Kimberly Peirce, the director of some truly fine films like Boys Don't Cry and Stop-Loss, has some pretty big shoes to fill when it comes to remaking Carrie, the first of Stephen King's published novels. Brian De Palma crafted what has become a modern masterpiece of horror, using his now-trademark split screens and soft focus to examine the harshness of femininity and man's discomfort with it, as well as tell the story of Carrie White, the long-suffering victim of both her mother and her classmates. Such a shadow to work under must have been difficult for Peirce, and one wonders if, ultimately, it did not paralyze her creatively.
It is unavoidable to compare this film to the 1976 version, mostly because it's built on the same script, with some variation. In both films, Lawrence D. Cohen is credited, only this time the name Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa is added, filling in a few minor gaps in logic in the original film. One addition is the first scene of the film, in which we see Margaret White (Jullianne Moore) deliver her unwanted child into the world, tempted to kill her with a pair of scissors from jump. From there, it's pretty much the De Palma, film, with a few a touches intended to show the depths of Margaret White's quiet insanity.
Carrie White, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, is the brunt of social scorn and ridicule. We do get the shower scene (although stripped of De Palma's in-your-face sexuality) and the chant of "plug it up!" with the nice added touch of inserting social media into the film, as the whole incident of the girls throwing tampons at Carrie is recorded on Chris Hargensen's (Portia Doubleday) cell phone, too. Otherwise, the scene plays out almost shot-for-shot as the original.
In fact, my largest issue with the film is how reverent it is toward De Palma's movie. Much of the dialog is identical, as are some of the shot choices. There are minor tweaks to the character motivations, which are all fine and make perfect sense, but something is lost in this reinterpretation. Peirce is a fine director, but she limits herself to a more workman-like effort behind the lens, content to capture Moore and Moretz as they offer up some great performances, but never coloring outside the lines. When the shit goes down and Carrie lets loose at the prom after the bucket of pig blood spills onto her, the only thing Peirce didn't ape from the original was the split-screen effect that made the prom scene so memorable and terrifying.
That's not to say this is a bad movie, not at all. The script is as solid as it was 37 years ago, and the new flavoring from Aguirre-Sacasa does nothing to diminish it. Moore and Moretz are both astounding in this movie, and they anchor an otherwise by-the-numbers approach to the material. Moore, in particular, finds a quietude to Margaret White, and her portrayal of a deeply disturbed parent is really something to watch. Unlike the histrionics of Piper Laurie from the '76 version, she comes across as believable and masochistic, rather than larger-than-life.
The film will ultimately rest on the shoulders of Chloe Grace Moretz, though. She has a small burden to bear, in that she's a very pretty young woman. She manages to transform herself through body language and reactions into a skittish and mistrustful Carrie White, who has been down so long, it looks like up to her. When she gets all telekinetic, she finds a ballet with her hands to indicate the use of her powers, and that works very well. Her scenes with Moore are wonderfully entertaining, and watching one actor at the height of her abilities and another young actor with a load of promise go toe-to-toe is a treat for the audience. Still, I miss the vulnerability that Sissy Spacek brought to the role, and I think she makes the definitive cinematic Carrie White.
The rest of the cast is solid, if unremarkable. Gabriella Wilde as Sue Snell is almost impossibly attractive, and her performance is fine, if not particularly nuanced like that of Amy Irving's. Judy Greer takes on the role of the good witch of the gym in Coach Desjardin, and she's honest and conflicted in the part, though much of that is due to some nice writing from Cohen. At its heart, this is a remake in the strictest sense, whole scenes that appear in the '76 film appearing here, only with different performers saying the lines. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is an unfortunate thing. Peirce does make comment on the state of bullying and the potential of violence earned by abuse, and you could substitute Carrie White mowing down her classmates with an AK-47 after bearing their scorn for the telekinesis and not much about the tone and performance would change. That sort of examination is not new, nor is it as daring as De Palma's film, another point of comparison where this remake feels unnecessary.
My greatest complaint with the film is that it should have been more its own experience. Having so recently seen the De Palma film, I was looking forward to seeing a new take on the material from a decidedly feminist director, but all I got was the original with some new scenes and a lack of bravery. Though the two central performances are certainly worth watching, not much else recommends the film as a must-see viewing experience, especially if you hold the De Palma film dear to you. If you've never seen Carrie before in any version, there's no reason not to start with this one, and the clothing, music and references will seem more of this time (though give it 30 years, and this is going to seem very dated, too). If you love De Palma's Carrie, but like the idea of swapping Moore and Moretz into it, this is the movie you've been waiting for. Just don't expect the same levels of subtext and craftsmanship and, yes, sheer balls from it and you'll be fine.