When Stephen King heard that MGM and Screen Gems wanted to shoot a remake of his novel, “Carrie,” his question was “Why, when the original was so good?” The 1976 version of the movie, directed by Brian De Palma, is a classic of the horror genre, and this remake, directed by Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) from a script by Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguierre-Sacasa, inevitably evokes comparisons with its predecessor, usually to its detriment. Still, this version of the story is good enough to stand on its own, and successfully modernizes the plot with some cyberbullying tidbits. Even if it doesn’t compare to the original, this Carrie is quite a lot better than most horror movies.
The narrative is simple: Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz in this version) is a pitiable loser who is constantly bullied, whether at home by her Christian fundamentalist mother (Julianne Moore) or at school by a clique of plastic girls led by the spoiled Chris Hargenson (Portia Doubleday). But with the onset of puberty, Carrie develops telekinetic powers and, after her classmates prank her on the night of Senior Prom, she uses them to catastrophic effect. Voted Prom Queen, and then drenched in pig’s blood, Carrie snaps and kills most of her school.
Viewers will probably go into the theater aware of the plot, so the “Black Prom,” as it is called in the book, comes as hardly a surprise. The ingenuity of King’s plot stands out, however, in that it makes the foreplay just as engaging as the climax. In one famous early scene, for example, Carrie gets her first period in front of her classmates in the locker room showers. Because her mother has not taught her about puberty, Carrie thinks she’s dying, while her classmates taunt her with sanitary napkins and cries of “Plug it up!” (in the new version, Kris films Carrie’s breakdown and posts it online). And King’s brutality intensifies in Carrie’s home life. Margaret White is convinced that her daughter is inherently full of sin, and often locks her in the closet to force her to repent. With scenes as strong as these, it’s hard not to pay attention regardless of who’s onscreen.
In the lead roles of Carrie and Margaret White, Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore don’t compare to the originals, Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, whose acting earned them Academy Award nominations, a rarity for the horror genre. Spacek in particular depicted Carrie as so defenseless that you understood why she was a magnet for mistreatment. But as played by Chloë Grace Moretz, best known from her killer turn in 2009’s “Kickass,” Carrie seems merely spaced-out and weird, as if a bird has perpetually just landed on her shoulder. “I just want to be a real person,” she says to her mother — but the audience never gets the feeling that she isn’t a real person, merely an introverted one. Still, Moretz’s stooped shoulders and frumpy clothing are convincing enough, and her scenes with her mother shine, if nothing else than because Moore gives depth to Margaret’s self-destructive neuroticism.
Revenge, when it comes, has a vindictive pleasure, pitting Carrie as an angel of (almost) warranted destruction. When Carrie goes up to the podium, it’s the single happiest moment of her life, and the moment is all the more painful when it is ruined. If anything, this decreases the dissonance that comes from the fact that Carrie is both the movie’s most sympathetic character and its most violent. Accordingly, Ms. Peirce downplays the massacre itself, by having Carrie kill only the people who have done her wrong, and in the process makes her version less ethically complicated. But De Palma’s take is more powerful: Carrie indiscriminately murders most of the school by locking everyone inside and lighting the building on fire. Perhaps Peirce wanted to minimize the school-related deaths in the movie, as it’s a nerve best left untouched, but that choice does mitigate her film’s impact.
Still, “Carrie” is markedly better than most other works of its genre, because it is a story of sensitivity, or lack thereof. The tropes of the slasher movie — suspenseful music, a cloaked killer waiting around the corner, eager to carve up teen flesh — are wisely eschewed, so that, like De Palma’s version before it, this “Carrie” lets the pain of the characters become the story’s primary motivator. If “Carrie” can’t compare to the original, that’s only a testament to the status of De Palma’s version, not to deficiencies on the part of this remake.