November 3rd marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Brian DePalma’s instant classic Carrie. Based off Stephen King’s first published novel, the movie got a forgettable sequel (The Rage: Carrie 2) in 1999, an even more forgettable straight-to-tv remake in 2002, and finally it’s own gritty reboot in 2013. How do original novel and original movie compare? And does the 2013 reboot hold up to either? Find out after the break…(and yes, there will be spoilers for the 43 year old book and 40 year old movie).
Sometime in the early 70s, a broke-ass school teacher gave up on a short-story he was writing and threw it into the garbage. His very smart wife, Tabitha, found it, fished it out, and told him to try again. The broke-ass school teacher did, turned it into novel, and became an award winning, best-selling author who redefined an entire genre (or two).
Of course, I’m talking about Stephen King, and while volumes can be written about his work and what he has accomplished, his first published novel, Carrie, is a relatively tiny (under 200 pages) and unassuming (it’s first hardcover run sold a relatively paltry 13,000 copies) piece of work. The story is simple. Carrie White, the daughter of an abusive, fundamentalist Christian, is a social outcast in her high school, bullied and teased by her classmates, ignored by most of her teachers, in general the kind of person who slowly gets twisted by the forces pressing down on her before dying alone and forgotten. Except Carrie won’t ever be forgotten. Because it turns out she can move things with the power of thought; and – while she doesn’t plan on using her newfound psychokinesis for evil – a horrible prank involving pigs’ blood and a prom dress sets her on a catastrophic course that destroys a town and leaves the survivors changed forever.
The novel is told from several points of view, mostly Carrie White’s and one of the few survivors of the destruction, Susan Snell. It also includes first person interviews and ‘excerpts’ from books and a commission formed to investigate the destruction brought down by literature’s favorite troubled teen. It’s very much a first novel, with occasional lapses in story-telling and plot, but King’s immense talent shines through. There are moments of real feeling and pathos here, particularly early in the book, when a mocking mob of girls harass a terrified Carrie after her first menstrual period by pegging her with feminine products and chanting “plug it up.” King puts you in that shower, and you feel Carrie’s horror and embarrassment, the sudden malicious glee of the other teenage girls as the turn on the “outsider”, and the pity and contempt of the gym teacher who finally rescues her. And he keeps the tension growing throughout the novel, as Carrie starts to come out of her shell, while forces – led by mean girl Christine Hargensen – conspire to put her back in her corner.
King’s ability to write real and compelling female characters is very much on display, especially with the depiction of Susan Snell, a classic “girl next door” character with real depth and inner-conflict. Sue has one moment of weakness, when she joins the mob bullying Carrie in the shower; and her shame at that weakness, and the actions she takes to resolve them (convincing boyfriend Tommy to take Carrie to the prom) seem real and unforced. He also hits all the right notes when depicting the social strata of high school, the pressures to belong, the little fiefdoms that develop, all fit the story perfectly. And while some critics turn their nose up at King’s “genre writing,” there is a great deal of wonderful symbolism and motif throughout the novel: The novel begins and ends with Carrie awash in blood. The “awakening” of her powers parallel her “awakening” womanhood. The pack mentality of the bullying teens symbolizes the way woman will sometimes turn on each other. Ultimately the book is about how society pushes us into our narrow little lanes: mean girl, parent, teacher, girlfriend, outcast; and how powerfully it pushes back when we try to escape and define ourselves as something different.
Brian DePalma’s Carrie captures this theme, in no small part because of Sissy Spacek’s pitch-perfect, Oscar-nominated depiction of Carrie White. Simply put, Spacek Carries… um carries… this movie. The shower scene is almost painful to watch, as she huddles beneath the streams of steaming water, vulnerable and naked and terrified by what is happening to her. Equally powerful are those scenes when she realizes her capability and finally confronts her deranged mother (a completely over-the-top Piper Laurie) and seeks to define herself as a woman. Finally, her almost euphoric happiness at the Prom, and the rage moments later when the buckets of pigs’ blood coat her and the mocking begins anew. Spacek captures it all and brings you along for the ride.
It’s not a perfect movie. The rest of the cast is alright. In addition to Piper Laurie’s 50 shades of crazy, Nancy Allen captures the mean girl theme as Chris Hargensen. Amy Irving is a bit of a blank slate as Sue, but that role, so important because of her inner dialogue, is difficult to translate in the visual medium. She’s really meant to be the cipher here, the person the audience can imagine themselves being. There are some Seventies sensibilities that don’t age well: The tuxedo scene, where Tommy and friends get ready for the prom seems silly and out of place, the kaleidoscope camera effects after Carrie gets Punked is a little much, and the special effects are somewhat limited by budget (the killer firehose always made me giggle a bit). But there are some scenes that are simply wonderful, including the infamous spin scene at the prom, which captures perfectly that sense of dizzy wonder Carrie felt at being in a fairytale; and while I always had wished the movie followed the book ending, it makes much more sense cinematically to have Carrie crucify her mother and pull the house down around herself, then the relatively staid method of stopping her mothers heart and dying in Sue’s arms in the street. And of course, the movies most notorious scene, the ultimate jump scare as a sleeping Sue Snell is snatched from dreamland by Carrie’s ghostly, grave-bound hand, was perhaps the main source of its popularity. I’ve seen the film a dozen times, and I still leave my seat every damn time I watch it!
Unfortunately, the 2013 remake kinda makes me want to leave my seat, and not necessarily in a good way. Instead of bringing in new themes – how bullying has changed in a world of Snapchat and Instagram or how the psychic destruction of an entire town would play with today’s 24 hour news cycles, or even just trying to resurrect some of the source material that DePalma had to leave out of the 1976 film – director Kimberly Pierce chose instead to film a nearly complete re-creation of the earlier work. It’s a missed opportunity.
Further compounding the disconnect is Chloe Grace Moretz is just too damn pretty to play a believable Carrie White (interestingly, the same thing was said about Sissy Spacek). It’s not that Moretz is a bad actress, its just a tough sell and she doesn’t really pull it off. This is really a problem with many filmmakers and young actors today, this inability to tone down the glamour. While the actors and actresses in the DePalma films were far from ugly, they seemed ‘normal.’ You could imagined these kids as people you’d see in your high school.
The cast of the 2013 film, with their toned bodies and perfect hair and flawless skin are like minor deities… they are just too perfect, too polished; and while I understand Hollywood’s never ending infatuation with youth and beauty will… well never end, it would go a long way towards making their movies relatable if they just gave the kid an occasional zit or something.
Ultimately, the remake commits the ultimate sin of being unoriginal and boring. The few scenes they changed or added – the swimming pool scene, the awkward Julianne-Chloe cuddle before knife play, the completely unimportant reveal of Sue Snell’s pregnancy, the cynical tease of the original jump scare at the end – seemed silly and did nothing to advance the plot. In the case of this reboot, stick to the original.
Have you read the book or seen the movies? How about sequel? Or the made-for-tv remake? Or the broadway musical (yes, there was a broadway musical)? Tell me what you think in the comments.