Movie review: 'Carrie'

I was afraid this remake of the classic Brian de Palma film would be a pointless exercise in cash-grabbing, and I was right.  The new “Carrie” is the worst kind of flat, soulless Hollywood product, a paint-by-CGI-numbers remake of the 1970s film that misses its chance to offer a fresh take on Stephen King’s great early novel.

The hefty book takes its time setting the stage and introducing us to the characters before all hell breaks loose.  It’s both tragic and horrifying – Carrie White is a sympathetic protagonist, a melancholy victim, and a fearsome monster.  The earlier film captured some of that; the remake, virtually none of it.  It’s another stripped-down edited-in-a-blender movie that rushes so quickly to reach the big finale that it scarcely bothers to give most the characters names.  The actors might be more age-appropriate than the original cast, but none of them are playing in the league of Nancy Allen, John Travolta, Amy Irving… or, yes, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie.

The chief attraction of the remake was giving hot young actress Chloe Grace Moretz a shot at playing Carrie, the tortured teen outcast with a whack-job mother whose coming of age just happens to unlock immense psychic powers.  And there’s the first problem: Moretz is hot.  She’s entirely too pretty to play this role, even when she’s trying to look frumpy and downcast.  It seems wildly improbable that all the guys in school would go along with the mean-girl hectoring that eventually leads to her fearsome revenge.  (Is this movie trying to take some kind of subtle jab at thin-blooded, feminized modern high school boys?  The guys I went to school with would have still been trying to get her number while she was covered in blood and electrocuting people.)

Moretz is a very good actress, but it feels like she was phoning it in here.  It’s not entirely her fault, because the script takes no time to build up the heartbreaking sense of repression and alienation haunting Spacek’s version of the character.  The whole film feels like it’s only an hour long, zooming past a couple of checklist scenes – taunting in the shower, check!  Carrie’s mom yells some pseudo-Biblical malarkey about “dirty pillows,” check!  Locked in the closet and told to pray, check! – on its way to repentant mean girl Sue asking her boyfriend Tommy to show poor Carrie a good time at the prom… an idea that actually seems more bizarre in this version of the story than unrepentant mean girl Chris’ plan to dump pig blood on her.  

Everything is so hastily sketched that there’s no real sense of anguish to Carrie, no aura of horror around her tormented home life with Version 1.0 of Stephen King’s stock Crazy Church Lady character.  That means no release, no terror, and maybe just a smidgen of heartbreak when it all goes wrong.  Carrie’s house even looks neat and pleasant instead of grim and gloomy.

The remake is a movie built entirely around one scene: the prom night freak-out.  The iconic Sissy Spacek image of the blood-slathered prom queen-turned-death goddess has no shock value for today’s audience.  (When I was young, I had a version of the “Carrie” novel that featured a few still photos from the de Palma film on the back cover.  Adults would gasp out loud and ask what the devil I was reading when they caught sight of Bloody Sissy.)  

There’s nothing interesting or inventive about the remake of the prom massacre.  The slick CGI seems less special than de Palma’s practical effects, possibly because he treated them as special.  There was an opportunity here to make Carrie’s revenge more visceral and intense, taking her further into the realm of terrifying monster, or at least follow the more apocalyptic contours of King’s book.   Instead, we get a more drawn-out final showdown between Carrier and her chief tormentor, which contains very little suspense, since Carrie can now pick up cars and cause earthquakes by stomping her foot.  (Where the hell did that come from?)

Carrie’s mom is more pathetic and brain-damaged than frightening this time around, with Julianne Moore playing her more tragic than hissable.  There are a lot of confusing beats in her more complex relationship with her daughter, and a few hints that she might have been right when she gets a load of Carrie’s super-powers and begins spluttering about demonic influences.  (Carrie doesn’t seem entirely in control of her abilities, which leads to an emotionally confusing climax, plus a few things that “telekinesis” doesn’t really seem to cover.)  

I’ll never understand why neither the original nor remake filmmakers went with nonsensical jump scares instead of King’s quietly chilling ending.  This time we also get a brief lecture about bullying, a topic the new movie doesn’t really bother to update when it has the chance, outside of mentioning cell phone videos and YouTube as the new tools of high-school humiliation.  

I’ll always see Sissy Spacek when I think of Carrie White, but I’ll always hear the prose from Stephen King’s book, which really makes you feel her dismal life, brief moment of grace, inhuman fury, and heartbreaking end.  The 2013 film doesn’t make you feel anything except mild curiosity about what Chloe Grace Moretz will do next.