With the publication of Carrie in the spring of 1974, debut novelist Stephen King made horror commonplace, suburban, modern and real. Carrie White was unusual, both protagonist and victim, the tale unraveling from her point of view, not a monster, but whose monstrous power is a curse. With inserts of supporting documentation, newspaper articles and excerpts from books such as “The Shadow Exploded,” unlike the other major horrors of the era, The Exorcist, The Omen, Rosemary’s Baby, where humans are pawns in the struggle of light against the pit, religion does not drive the plot of Carrie, though it is their extreme belief of the characters which fuels the story.
It was a blue collar tale, the daughter of a single mother who works in a dry cleaners and whose construction worker father died in an industrial accident, not movie stars or ambassadors, living in a small town rather than an NYC apartment. Dealing with the horror of schoolchildren who are cruel for the meaningless reason that they can be, Carrie is a girl who is always the outsider because she is different, in many ways a predecessor to both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friend Willow Rosenberg, whose magical powers became so powerful they threatened to destroy her and those she loved.
The themes of Carrie were also revisited by King in Firestarter, another girl of psychic power, though in that tale with more control and the support of her father, and more recently the Rainmaker of Looper is the latest psychic prodigy to threaten the world. Another comparison which King has acknowledged as an inspiration is with Eleanor of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, who also had stones fall on her house as a child, whose mother insisted the neighbours hated them because she wouldn’t mix with them, and the use religious imagery to torment children was a cruel gift which Carrie’s mother Margaret could have learnt from Hugh Crain whose daughter Abigail grew to old age in Hill House.
Filmed in 1976 by Brian de Palma from a script by Lawrence D Cohen, Carrie starred the ethereal Sissy Spacek in the title role with sixties starlet Piper Laurie as her devout mother Margaret White, Amy Irving as Sue, the only classmate to show sympathy towards her, William Katt as Tommy, the boy who took Carrie to prom, and Nancy Allen and John Travolta as Chris and Billy, who conspire to destroy Carrie.
Presented as a summertime coming of age film with only minor elements of horror until the final catastrophic reel, the focus is on the changing friendships within a group of classmates and the lonely girl in their midst, a mood enhanced by Pino Donaggio’s sensitive score.
Both Spacek and Laurie received Academy Award nominations, and the film raised not only the profile of many of the actors involved but also launched the brand which cemented the status of Stephen King as the international chronicler of modern horror.
With the continuing determination to remake every significant film in the history of cinema for a new and largely indifferent audience, it is inevitable Carrie would be exhumed, but the casting of Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore as Carrie and Margaret White coupled with the announcement of Boys Don’t Cry’s Kimberley Peirce to direct indicated that one of the few major works of horror to be told from a female perspective was in safe hands.
Unfortunately, rather than a new and modernised adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Peirce has created an almost slavish recreation of Brian De Palma’s film, almost every line of dialogue transcribed, every scene restaged with only the unavoidable presence of iPhones and the school’s free Internet service denoting it as contemporary.
Though smartphones allow the humiliation of Carrie to be broadcast farther than the locker room, the free flow of information in the digital age is a major narrative problem; Carrie is free to research telekinesis on the school library terminals, yet has never had any sex education in class nor apparently the slightest curiosity about her body which could have easily been satisfied online.
Opening with an ominous soundtrack as the camera prowls through an empty house, the sounds of a woman’s screams coming from an upstairs bedroom before the bloodied title card appears, unlike the original this version of Carrie is an undisputed horror movie, and an obvious one at that. While the documents of the novel were necessarily lost from De Palma’s streamlined narrative all the effects were created practically, anything that appeared on screen exactly what was caught on camera on set, creating an illusion that these could be genuine events, while the modern version predictably offers the artifice of post-production digital alternatives.
In another concession to the contrariness of prudish modernity where human flesh is only acceptable on screen when bleeding, while the original version featured nudity as the girls changed in the locker room following basketball practice, a functional rather than titillating scene, here the entire principal cast parade in slow motion in their swimming costumes as they prepare for water volleyball, if anything a more exploitive scene than anything seen in 1976.
Sissy Spacek was in her mid-twenties when she filmed the role, as were most of the actors who played her classmates, and while Moretz‘s Carrie, Ansel Elgort’s Tommy and many of the supporting cast are more believable by virtue of genuinely being teenagers, the overall effect is that the characters are as tiresome, obnoxious and vapid as teenagers. The student body of Ewen High School is also curiously uniform, with a total absence of any fat, ugly, poor or disabled students, the omission of any imperfect face belying any pretense that the film is to appeal to those genuinely ostracised. As bad girl Chris Hargensen, Portia Doubleday pouts through her over-entitled lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-selfish pain, showing none of the spark or glamour of Nancy Allen, though Alex Russell’s Billy is more roughly convincing than John Travolta.
Where De Palma filmed Carrie apart from her peers, a caged animal which trusts no-one, putting her at the edge of the frame, here Moretz is the star and a principal selling point of the film along with Moore. While both undeniably strong performers, here it is not strength that is required but fragility. Margaret White is more explicitly suffering from mentally illness, yet only in the scenes which specifically require her to be, while Moretz, best known for her lead roles as unstoppable pint sized vigilante Hit-Girl in Kick-Ass and the deadly child vampire Abby in Let Me In, is too dominant to ever be a downtrodden victim.
This is where the most significant and the most insidious change in the tone becomes apparent. Under the direction of De Palma, Carrietta White was a victim, abused at home and school yet who was gently revealed to be a blossoming and kind young woman beginning to enjoy her life until the relentless cruelty of some of her classmates caused her to lose control at what should have been the happiest moment of her life. After the prom, shellshocked and unable to process what is happening, she acts instinctively and crucially she is not fully responsible for the consequences.
That loss of control is the key issue: from the outset, this Carrie is portrayed as a stronger character than the fragile and delicate Spacek. During the water volleyball, Carrie hits another girl with the ball, hard; in class, rather than unconsciously praising the beauty of Tommy’s poem, it is she who stands in front of the class and reads a piece which is confrontational and demands attention; most importantly, her powers are practiced and have already been used to restrain her mother before she even departs for the prom.
While Spacek’s Carrie was unable to speak or think, her hands frozen by her sides, her feet shuffling forward as her mind wildly lashed out at those who hurt her, overturning the car in which Chris and Billy tried to run her down in self defence, only beginning to process the enormity of the horror and the deeds she had performed when she arrived home and began to weep.
Moretz’s Carrie is a monster, her power used with deliberation and direction, with targeted precision and inventiveness as the prom turns to bloodshed. Unlike the accidental fire of 1976, this Carrie specifically severs the electrical cables then picks and hurls burning objects at the fleeing students, her eyes consuming every moment of their suffering. When Chris and Billy try to escape, she pulls up the road in front of them to bring them back so she can enjoy their deaths. As much as Chris and her friends relished Carrie’s pain in the opening scenes, rather than condemning the unfolding horror which reflects the all too frequent real incidents where high school students kill each other, the audience is encouraged to be complicit in the spectacle.
Instead of a victim undergoing a tragic emancipation, Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie is an unapologetic celebration of cruelty, violent death paraded for our delectation, slow motion prurience as a girl’s face is flayed as it smashes through a car windscreen, choreographed pirouettes as a flaming ball gown consumes its wearer. Any attempt to gain sympathy in the final scenes is hollow, for we have seen by her actions that Carrie herself does not deserve it.
Concluding with the egregious signposting of a sequel which, if the producers have any shame or decency, they will abort, there is no ounce of compassion or humanity here, only the distressing realisation that a high school massacre can be depicted in a major Hollywood motion picture without irony, satire or condemnation, acceptable entertainment for those who wish to line up and consume popcorn as their peers are slaughtered. While De Palma’s version may have been flawed, Peirce has done nothing to enhance or improve his work, and the definitive telling of the story remains Stephen King’s original novel
Special thanks to John Anthony Stamatakis for inspiration and insight