Lately, my friend Chris and I have spent a lot of time debating whether I still have any right to celebrate the horror genre. He feels it’s irresponsible in light of tragic events like the Newtown shooting. In reply to this, I typically point out that there is no scientific correlation or common sense association between watching a frightened heroine escape a knife-wielding monster (as opposed to, say, an action hero murder people with an assault rifle) and, well, murdering people with an assault rifle. More to the point, scary movies allow us to get to the truth of such sensitive issues unencumbered by political correctness and rhetorical shaming.
Take this latest remake of Carrie (another was made for television in 2002). Faithful to the Stephen King novel, the film follows a telekinetic teen (Chloë Grace Moretz) on her last week before prom, as the pressures of her classmates’ relentless bullying and her mother’s religious extremism cause her to lash out with disastrous consequences. In 1976, Brian De Palma adapted the story into a gripping feminist parabola. In 2013, director Kimberly Peirce acknowledges the women’s issues at play but puts a firm emphasis on high school dynamics, drawing courageously uncomfortable parallels with the real-life teen tragedies making the news of late.
Reviewing the remake of a beloved classic can be a challenge, as I find myself constantly comparing the two productions. I miss De Palma’s visual flair, for example, the way he got us into Carrie White’s mind with subtle camera tricks. His movie also kept her supporting cast vague so as to build suspense around their true motives. In comparison, the new Carrie feels somewhat lacking in cinematic artistry, relying too heavily on digital effects. However, Peirce makes up for it in character development, putting all the cards on the table so we can understand how matters escalate to such an insane degree.
Every character in Carrie gets a chance to shine and then disappoint us, coming off slightly compromised but all the more human for it. Consider our heroine’s unstable mother, the way Julianne Moore’s wounded performance earns our sympathy despite her abuse. Margaret is a cutter in this version, a lost soul in clear need of psychiatric help. When she projects her self-hatred onto a daughter she clearly loves, we feel less anger toward the woman than toward the child welfare system that failed to take Carrie away from her.
Carrie even explains the behaviour of the head bully, Christine (Portia Doubleday), whose methods are cleverly updated to include social media. First, her father (Jefferson Brown) demonstrates how parents so often forgo raising their children in favour of protecting them no matter what. Then we see her competing with her boyfriend, Billy (Alex Russell), over who’s got the most sociopathic nerve. Intriguingly, each hesitates at a key moment only for the other to push their cruelty past the point of no return.
That’s the point, you see: to show how teenagers base their decisions in reaction to their peers. Even Sue’s (Gabriella Wilde) convoluted act of contrition stems from the need to prove herself. When accused of caring more about the prom than doing the right thing, she pimps out her date to Carrie, sacrificing her magical night with the hunky school athlete. Incidentally, I rather like Tommy, the way actor Ansel Elgort balances the character’s unflappable moral core and shameless vanity. He provides much needed comic relief in an otherwise heart-wrenching tale.
Given the iconic status of the original Carrie, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t already know where the story’s headed. Just the same, I’ll keep the details of the final act spoiler-free, except to point out that Chloë Grace Moretz shows more intent in her performance than Sissy Spacek did in De Palma’s film. This leaves me ambivalent, which, I suspect, is what Peirce wants. As Sue explains, “You all want to see Carrie as a monster, but she was a person like you and me. We pushed her, and you can only push a person so far until he or she breaks.”
The final shot of a vandalised grave reminded me of the way the media so often dehumanise children involved in school shootings. Pundits blame violent movies, guns, and video games, but law enforcement profilers have found in the perpetrators only one common denominator: alienation from their peers. Already I foresee readers shouting at their computer screen, “Why don’t you focus that bleeding heart of yours on the real victims!” I understand all too well this gut reaction, but that’s why we need horror films like Carrie. They allow us to look monsters in the eye, free of our righteous baggage, and hopefully find enough insight to prevent them in real life.