Near the climax of Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Carrie, Margaret White (Julianne Moore), the wrathful and penitent mother of the titular telekinetic outcast, rationalizes her unthinkable actions by explaining that the devil can be killed, but will always come back for more, “so you’ve got to keep killing him again and again.” It’s a modest rhetorical shift from Margaret’s sad observation that “sin never dies” in Brian De Palma’s enduringly brilliant 1976 film adaptation, and a telling one. Stephen King’s devilish scenario—in many ways his best and undoubtedly his most iconic idea—has proven 2013 Margaret White right, not just in the multiplex, but also on Broadway, where a stripped-down revival of the formerly reviled musical version of Carrie has earned improbably good reviews by focusing on the material’s fashionable anti-bullying potential. It seems everyone’s lining up to revise King’s tale of the put-upon pariah who, pushed too far, wreaks a horrifying revenge on her tormenters. Only these days, everyone is in a rush to assign blame and build cheap sympathy for individual characters, rather than lament, as Piper Laurie’s shell-shocked 1976 Margaret White did, the enduring misfortune of it all.
Recently, Out magazine, in profiling Peirce and her undertaking, deemed the De Palma version “campy.” Given the source, it was unclear whether that was meant as a compliment, a jibe, an inaccurate attempt to find a synonym for “dated,” or merely a taxonomical explanation for why the original remains relevant to the magazine’s target audience. In the sense that camp is sometimes a deliberate confusion between solemnity and facetiousness, yes, De Palma’s version is campy. That’s part of what makes it a vital classic. De Palma orchestrates the fated series of events leading up to Carrie’s disastrous prom massacre with the Shakespearean flourishes they earn, but simultaneously distances himself from them, finding the mordant ironic humor (“Plug it up! Plug it up!”) that H.P. Lovecraft once surmised was present in even the grandest horrors. It was a mark of De Palma’s well-founded trust in his actors that he could be allowed to do this and still come away with the best-rounded performances in his entire body of work.
King was working as a teacher when he wrote Carrie, and the sense of futility he felt as a staff member to alter the social hierarchies of high school was palpable. Every remake since has made the critical error of turning King’s characters into heroes and villains, or to at least ascribe heroic or villainous qualities onto their actions, instead of accepting that they’re all to a degree victims of their diseased environment. (In the book, Carrie was scarcely more agreeable than her bullies.) Peirce’s Carrie is the worst offender to date, even as it tries like hell not to fall into the trap of binaries. It’s barely a horror movie; it’s Carrie: The PSA. Peirce clearly wants to present her student body in tones of naturalism and compassion, but she completely misses what makes Carrie a great tragedy: that it doesn’t matter whether you do right or you do wrong, whether you sacrifice yourself like Sue Snell with her prom ticket or sacrifice a pig for a pig like Chris Hargensen. Either way, girls will continue to suffer the curse of blood, there will never be autonomy within the structure of school (nor do you get to graduate away from it in “the real world”), and the Devil will always come home.
In focusing on predominately kid-gloves portrayals of her teen players, Peirce never properly addresses the machinery behind their doom, which is why the movie is relentlessly lifeless when it’s not literally ripping off De Palma shot for shot. Her fatal error may have been to retain screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen (working alongside Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa here), who streamlined the novel’s scrapbook approach in 1976 to fine effect, but who has remained stubbornly faithful to his own inventions since. (He also wrote the book for the 1988 musical.) Aside from an obligatory nod to how bullying has been amplified by the advent of social media, the script is often a word-for-word recitation of the first film, which straitjackets even the movie’s strongest performers—Moore, Judy Greer as gym teacher Ms. Desjardin—and puts them in the impossible situation of making an impression when their every word calls to mind the indomitable work of Laurie, Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and Betty Buckley. Only Ansel Elgort manages to successfully sever himself from the enforced comparison, turning Tommy Ross from the politician-in-training William Katt delivered into a goofy, aloof jock who only lives to please people. And sadly, Chloë Grace Moretz fails to embody the pathos, the flowering, or the white-hot rage of Spacek’s trifold triumph. Her Carrie’s wish to simply blend in seems damningly attainable.