“You will know her name,” scream the posters for the new bigscreen version of “Carrie,” as if anyone could forget it after seeing Brian De Palma’s brilliant 1976 movie or reading the original Stephen King novel. Aimed at captivating a new generation of viewers unfamiliar with the tale of a cruelly unloved high schooler who unleashes telekinetic revenge on her classmates, director Kimberly Peirce’s intermittently effective third feature eschews De Palma’s diabolical wit and voluptuous style in favor of a somber, straight-faced retelling, steeped in a now-familiar horror-movie idiom of sharp objects, shuddering sound effects and dark rivulets of blood.
The Sony/Screen Gems release will likely conjure a decent B.O. opening before dipping steadily thereafter, following the commercial pattern of the many slasher movies and supernatural thrillers it rather too closely resembles, especially in the sadistically overwrought, f/x-heavy closing reel. But while it can’t hope to match the galvanizing impact of its predecessors (not counting the ill-fated 1999 sequel “The Rage: Carrie 2” or the notorious 1988 Broadway musical flop), Peirce’s film works for a considerable stretch as a derivative but impressively coherent vision.
Certainly there’s a case to be made for revisiting “Carrie” now, given the alarming prevalence of teenage bullying, public cyber-humiliation and fatal acts of retaliation in the post-Columbine era. Chief among the film’s selling points are an intensely committed Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, enacting a subtler, more psychologically insidious take on the mother-daughter relationship immortalized by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. That twisted character dynamic looms over the proceedings from the opening childbirth scene, which quickly familiarizes the viewer with the film’s menstrual color scheme and establishes Margaret White (Moore) as a dangerous religious fanatic, who receives her infant daughter as divine punishment for her sexual sins.
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Years later, the girl has grown up to be the painfully shy and awkward Carrie (Moretz), whose crucible of suffering onscreen begins and ends with an outpouring of blood. In one of a handful of shrewd 21st-century innovations devised by screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Carrie’s locker-room humiliation at the hands of her female classmates is captured on video and quickly goes viral, setting off a chain of events that will ultimately bring about the story’s fiery prom-night climax.
Up until that epic conflagration — which seems to play out at twice the length it did in the first film, and with far more Grand Guignol overkill — “Carrie” sustains interest as a moody psychological/paranormal drama with a melancholy undertow that at times tilts into genuine pathos. If the film never quite shakes off the feeling of having been constructed from a well-worn blueprint, it has a sensitive interpreter in Peirce, who so powerfully evoked the inner world of another tortured, misunderstood individual in 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry,” and who here offers a fresh, intelligent spin on certain key aspects of a largely familiar tale.
Notably, De Palma’s luridly funny sensibility is little in evidence; Peirce has excised every dirty chuckle and whisper of camp from the material, nudging the story in a more textured, realistic direction. Both the hateful Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and conflicted good girl Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) are fleshed out with a touch more nuance than usual. And Carrie begins to experience a flicker of self-worth as she spends time cultivating her telekinetic powers, in “Exorcist”-style levitation scenes that suggest the origin story of a comicbook superheroine, or a more adult version of Roald Dahl’s “Matilda.”
Perhaps Peirce’s shrewdest calculation is to play the Carrie-Margaret relationship almost completely straight (though “I can see your dirty pillows” still gets a laugh). Crucially, the characters’ arguments are not just shrill screaming matches but careful negotiations of power and control (complicated at one point by Carrie’s own impressive command of Scripture), which can suddenly give way to moments of striking tenderness. One senses that the love between mother and daughter, twisted beyond recognition though it may be, is chillingly genuine; they truly have no one else but each other.
Between this and “What Maisie Knew,” Moore is on a bit of a bad-mama roll, and rather than trying to compete with Piper Laurie’s fire-and-brimstone bellow, she acts with a hushed, feverish intensity. Given to not just banging her head against walls but also quietly mortifying her flesh in private, this Margaret is no towering Gorgon but a desperately damaged woman, capable of terrorizing her daughter with no more than a gentle caress or a single, piercing stare.
For her part, Moretz can scarcely be blamed for falling short of one of the most iconic performances in horror cinema; Spacek may have given the remake her blessing (as has De Palma), but no other actress could capture that hauntingly lost quality she brought to the role of Carrie White, making her not just a shy, misunderstood waif but a mesmerizingly alien presence. By contrast, Moretz, though superficially deglammed with a strawberry-blonde mop, is still rather too comely to resemble the pimply, slightly overweight figure described in King’s novel, and her efforts to look downcast and withdrawn strain credulity at first.
Still, the actress is canny and sympathetic enough that she eventually slips under Carrie’s skin (in a way, the high-school mini-revenge drama she enacted in “Kick-Ass 2” was excellent training). And when she puts on that dress and strolls into the prom on the arm of handsome Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), it’s hard not to feel a rush of bittersweet emotion, as well as anticipatory dread, as this Cinderella story proceeds to go terribly wrong. What happens next is a letdown: The prom fiasco feels less like an explosion of teenage id than a snazzy visual-effects showreel; the climactic setpieces are borrowed directly from the 1976 version; and the denouement is pretty limp, especially when compared with De Palma’s literally groundbreaking kicker. It’s a disappointing wrap-up to a movie that, at its infrequent best, suggests there’s more than one way to adapt a classic.
The supporting-cast standout is Judy Greer, putting a nicely down-to-earth spin on the part of the gym teacher who takes a friendly interest in Carrie. Tech package is fine but undistinguished; Steve Yedlin’s underlit widescreen images serves the picture’s attempt to conjure a mundane present-day reality but still feel a bit too nondescript, but the film would have benefited from much bolder, more extreme musical treatment than is supplied by Marco Beltrami’s score.