Before the name Carrie became synonymous with Manolo Blahniks (in “Sex and the City”) and national security (in “Homeland”), there was the telekinetic high school girl who had a meltdown at her prom. When Stephen King published his 1974 novel “Carrie,” the idea that a teenager could commit a mass murder at school had all the makings of fictional horror, which is why the 1976 movie directed by Brian De Palma became a classic in the genre.
But that was a different time. It’s hard to revisit “Carrie” now without seeing parallels to recent grisly school killings. The idea that a quiet outcast can snap and kill all her classmates isn’t an unpleasant fantasy. It’s ripped straight from the headlines. Bullying is a grade school security concern, and the terror after Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook unraveled in real-time on cable TV.
Kimberly Peirce’s remake, which opens this weekend, touches on a number of hot button topics without responsibly exploring them. This update is much gorier than the original, and it feels like an after-school special from the creators of “Saw.”
Peirce anchors all the details of her film with the same realism that made her directorial debut “Boys Don’t Cry” an indie hit in 1999. But in “Carrie’s” case, the more real the story feels, the more disturbing it becomes. The mean girls who pick on our heroine post an online video of her in the gym shower; it brings to mind the tragic bullying stories that end in suicide. When Carrie is invited to prom, she clutches her date with the painful longing of a gay teenager who has never experienced public intimacy. Her mom (played by Julianne Moore) is a religious nut who cuts herself and keeps an arsenal of butcher knives.
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De Palma’s “Carrie” was paced like a horror thriller, and the school seemed to exist in an alternate universe. Sissy Spacek was an adult when she portrayed the part, but she still seemed age-appropriate. The new “Carrie” casts 16-year-old Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays the character like she’s escaped from an asylum. I don’t mean that as a hyperbole — her Carrie comes across as mentally ill. The interpretation might hew closer to King’s text, but it also adds unintended echoes to Adam Lanza, the Sandy Hook murderer. When Carrie sulks and quivers, unable to connect with anybody — even herself — it’s frightening but not in an entertaining way.
And then it’s time for prom. In the original film, the school dance was orchestrated with some restraint—De Palma wisely cut away from most of the carnage, using split screen and colored lighting to mask the gore. The audience knew that kids were suffering, but the terror came from not seeing all the grisliest details. The remake’s finale takes a different approach, which is not unexpected given the nuclear arms race for more violence in films.
It’s been almost a year since Hollywood actors came together to make a public-service announcement about gun violence after Sandy Hook. That hasn’t curbed the violence in movies like “Texas Chainsaw 3D,” “Spring Breakers” and “Machete Kills.” Many will argue, like Quentin Tarantino told NPR, that there’s no correlation between fictional violence and real violence. (And I should clarify there are no guns in “Carrie,” but that’s hardly the point.) Box office considerations aside, the bar for stories about kids dying violently should be higher now. I’m not sure what high school students will take away from the new “Carrie” if they haven’t seen the original.