"What did Carrie White ever do to you?”
Although it’s always been shelved alongside other tales of teenage torment from Friday the 13th to Halloween, in my eyes, Brian DePalma’s Carrie – just like William Friedkin’s Exorcist – has always had more in common with Greek Tragedy than a true work of horror.
And while a lot of genre works stem from a place of anguish and revenge with an emphasis on the outsider – whether it’s Jason’s grieving mother in Friday or an institutionalized brother in Halloween, those titles always waded more heavily in the pool of horror rather than walking the fine line between horror and tragedy.
What perhaps it comes down to is the issue of choice and free will verses the victimized villains (a la Exorcist and Carrie) who find themselves pushed into supernatural experiences beyond their control. And while one can argue that unlike the possessed young girl in The Exorcist, Carrie does eventually develop some control over her telekinetic powers – as a combination of bullied victim meets superhero origin story – ultimately there’s something undeniably tragic about this girl that leads to her downfall.
The tragedy is undoubtedly multiplied by the innocence of Carrie as a girl out of time and out of step with the rest and likewise as one who never wished harm on others but whose own emotional tidal wave of repeated bullying shoves her into the role of aggressor against her will in a way that’s heartbreaking to behold.
And indeed in former teacher turned author Stephen King’s debut novel, Carrie tells the story of the dangers of bullying in a way that views the problem and the moral lessons of it through a fantastical kaleidoscope of horrifying tragedy.
Though undoubtedly shocking in its day – when pared down to its essence and with the absence of the supernatural, King’s plotline has become much too common four decades later. And given that we live in an era of peer torment on an unprecedented scale where tales of bullying-fueled school-shootings and suicides regularly unfold on the evening news, Carrie has become all the more tragic and timelier today than it was when it was first published in 1974.
As Sue Snell, the good girl who finds herself doing a bad thing states late into the 2013 remake, “you can only push someone so far before they break” and break Carrie does once again in this third adaptation of King’s novel, following DePalma’s 1976 feature as well as 2002’s made-for-television take on the storyline.
The first version to be directed by a woman as well as the first starring an actress precisely the right age of the high school character as opposed to the twenty-somethings that had tackled the part in the past, Boys Don’t Cry filmmaker Kimberly Peirce helms a powerful, contemporary and far more emotionally driven female-centric adaptation than we've previously encountered.
Brought vividly to life by the effective one-two punch epitomized by the two women at the heart of the film in the form of Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, Peirce’s Carrie is strengthened by their potent portrayals of the eponymous character and her fiercely protective, religious zealot mother.
As opposed to making their relationship as much of a fear-based power struggle (as a sort of home-based extension of the horrific bullying Carrie White endures at school) that we experienced in DePalma’s original, Peirce’s treatment of their relationship is much more complicated and multi-layered.
For the first time and to this great of an emphasis, we actually see the amount of true love and affection that the two have for each other that they don’t fully know how to reconcile with their protective instincts as such psychologically broken, fragile individuals.
Yet at the same time, we also witness their dynamic from the point-of-view of the mother as well as the daughter, which makes us fully appreciate where they’re coming from as three-dimensional human beings.
While Moore is predictably perfection as her take on Margaret White opens her up so we can see her vulnerabilities and self-loathing as well as her fierce drive to shelter her daughter, Peirce’s film allows offers more insight to other supporting female characters as well.
Addressing the pregnancy of Sue Snell for the first time onscreen, thus making her drive to make amends for her peer-pressure induced poor behavior that much richer – Peirce’s Carrie uses the bond of mother and child and the circle of life as a subtextual throughline for the work from its shocking opener to its devastating finale.
Additionally, 2013’s Carrie gives 13 Going on 30 star Judy Greer a great opportunity to break out of her typecast “best friend” romantic comedy roles. As Carrie’s sympathetic gym teacher who tries to not only get to the bottom of a hellish bout of bullying that occurs in the first act but also attempts to prevent further harm to Carrie for better or worse, we now see her as another variation of a “mother” role in Greer’s nuanced portrayal.
While Peirce’s conceptual take on the arc of Carrie as a sort of superhero origin story does offer the eponymous lead a chance to adapt to her powers in a way that illustrates that the formerly wholly vulnerable girl is coming into her own, the doomed prom payoff never quite makes this spin work on the level she hoped.
Nonetheless, Moretz is a marvel given her impressive physical transformation in the subtle ways she changes from one scene to the next. A fully realized performance evidenced by the evolution of Carrie’s posture, body language and tone of voice, Moretz is convincing not only in her dominant, more feral take on Carrie the telekinetic woman-wronged witch but also in quieter moments as the withdrawn-into-herself victimized girl who wishes she could blend into the lockers and be left alone.
And actually because Moretz is so strong in convincing us of her evolution, it makes it a bit harder in her final showdown to see her as a broken, bullied girl verses a deadly aggressor given how active Moretz is moving her arms and turning the titular character into something more otherworldly than human.
Although Moretz definitely needs a cinematic change of pace as Carrie is yet another super-dark role for this impressive young woman’s already ultra-violent resume (following her onscreen breakthrough turns in the Kick-Ass series and Let Me In), she effectively defies her glamorous old-Hollywood style beauty to make her Carrie a relatable everygirl.
In the end, it’s so similar to DePalma’s classic that it’s hard to argue that remaking Carrie was cinematically necessary since they stayed so true to the original work. However because the few changes that were made fully humanize the supporting players and delve deeper into the heart of the mother/daughter plotline, it works in Peirce’s favor overall.
Yet by hitting us on a different level, this visceral, emotional approach likewise guarantees that Peirce’s Carrie is even more tragic than previous adaptations were before.
While originally ahead of its time given King’s emphasis on bullying, it’s a shame that as it stands now forty years later, kids still haven’t learned a lesson from the traumatic tale of Carrie White. Therefore, it’s that much more important for viewers to understand that as opposed to a horror story where the title character is the villain, the real horror of Carrie is what happens to Carrie White rather than Carrie White herself.
While the thing about movies is that they mean something different to everyone, Peirce has done a superb job of driving this point home by tackling Carrie with the same genuine empathy and humanity evidenced throughout her filmography.
Featuring an alternate ending that plays on the circle of life and bond between mother and child that nonetheless would’ve ended the movie on the wrong emotional note in its depiction of Carrie as villain verses victim, Fox’s stunning Blu-ray transfer also serves up multiple making-of-featurettes, interviews and a fun candid camera tie-in telekinetic prank played on coffee shop regulars. And by including an Ultraviolet digital copy of the film to download or stream, Fox and ScreenGems ensure you’ll be able to take Carrie White with you wherever you go from gym class to the prom.
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