As the legend has it, Stephen King’s Carrie almost didn’t see the light of day. King wrote the infamous opening (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”), hated it, and circular-filed it; his wife Tabitha salvaged the pages from the trash, read them, and encouraged King to see the story through. “It bit hard,” wrote Harlan Ellison, who observed that the manuscript got passed around to various female Doubleday employees, all of whom were knocked back. It’s primal stuff, essentially King’s unintentional rewrite of Judy Blume (Are You There Satan? It’s Me, Carrie). The story runs thick with blood of all kinds: menstrual, porcine, finally redrum. It also runs hot — it’s a fever-dream novel, slick with the sweat of sickness, dread, rage.
Brian De Palma’s 1976 film version saw the story’s melodramatic potential and pumped it up into a perverse black comedy. The new version, directed by Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don’t Cry), takes the material rather more seriously. Here and there, it feels closer in tone to King’s emotionally heavy novel than De Palma’s abracadabra show did. That doesn’t mean it’s the better film, nor is it an across-the-board worse film. The story has been transplanted to today, so that when poor Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) receives her chthonic humiliation in the girls’ shower room, her chief tormentor captures it on her phone camera and uploads it to YouTube. This nod to cyberbullying can’t truly take hold, though, because Carrie doesn’t have the internet — or much else — at home. What she does have is the ultimate religious-nut mother (Julianne Moore), who in this telling came close to killing newborn Carrie with her seamstress’ scissors and enjoys scarifying her own flesh with other tools of the sewing trade.
Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, as oppressed daughter and lunatic mother in the ’76 film, sank their teeth into the purple material; Spacek underplayed touchingly, Laurie camped it up to the rafters. Moretz and Moore come across more like the unhappy people you might actually meet — their scenes in their dreary home are borderline depressing. Moretz’ casting has been criticized because she isn’t nerdy-looking, but then neither was Rebecca Sedwick, driven to suicide last month after almost a year of cyberbullying. (Really, none of the actresses who’ve played Carrie — including Angela Bettis in a 2002 TV version — have exactly matched King’s description of her as “a frog among swans.”) Moretz’ Carrie is ostracized because of her social awkwardness and her strange aura of religious punitiveness — she’s more like an Amish girl plopped down into a typical suburban high school.
Kimberly Peirce brings out the story’s complex web of mixed feelings between females, who resent, pity or fear each other. The males in the film, as in the book and in De Palma’s version, exist only to do the girls’ bidding. One of the girls, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty about her limited role in Carrie’s humiliation and prompts her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to ask Carrie to the prom. The ringleader of the tormentors, Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), enlists her boyfriend to assist in the shockingly cruel climactic prank involving that famous bucket of pig’s blood. Originally written when feminism was really starting to take hold in America, Carrie hasn’t much optimism about the higher morality of girls and women. Nor should it: it’s a horror story, not designed to be comforting. A few, like Sue or the conscientious gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer), feel compassion for Carrie. But they’re not enough.
Which leads us to the climax. De Palma filmed it as a gleeful revenge of the nerd, a cascading grand finale breaking out split-screen images of cathartic force. Peirce doesn’t split the screen, though she does make use of computer effects unimaginable back in 1976. Rather than standing disturbingly stock still like Sissy Spacek, Moretz poses and gestures like an ancient witch-woman (the blood smears spilling down her face like tribal marks complete the effect) while everyone who laughed at her goes spinning into glass doors or catches fire or is trampled to death under fabulous prom-night heels. The final exchange between Carrie and Chris is painfully, almost sadistically drawn out. Peirce knows she can’t go whole-hog whoo-hoo over high-school carnage the way De Palma did, not in the era of Columbine and Sandy Hook. She holds back a bit. So what could’ve been a newly relevant reheating of old material — showing what bullying does to victims and to bullies — comes across as a missed opportunity. Still, since most of Carrie has always been a drama working up to a horror-film climax, and since that drama is sensitively directed and powerfully acted, the new version passes muster as a different take that will not, in most people’s hearts, replace De Palma’s. Let them co-exist.