Spoiler alert: This is a post about Carrie, both the old and the new, so if there are spoilers here...I feel sorry for you. Get out of your house more.
Towards the end of the new version of Carrie, I experienced a thought I didn't expect to have. As Carrie White hurled the film's villain, the bitchy, slutty, spoiled brat Chris Hargensen into a gas station to her fiery death, I thought, "Wow. This seems kinda like an overreaction. I bet that, if Carrie survived all of this, she might kinda regret this." Which is pretty much the opposite of the point of Carrie. The last thing you're supposed to feel is any sort of pity for her victims. And yet...I did.
When I posted on Facebook that I had seen the new Carrie, a friend of mine asked if the remake accomplished anything that the book or the 1976 classic didn't. It doesn't, but that doesn't exactly matter, does it? For my money, Carrie is one of those timeless stories, about such large, social issues that will never really go out of style, even if the style of filmmaking or the costuming does. Do we ask if a new production of Romeo & Juliet brings anything new to the table? Before you get your "Shakespeare is sacred" knickers in a twist, I know it's not Romeo & Juliet. But there is something...big about Carrie. It's not for nothing that this material has been revisited several times since the book came out. It's also not for nothing that, since the 1976 movie, every single one of those times has met failure. The newest version comes closest to success, though, for my money, it doesn't quite get there.
There's not a lot of story here, not a lot to be mined in terms of character or new discoveries. There is, in comparing the new version to the old, something to talk about, not just about how teenagers have changed, how portrayals of teenager have changed, but also about how storytelling and moviemaking has changed. Unlike a lot of remakes and reboots, this one is quite faithful to the original, so it's a rare, nearly 1-to-1 comparison, 1976 vs. 2013.
After we went to see Carrie in the theatres, my girlfriend and I watched the Brian De Palma version on Netflix. My girlfriend had never seen it and it's been at least 10 years since I'd seen it. And it's all there in the new version. I can see why Lawrence Cohen maintains his script credit. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's work is more in line with an adaptation of an adaptation. Some new 2013-y touches are added: hints of cyber-bullying, a different relationship to teenage sex, slight tweaks on some minor characters. One major character shift was made, but I'll get to that in a second. For comparison's sake, though, it's the same script, the same story: Carrie White is a weird girl, she gets her period in gym class, the mean girls taunts her, she discovers that she has telekinetic powers, she gets invited to prom, pig's blood gets dropped on her, she destroys the town. That's what we've got.
It is effective, in both versions. Kimberly Peirce's direction is less lascivious, less show-off-y than Brian De Palma (because no one can be *more* lascivious or show-off-y than Brian De Palma; that's why we love him), if a little overly slick. It's an interesting irony; this recent spate of horror movie remakes (Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre) all share these deep, dark color palettes, full of details, in the way that all of the originals share the cheap, over-exposed look of the 70s and 80s exploitation flicks. The blood that drenches Carrie looks like chocolate syrup in the new version, while in the original, it's more like Heinz ketchup. Times have changed.
The mean girls in the original were a decidedly ragtag bunch: gawky, weird, distinct. Edie McClurg was a mean girl! Edie McClurg! They didn't look like teenagers, but they looked like real people. The mean girls in 2013 are all model-gorgeous, all barely legal, all total vamps and hotties. Then again, so is Carrie, really. Someone like Sissy Spacek could make a name for herself in indie movies these days. Not in a major motion picture. (I know that's not the more original or stunning insight, but seeing the two movies essentially back-to-back really drives the point home.)
The biggest, intentional distinction between the two comes in the role of Margaret White, Carrie's abusive, religious mother, played by Julianne Moore now (Piper Laurie played her in '76). In both versions, of course, she's a crazy Christian. In '76, though, the emphasis was on "Christian." Now it's firmly on "crazy." This Margaret White is as naive as her daughter; the film opens with a new prologue showing Carrie's birth, which apparently took Margaret by surprise. She thought she was dying, in the same way that Carrie does when her first period hits. Julianne Moore's Margaret is clearly suffering from some form of social anxiety, unable to make eye contact with others or speak above a whisper in public, jabbing her leg with a seam-ripper to get through a brief conversation. Her abuse of Carrie becomes more of an extension of her crazy, rather than outright abuse. Piper Laurie's Margaret seems crueler and her abuse more extensive because, well, she seems smarter, cannier, more prideful. It feels more intentional, more manipulative. And it makes you more sympathetic for Carrie. That's an odd point. Piper Laurie's Margaret is clearly trying to control her daughter out of pride and anger, while Julianne Moore's Margaret is clearly genuinely afraid for her daughter's soul (even if that fear is based in lunacy). Her intentions are better...and yet left me feeling like Carrie could have just endured it for a few more months and gotten out. Piper Laurie was never letting Sissy Spacek out of her control.
It shouldn't be hard to build sympathy for Carrie White. We've all known or been that kid, that out of step kid, the out of place kid, with her weird hair and hunched shoulders, forever waiting for the next blow to fall. As she discovers her power, we see her grow, become stronger. When she finally makes it to the prom on the arm of the studly Tommy Ross, we feel her coming into her own even as we know the hammer is about to fall (or rather, the bucket full of pig blood). We're on her side. We want her to win. We want her to punish those who have wronged her. So why did I feel like she went too far?
Part of it has to do with Chloe Grace Moretz; she's a terrific young actor, but she radiates confidence. She just does. She looks well-fed, well-supported, well-loved, a mature young woman in training. You can't just throw a blonde fright wig on a person, have them look at their toes a bit and make her an outcast. Sissy Spacek looks like a creature from some other world. She wanders through the 1976 movie like a peeled egg, all raw, exposed nerve endings. Her isolation is so great, her need is so great, it's overpowering. There's a classroom scene in each, the scene where Carrie actually connects with poor, doomed Tommy Ross. In the original, the scene featured Tommy reading a poem and Carrie saying she liked it, almost against her will. In the new one, the roles are reversed. Which is great for making Carrie a person, but less great for building a picture of an outsider.
The other part is about the visual storytelling of the movie. In subtle ways, the 1976 movie achieves a couple of things that the new movie undermines repeatedly. In the original, it's clear that Carrie White has ALWAYS been an outcast, a source of ridicule, the target for bullying. When you add that to a more intentional abusive mother, you see a downtrodden, broken girl.
Another shared moment in each revolves around a memorable piece of graffiti: Carrie White Eats Shit. In the original, it's in the background, as though it had been there for some time and no one cared enough to clean it. In the new one, it's massive, and fresh, and immediately being scrubbed away. Maybe more realistic...but it doesn't have the same effect.
In the new one, it seems more like she was simply invisible until until the period incident (now broadcast to the world via YouTube). It builds less a pattern of cruelty as one vicious event. Maybe a subtle difference, but a difference that accumulates. By the time the '76 Carrie reaches its climax, you can feel the explosion coming. It builds and builds. In the new one, even with the generous foreshadowing, the explosion feels more like a surprise. The humiliation at the prom is tied explicitly to the shower scene, which makes sense for plot reasons, but also makes it a reaction to that one act, not a lifetime of unanswered abuses. It reduces the scope at the point that it should widen.
The other part where the storytelling undermines the story (and , I think, is reflective of the way we want to connect with our heroes now) comes in the apocalyptic prom. In the original, Carrie's humiliation creates a major psychological break. I would even say that De Palma goes over the top with it, with his split screen, spinning images, directoral geegaws and scare score. But it's clear that we're in Carrie's mind and in Carrie's mind, they're all laughing at her. Even the gym teacher who took her side. In reality, they may not be, but for Carrie, it's the fulfillment of her mother's terrible wish. That's what matters. And it matters that we see that moment, not as an outsider, but from Carrie's point of view. We're right there with her. It's a primal howl of rage and pain. Something uncontrollable has come out of her.
In the new one, Carrie is in control the whole time. The movie takes great pains to show us that not everyone in the gym was laughing and even greater pains to show us that those that didn't laugh are spared. The consciousness of her revenge makes it colder, crueler. When she is finally hurling Chris Hargensen into that gas station, it's presented in slow motion, in great detail as Chris' face smashes through the windshield, glass embedded in her cheeks, before the car bursts into flame. We are clearly meant to see that she deserves this, she has earned this. But...has she? That's the moment I thought, "Well, I mean, yeah, she embarassed Carrie, and did accidentally kill poor Tommy Ross, but...does she deserve to die? So painfully? For that?"
We are in the midst of a cultural conversation about bullying and teenage cruelty. Carrie exists as part of that conversation. On those terms, though, what does this story tell us? That a violent, extreme response to emotional stimulus is justified. Is that the message we believe? The original, focused less on the cruelty of her peers, doesn't carry that weight. Carrie snaps and snaps totally. But, like I said, it's the snap of an entire life, not just one bad moment. I felt more sympathy, more empathy for her. She was a victim of so many forces. Sure, the original is far more focused on a sort of women's-sex panic, typical of the Golden Age of Horror Movies. But that's another post.
The new script wants us to have it both ways: we're meant to see Carrie as a victim, but also as a powerful female figure. She's standing up for herself, the way we all wish we could. But do we all wish we could brutally kill our bullies? Is that really what lurks in all of our hearts?
There are stories that get re-discovered, re-interpreted for each generation. Carrie is a fine choice for that. But when a story is re-interpreted, it tells you more about the time it's remade in. I'm not sure that this version tells us anything comforting about our times.