By the time the pig’s blood hit the tiara at the cathartic climax of Brian De Palma’s Carrie in 1976, we were rooting for the girl. And when Sissy Spacek’s eyes went stone-cold electric-blue at the outrage, and you just knew there was going to be more blood in the Bates High auditorium, there wasn’t a wasted drop. Nearly everybody here deserved what they were about to get, because they’d been tormenting, ostracizing and humiliating the strange young girl – with telekinetic powers – since the appearance of the very first drop. That had appeared back in the locker room shower, at the very beginning, where Carrie was pelted with tampons after being freaked out by her own first period.
If you haven’t seen that movie, you’re probably familiar with those scenes anyway, because in the 37 years since its release, De Palma’s Carrie, based on Stephen King’s first novel, has become a kind of unholy object of genre veneration. One of the very first mainstream horror movies to put a young woman in the position of both victim and monster – it went The Exorcist one better – and to position emerging-female sexuality as a force of apocalyptic social anxiety, Carrie overturned the rules of scary movies as surely as that bucket splashed gore all over the swoony fantasy of prom night purity.
If there was one reason to look forward to the otherwise utterly inevitable re-make of De Palma’s retro-feminist classic, it was the fact that this time there was a woman – Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberly Peirce – calling the shots. Surely, if a guy director as torn between sympathy and voyeurism as De Palma could make a blood-drenched feminist avenger out of Carrie White, a woman might ratchet the gender stakes even higher, especially now that horror is such an equal-opportunity amusement. Women flock to horror movies today in greater numbers than ever, so the timing for Carrie’s re-crowning as prom queen would seem to be ideal.
So the biggest surprise about Peirce’s Carrie, which is partly based on the same script (by Lawrence D. Cohen) as De Palma’s was, is how rote and ordinary it feels, which is to say how it could have been made by anybody. Gone are the delirious directorial touches that De Palma brought to the screen – save, revealingly, a few directly copped from De Palma – gone is the knack for vivid ensemble casting (no equivalents here of Nancy Allen, John Travolta, P.J. Soles or Piper Laurie), and gone is the original’s equally cheeky and nasty sense of humour.
The only laugh I heard at this one came when Julianne Moore, charged with the admittedly thankless task of following the formidably unrestrained Laurie as Carrie’s fundamentalist nutjob of a mother, tells the pink-gowned, prom-bound Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) that her “dirty pillows” are showing. In Laurie’s mouth, the words had the ring of sexually repressed, vaguely antebellum fire-and-brimstone hysteria. From Moore’s, they emerge as a kind of bland observation, as though notifying her daughter of a stray strap or unruly wisp of hair.
In De Palma’s surgical grasp, the world of Carrie was poised somewhere between a romantic fantasy and a nightmare, and the disorienting power the movie exerted grew from the constant teasing of the anxiety just beneath the gossamer veneer. Peirce’s movie, on the other hand, plays out almost entirely on the surface, like a version of the movie made on tracing paper.
Granted, the context is gone. It’s not 1976 any more, and blood, even of the menstrual kind, doesn’t have the transgressive shock value it once did. Girls as retributive berserkers aren’t nearly as uncommon as they once were, Peirce is no De Palma and, finally, but most fatally, Moretz is no Spacek.
But how could she be? The fact is, De Palma, perhaps fully understanding he wanted to make a movie about unleashed teenage sexual repression from an adult perspective, cast his Carrie with a 26-year-old actor, a woman who could summon innocence and desire equally, and who could evoke everything that was torturously ambivalent about female adolescence because she’d lived through it and graduated. Moretz, just 16 and with a face like ice cream – which made her truly scary as the child vampire in the vastly superior Let Me In – is all victim and no avenger. When the blood hits the tiara and she lets loose with the telekinetic carnage, it seems less like the unleashing of repression than a kind of demonic possession. When her Carrie becomes a monster, it feels like someone else has taken over. When Spacek turned prom queen from hell, you always knew she had it in her.