Hey Recyclers! My friend Adam B. is back with another review! This time it’s an original classic and the new remake. Which is your favorite? Post in the comments section below!
What separates Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) from most other horror movies with teenage characters is that it’s actually about being a teenager. It’s a nightmare vision of adolescence, a time when things happen to your mind and body that you don’t understand, when you still don’t anticipate the consequences of your actions but are held accountable for them, and when the battle of wills between you and your parents can turn ugly. Most people get through it and emerge as more or less functional adults, but getting through requires “forgetting” the worst of the confusion, pain, and guilt. Many horror stories work by not allowing us to forget, by exhuming what we would prefer to stay buried. Even without zombies or vampires, many horror stories are about something undead. And no matter when you went through the stages of adolescence or where you fit into the high school social order, Carrie makes adolescence very much undead.
But De Palma’s film is more than frightening. It’s also poignant. Of course it delivers on the bottom line as a scary movie: the prom scene and just about every scene with Piper Laurie are terrifying. But Carrie also creates sympathy for its title character all the way through the film, at least for me. Sissy Spacek, one of few actors to get an Oscar nod for a horror movie role, deserved her nomination because although she was almost 27 when she played Carrie, her performance perfectly evokes a little girl at a moment of frightening transition. In the first scene when Carrie collapses into her gym teacher’s arms, Spacek makes the gesture such a convincingly childlike plea for help that it actually choked me up a little when I watched the movie again recently.
In De Palma’s film, even Carrie’s telekinetic power bears a certain poignancy beneath the terror it creates. Part of this terror comes from evoking the loss of control that teenagers feel over their minds and bodies. Emotions and impulses run high during adolescence—sometimes to frightening extremes—which is why telekinesis is such an effective terror device in this film. In De Palma’s Carrie, telekinesis seems to me like a projection of adolescent anger, fear, and frustration, and as something Carrie never fully comprehends or controls, from the moment the light-bulb explodes in the locker room until the moment the house collapses on her. Such glimmers of agency as do appear in Carrie are engulfed by uncontrollable emotions, with telekinesis as their outlet.
The Carrie White envisioned by Kimberly Peirce and Chloë Grace Moretz is more self-aware and -determined. Granted, in De Palma’s film Carrie does check out books on telekinesis from the library, but Peirce’s film makes much more of this discovery and of Carrie’s response to it; Carrie is fascinated, if also frightened, by her power and intent on learning how to use it. Moretz uses a considerable range of facial expressions to portray Carrie exploring her power: a furtive half-smile when she makes a flag wave, open-mouthed shock as she concentrates hard enough to raise her bed off the floor, and firm but guilty conviction when raises her mother off the floor and locks her in a closet to keep her from interfering with Carrie’s prom date.
This is a Carrie that would not have fit at all in De Palma’s film and an interesting revision by Peirce. I don’t call her film a “remake” because it takes such a different view of Carrie and her telekinesis that it doesn’t seem to look back on De Palma’s at all. Peirce’s vision casts Carrie’s power in a somewhat positive light before it turns destructive. Margaret still calls her daughter a “witch” with all the fervor of a Salem Puritan, but the film treats telekinesis in such a way that it invites the audience to critique Margaret’s view of her daughter as fearfully narrow and constrained by her “religion,” which permits only one view of something very complex and potentially good.
I should pause for a moment, though, on Margaret. I compared her to a Puritan, but that alone is misleading. She can’t be reduced to that stereotype: Peirce and Julianne Moore actually bring complexity to her character. Now, I have no complaints against Piper Laurie’s performance in the 1976 Carrie. Laurie’s Margaret is so terrifying that she belongs in the same class as Annie Wilkes (Laurie also earned an Oscar nom and might have won, were it not for Beatrice Straight’s one scene as the wronged wife in Network.). But in De Palma’s film Margaret is a caricature, a fire-and-brimstone zealot, and only Laurie’s superb acting brings the audience close to sympathy for her. Peirce wants us to look closer at Margaret’s situation: she adds an opening scene of Margaret giving birth, terrified and alone, as well as a scene of Margaret working as a seamstress, waiting on more well-to-do mothers. Peirce and Moore’s Margaret is a mentally ill working-class mother who, given her background and her religious views, is raising her daughter in the best way she knows how to. Moore’s performance, quieter and subtler than Laurie’s, actually inspires compassion for Margaret.
Peirce’s Carrie is interested in its two main characters as women and clearly wants the audience to see Carrie as (potentially) having some agency in her telekinetic powers. They are not merely an outpouring of adolescent emotions; if things had turned out differently, one could imagine this Carrie using them as an adult. This is an interesting revision which mostly succeeds. Aside from generally poor acting (Moore excepted, of course, and Moretz, somewhat), where the movie falters is during Carrie’s killing spree, when she actually begins to look like the sadistic or possessed sorceress her mother accuses her of being. Matt Zoller Seitz writes that “when [Carrie] becomes a gore-drenched avenging angel, her gestures become more ritualized, almost dancer-like—as if she’s not just committing gruesome murders, but in some sense ‘presenting’ them, as a performer might.” This is an apt description of a confusing turn in the film. Carrie seems to go into a kind of trance during the murders, then comes to afterward, horrified and staring at her hands like Lady Macbeth. I understand the film’s intention of portraying Carrie’s telekinesis as giving her some agency, but it seems unwilling to make up its mind about whether she finally takes control of her power or if it’s the other way around.