousness. Sissy Spacek’s frail, otherworldly appearance (the sheer concavity of her) allowed the viewer to quickly accept Carrie White’s outcast status in the 1976 film. At sixteen years of age, Moretz still retains an androgynous “offness” in her countenance – exploited to fine effect in her role as preteen vampire Abby in Let Me In – but she is unequivocally a fetching adolescent. Hidden behind a shroud of tangled hair and beneath rumpled thrift store clothes, Moretz’s Carrie is but the latest in a long procession of cinematic “ugly ducklings”: teen girls magically transformed from repellent to lovely by little more than a hair, makeup, and style consultation.
Carrie seizes this obnoxious trope and sharpens it into a blade of cultural criticism. Rather than presenting Carrie’s transformation from Weird Girl to Prom Queen as a glorious triumph, Peirce’s film exposes a darker and more disturbing truth about the shaming and bullying of adolescent girls: that there is no victory to be had in striving for the perfection demanded by others, as it a hollow (and moving!) target. While the proximal cause of Carrie’s revolting prom night degradation is the cruelty of single-minded bully Chris, the hidden villain is the social system that equates physical beauty and possession of a desirable man as the pinnacles of female achievement. Where the platitudes and selfless gestures of Carrie’s nominal allies seemed earnest and compassionate in De Palma’s film, the words and deeds of good girl Sue Snell, sensitive hunk Tommy Ross, and gym coach Mrs. Desjardin in the 2013 Carrie invite wincing. From the contemporary film’s vantage point, Mrs. Desjardin’s counsel that Carrie put her hair up and wear a little mascara in order to find social acceptance seems not just naive, but woefully wrongheaded. Not only does it strengthen the sexist system that has already pummeled Carrie into near-submission, but it disregards the first principle of bullying behavior: that a bully will find any excuse to terrorize a victim, and as such, conformity offers no guarantee of safety.
Carrie’s climactic, telekinetic rampage against her tormentors – and anyone who happens to be in the vicinity – is not a rousing act of justified vengeance. Nor is it, as in De Palma’s film, an explosion of elemental power set off by an emotionally shattering event. Rather, it is an inevitable and terrifying cause-and-effect: push a person too long and too far, and they will strike back with the weapon at hand. For Carrie White, that weapon happens to be a towering reserve of psychic power, but it just as easily could be a broken pop bottle or a duffel bag weighed down with handguns and rifles. Yet Peirce’s Carrie is not an admonishment that the viewer watch over their shoulder for a suddenly vengeful victim. Rather, it offers an unsettling critique of simplistic, sexist reactions that can dominate public and private responses to bullying. What’s more, it grimly asserts that fairy tale transformations – of individuals, institutions, and culture – can be brought to a screeching halt by the figurative bucket of pig’s blood from above. One could argue that this represents a rather cynical puncturing of the progressive, long-arc-of-history view of society. However, in an age when a transgendered sixteen-year-old can be crowned prom queen, only to be merciless derided and threatened by thousands of adults via social media, Carrie’s skepticism seems closer to the mark than not.