Before I start, I feel it’s very important that I stress how much I went into this movie expecting to hate it, based on every other review I have read. I have literally never read a positive review of the 2014 remake of Carrie. Every single comment seems to be a loaded weapon, aimed at the head of this film. We can all agree that Brian De Palma’s original is a spectacular horror film, inventive and deeply resonant; still, it doesn’t explain the vitriol unleashed on this film. At best, I’ve seen mixed reviews, talking about how an interesting goal was clearly derailed at some point. At no point have I seen anything resembling someone expressing unabashed admiration for this movie.
LET ME TAKE CARE OF THAT PROBLEM RIGHT NOW.
The updated version of Carrie is smart, soulful, and incisive in a way that the old version can no longer fulfill, by sheer dint of the time elapsed. It’s not a flaw in De Palma’s version; like all great films, at a certain point, it’s difficult to appreciate for the same reasons. Watching Citizen Kane in this day and age doesn’t mean that the groundbreaking innovations of that film are any less laudable, but it does mean that it’s tough to appreciate them in the same way, because so many of those techniques are just a regular part of film grammar now. Horror is even more of a difficult genre, in that sense—what’s scary in 1960 isn’t what’s scary in 2014, or, better stated, representations of what’s scary are different now than they were then. Everything changes precisely so that the emotional effect can remain the same.
This is my point about the Carrie remake. It addresses the interactions of contemporary teen life in ways that, again, make the original feel as outdated and gauche as Rebel Without A Cause. Teens change twenty times faster than the rest of culture, and to willfully ignore the ways that the modern Carrie deals with those concerns is to basically shit on contemporary reflections dealing with youth and gender.
Let’s address this. You’ve seen Carrie before. (If you haven’t, woe is you, and get thee to a video store to rent Carrie as soon as is humanly possible.) It’s the story of Carrie White, a socially awkward and deeply unpopular teenager who is the butt of every joke of her class. One day, she gets her period, and the rest of the students in her gym class mock her mercilessly, throwing tampons at her and chanting, “Plug it up!’ One of those girls, Sue Snell, feels really bad about it, and convinces her boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom. After some convincing (she thinks it’s a trick at first), Tommy convinces her, and they head off to the prom. Whereupon Carrie’s nemesis Chris dumps pig’s blood all over her, her telekinetic powers take hold, she murders everyone…you know how it goes. The end.
When De Palma’s original film came out, it got better than average reviews, unlike most every other horror film ever reviewed in the history of the universe. Yet, other than a small coterie of arthouse weirdos, Carrie was still considered yet another teen shocker, made for quick profit. It wasn’t until years later that its critical reception was solidified as the horror lodestone it is today. And now, with a remake to beat up, it becomes even more beloved. Which is absurd, because the new version of the film is far, far better than everyone implies.
The new iteration of Carrie begins with Margaret White (Julianne Moore), screaming in pain as she gives birth to Carrie. She is obviously religious, and deeply repressed, as her first instinct is to murder the bastard child. However, in an admittedly hokey moment, while raising a knife to murder this infant, she gets a look at Carrie’s eyes; her vengeful hand is stayed, and the film begins. We cut to a school water volleyball scene, leading into the famous bathroom scenario, where Carrie gets her first period, and is convinced that she’s dying. In the kind of display of sympathy high school girls are famous for, everyone immediately taunts her, throwing tampons and laughing. One girl, Chris, even films films it, subsequently posting it on the Internet. (Think that’ll come back into play? Spoiler alert: it does.)
Whereas the first film plays the scene as an almost surrealistic nightmare, this version slides technology into the fray. The camera, cutting between Carrie’s point of view and the laughing girls, introduces a third perspective: the clinical camera’s eye. With this simple move, Peirce makes a nice, understated gesture towards the dehumanizing potential of digital interaction. It’s not the least bit heavy-handed, but it shows the way a neutral technology can be put to use demolishing human connection, and empathy.
Under the watchful eye of her gym coach (Judy Greer), Carrie is asked to prom by the football player Tommy (Anson Elgort, he of The Fault In Our Stars fame), whose girlfriend Sue (Gabriella Wilde) took part in the tampon-throwing and feels inordinately guilty. Soon, Carrie and Tommy are at the prom, slow dancing, having fun, and then being announced as king and queen.
You know what happens from there. Carrie gets blood dumped on her, Tommy gets knocked out, and our protagonist goes on a brutal killing spree the likes of which most mainstream films have never seen. Seriously, compare Carrie with other Hollywood films. In no other movie does someone who is clearly the victim get to take such bloody revenge, It’s wonderful, and empowering, and a warning to every jock who ever set foot in a high school.
But more importantly, let’s talk about how the new film is a good movie. First of all, it has wonderful camera work. De Palma’s original is a classic for good reasons, but to pretend that Kimberly Peirce doesn’t know what she’s doing behind the camera is just lazy. There are a number of shots that register here, starting with the water volleyball scene. Peirce knows what makes high school so awkward, and she frames these moments with maximum attention to how the littlest things in school can equal the biggest embarrassments. Second, every scene with an authority figure—her gym teacher, the principal, and so on—resonates with the low-position camera angle that would reinforce the sense of powerlessness felt by a girl in high school. All of these scenes absolutely CRUSHED, and I genuinely don’t understand the perspective of anyone who would dismiss this film ad hominem.
Acting-wise, it’s solid: Chloe Grace Moretz again delivers a performance that, while not the most subtle in history, nails the emotional resonance that Carrie needs to provoke in the spectator. Ansel Elgort demonstrates that indie directors have a better eye than Hollywood casting directors (this was his first film), and Julianne Moore….come on. I don’t really need to explain what she lends to this, do I? I’ve seen her overact before, and this is not that. Moore provides a deeply disturbing portrait of religious motherhood, in a way that feels real. Moretz, at several points, cradles Moore in her arms, telling her how much she loves her, and it resonated profoundly—every artistically inclined person I’ve ever met tries to justify upsetting relationship they have with their parents. In this way, the remake exceeds the original, which expected you to take on faith the emotional bond between mother and child.
Other ways the remake exceeds the original: pretty much every single character motivation you can imagine. Kimberly Peirce, I can only imagine, was attracted to this project as a way to say something interesting about teen girls and social pressures, and it comes through in spades. Judy Greer as the gym teacher? Great. Portia Doubleday as the villain? Great. Gabriella Wilde as the sympathetic Sue? Great. The cast here is exemplary, and the script is strong. So, really, what’s with all the hate? Why does everyone dislike this movie so much?
My one guess is this: a great original elicits scornful follow-ups. I’ve said this before: an excellent film needs a remake much less than a bad film. When a superlative movie gets remade, it is naturally going to get a fair number of critical boos, just because it is treading on sacred ground. Whereas a remake of a weaker film (calling Piranha and The Town That Dreaded Sundown) will be welcomed with open arms, because hey, whatever, right? And this is understandable. I’ve written about it before. But previous films shouldn’t be a death knell for an inventive remake, especially one as interesting, as progressive, and as feminist as this one.
Honestly, I could go on. There’s a wonderful shot from a car trunk. A smart slow-dance montage. The way in which Peirce shoots the infamous auditorium murder scene is immensely clever, and deserves credit for not trying to mimic De Palma in any way. Really, the more I think about it, the angrier I get. This is a good film. No one is willing to give it a chance. And every review I read seems to have nothing to say about the actual cinematography, color, framing, or editing of the film. If you think Julianne Moore is over the top, fine; it won’t be the first time she’s been accused of that. But to gloss over the many ways this is a smart, sharp, well-made film, that is ridiculous. If you thought it was bad, I welcome your comments, as well as the chance to argue for the many merits of this underrated movie. To quote another person who knew they were on the losing side of a fight: bring it on.