Carrie is a conundrum. On the one hand, it’s an attempt to bring Stephen King’s novel, and by extension, Brian DePalma’s landmark adaptation, into the new millennium. Dealing with a story written before cellphones and viral video, new director Kimberly Peirce is clearly trying to couch her update in a kind of 21st century cyber-bullying cloud. Indeed, when our shy, awkward teen (Chloë Grace Moretz) gets her first period, instead of merely mocking her and making her feel ashamed of her late adolescent womanhood, these particular mean girls capture their cruelty on camera and, before you know it, it’s YouTube time.
Indeed, for the titular high school senior, life has been a near literal living hell. Her crazed fundamentalist mother (Julianne Moore) almost killed her at birth, and has since raised her to be a scared, naive Bible-thumping wallflower. With her monthly “visitor” comes another discovery — the ability to move things with her mind. Carrie starts experimenting with this newfound gift while the school deals with the fallout from the viral video incident. Classmate Sue (Gabriella Wilde) tries to make amends by having her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Egort) take the sad, sheltered girl to prom. Chris (Portia Doubleday) resents being punished for her “prank” and plots with her man (Alex Russell) to get even with Carrie.
Thus we have the familiar setup, the bucket of pig’s blood, and the planned humiliation at what should be this girl’s greatest moment. Carrie 2013 doesn’t really deviate from the DePalma version so much as channel it directly, hoping to reap a bit more respectability than the lousy remake from 2002 (which was supposed to lead to a TV series). Fans of the original will see more than a slight resemblance to that Oscar-nominated classic while others hoping for more context, more thematic resonance like that in King’s novel (which was truly a sly, supernatural coming of age) will be disappointed. Peirce plays around with more serious issues and ideas before dropping them all for the last act dance apocalypse. She’s obviously more interested in CG spectacle than diving deeper into Carrie’s complicated psyche.
At least the performances are first rate. Though she’s more of a quiet geek than Sissy Spacek’s clumsy odd duck, Ms. Moretz convinces us of both Carrie’s hidden shame and secret powers. The transformation into a regular high school kid is not as dramatic, but the actress really does accentuate the character’s outsider stance. As for the rest of the cast, well, they really can’t compare to Betty Buckley, Amy Irving, John Travolta, and Nancy Allen. They’re just names and faces, not real parts of the narrative’s tragic aims. Only Moore manages to match her predecessor (Piper Laurie) in the intensity department, though we’ve come to expect good work from her, no matter the project. She doesn’t bring any new dimension to Margaret White’s wild-eyed Jesus freakiness, but then again, there’s little depth in the woman to start with.
All Peirce has to do is up the ante, to find a way (like the recent remakes of Evil Dead and Maniac) to turn a beloved horror icon into her own scare statement. She doesn’t quite succeed. All the potential in the premise, all the chances to link Carrie’s plight to the ongoing dialogue over social media and high school students out of control is thrown aside for more pyrotechnics and horror money shots. DePalma comprehended the operatic Greek tragedy of the material. Peirce lacks his artistic vision. The result is a remake that’s worthy if hardly worthwhile. Carrie could have been amazing. Here’s it’s just average.