The variable quality of Stephen King adaptations should probably be kept in mind here. The popular novelist’s work can hardly be said to have made it to the screen consistently. Sure, there are notable successes (Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, the efforts of Rob Reiner or Frank Darabont), but more often than not we’re presented with incredibly disappointing interpretations (anything bearing the name Mick Garris). Something fundamental is frequently lost in translation.
While not entirely faithful to the source material, Brian De Palma’s 1976 version of Carrie is quite rightfully considered a success; it’s become a genre classic, as much for the director’s cinematic pyrotechnics as for Sissy Spacek’s iconic central performance. Kimberly Peirce’s 2013 remake begs the question; with so many poor adaptations of King’s work out there, why take another shot at one that’s actually been done well already? If you’ll excuse a twist on a coarse cliché… why not polish a turd?
It’s a question I often find myself asking about remakes. Why not try to improve something that didn’t quite work the first time, instead of picking beloved classics? Surely you’re doomed to failure? Peirce fails here. Unfortunately for her it’s a failure on two fronts, paling in comparison to both the source novel and De Palma’s version.
Casting Chloe Grace Moretz as the titular Carrie may seem like a slam-dunk – and she’s clearly a talented young actress – but it’s a bad fit. She never feels vulnerable enough. Perhaps we’ve been overexposed to her in more confident ass-kicking roles? Spacek inhabited the crushed wallflower persona. Moretz never convinces. It’s a rather crucial flaw in a movie that depends on a single moment of embarrassment pushing a character over the edge. Moretz’s Carrie seems far too emotionally stable, especially considering the home life she’s dealing with.
Julianne Moore plays Carrie’s mother Margaret; a religious zealot who begins the film in hysteria and is left nowhere else to go. Moore’s performance has no trajectory, levelling out at batshit crazy from scene one. Her obvious mania begs the question of how she has even retained custody of Carrie for so long? In light of the bizarre abuses going on at home, Moretz’s Carrie seems like a capable, talented survivor, despite her outsider status at school.
Ridiculed after she experiences her first period in the girls’ changing rooms, Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers as the fallout of her public shaming comes full circle, her classmates’ attempts to both save and crush her lead to a fateful prom night prank, one which will have dire repercussions for all. Peirce’s film charts this journey as generic high school drama. There’s no great sense of momentum save for a few ominous beats that barely register. As such Carrie offers little to the horror fan in terms of sustained or rising dread.
Once all hell breaks loose at the prom we’re offered up a variety of grizzly if uninspired deaths and a generous helping of injury detail… but it all feels gratuitous since our ability to care for these characters hasn’t been nurtured. Carrie simply becomes a bunch of stuff that happens, some of it supernatural.
If there’s one thing people generally seem to miss from De Palma’s film, it’s Carrie’s destruction of the town she’s grown up in during her telekinetic fury. De Palma simply didn’t have the budget for it. It appears neither did Peirce. Remember that long overhead shot showcased in the teaser trailer? The one that signposted this movie as a more expansive adaptation? Well it doesn’t feature here, and neither does the mass destruction King described. Anyone hinging their hopes on some explosive eye-candy had better adjust their expectations accordingly.
As for the chaos that is presented? It’s fine. There are moments when the CG elements announce themselves a little awkwardly, but overall it sells itself. It’s unfortunate however that Peirce’s film appears in the wake of Chronicle – a far more impressive depiction of adolescent turmoil combusting on a fantastic scale. There the effects genuinely impressed, the ramp-up was carefully controlled, the pay off thrilling. And in terms of daring, Richard Bates Jr’s Excision burns brightly in the memory when watching this film. Peirce’s movie suffers in comparison again. She must be getting really bored of this.
Even so, while untangling this film from its progenitors proves difficult, it’s not an outright disaster by any means. Taken on its own terms, this is a proficient little high school soap with some hand-wringing melodrama tossed in. It’s always a pleasure to see Judy Greer in things (here as a gym teacher), and Peirce’s direction is solid, if safe. And when looked at in the pantheon of King adaptations, this at least lands in the middle somewhere. In terms of comparable quality, Christine seems suitable.
But it could’ve and should’ve been better. The last scene sums up what a misfire this is. De Palma called curtain on a jump scare that was an addition to the source material and it worked. Peirce decides to directly reference this but with a twist. In 2013, Carrie just doesn’t know who it’s paying service to, just that it ought to be referencing something, ultimately rendering the end product a little pointless.