Kimberly Peirce, director of the Carrie remake that opened this weekend, accomplishes something remarkable with this film. Based on the 1973 Stephen King novel, Carrie has been filmed several times before, most notably Brian De Palma’s now-classic, Academy Award-nominated 1976 version starring Sissy Spacek. But it also spawned a cheesy sequel, Carrie 2: The Rage (1999), a failed made-for-TV remake that was supposed to lead into a television series, and a famously disastrous 1988 musical.
It’s hardly auspicious company, but Kimberly Peirce (director of the acclaimed Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss) fearlessly took on the task and she has contributed her own unmistakable achievement to the annals of Carrie-dom: she manages to make a 99-minute movie feel like a 499-minute movie. If only we could reverse this formula we’d have faster than light travel.
It may seem unfair to compare new takes on Carrie to Brian De Palma’s film and find them lacking, but that’s only because we’ve forgotten that when De Palma made Carrie he was regarded as a schlock-meister who had sold out his indie roots to make two Hitchcock rip-offs and a risible Paul Williams musical. Critics who liked the film described themselves as “surprised” and “embarrassed” by their reactions. De Palma’s movie looms so large that it would seem to be a given that all other attempts at Carrie wither in its shadow, but that might have been their destiny De Palma or no, because all the other Carrie spin-offs have been bland, pre-chewed wads of blah with all the flavor, vitality, and color of instant mashed potatoes. This one is no exception.
The idea with this Carrie remake seems to have been to take its cues from YA fiction (“Hey!” you can hear a studio exec saying, “My granddaughter loves that stuff!”) and teen movies, and then put a woman at the helm who is considered a gifted director of actors. The poster for Carrie features the star, Chloë Grace Moretz, in a typical YA cover pose: full lips half-parted, eyes heavy-lidded as if she has not yet had her morning Red Bull, perfect skin besmirched by one graphic element added in Photoshop. In this case it’s chocolate sauce, as if the climax of the movie featured Carrie White being transformed against her will into a giant ice cream sundae.
Which would actually be a pleasant surprise. Instead, Peirce eschews any hint of surprise, choosing instead to plod through the Stations of the Carrie with all the joy of a death row prisoner executing a paint-by-numbers landscape, her only directorial addition to the movie being a large number of teen clichés and a pair of twins who consume a strange amount of camera-time. Which is odd when you consider that Carrie is not so much a movie as it is a ritual based around two iconic sequences—Carrie White having her first period in the locker room showers and being taunted by a ring of girls yelling “Plug it up!”, and a blood-soaked prom night climax in which she uses her psychic powers to kill her classmates—and if you have these two scenes, everything else is up for grabs.
But Peirce is not a grabby director. She’s more of a stroller, who passes by every opportunity to bring something new to the movie. In the decades since King’s book, so much of what it has to offer has become a cliché—teens bullying a weaker classmate, religious fanatic parents trying to protect their children from the world (and vice versa), wallflowers who bloom into beautiful prom queens—but a director’s job is to find new life inside old material.
All Peirce had to do was cast Carrie right, and a new movie could have been hers. Make Carrie White a transman. Cast a black actress. Cast a plus-sized actress. Cast a disabled actress. A younger Gabourey Sidibe would have been perfect as Carrie, especially since Precious was basically Carrie without the telekinesis. Instead, Peirce casts Chloë Grace Moretz, a perfectly fine actress, who looks lost beneath her extremely terrible blonde wig, as if the only direction she’d been given was “Act like an enormous mouse.” Sissy Spacek was not an unattractive woman when De Palma cast her as Carrie White, but she had an otherworldliness to her, looking like the love child of David Bowie and a flayed cat, all pale skin and freckles, enormous hypno-eyes and exposed nerve endings. Moretz looks like a movie star.
Julianne Moore, as her religious fanatic mother, looks more like Sissy Spacek’s mother than Moretz’s, and she spends her screen time whispering and sticking sharp objects into her skin in order to a) over-indicate her character is crazy, b) make a multiplex audience look up from their phones and go “ew.” The other actors are all kids in their mid-20s pretending to be teenagers who look like they were plonked down with a copy of Tina Fey’s Mean Girls and told, “Do this! Only with less conviction.” The only one who makes an impact is Alex Russell playing bad-boy Billy Nolan, and that’s just because from certain angles he looks like The Situation, a mistake that caused me to briefly feel enormous joy that Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino had finally found his Hollywood break.
Peirce does generate an enormous amount of suspense at the halfway mark when I became worried that she would not be able to fit in absolutely every single Hollywood cliché. We had Visit To the Library, Sneering Teens Hanging Out in Front of School, Mean Video Uploaded to the YouTubes, Ineffective Principal, Random Religious Mania, Locker Vandalism, Shoulder Check in the Hallway Between Classes, sure, but would we also be able to fit in Cleansing Bath, Scary Character Walks Behind Oblivious Character, “Give Me Your Hand!”, Trying On Clothes Musical Montage, Complicated Bro Greeting, and Random Unmotivated Pregnancy? Fortunately, I did not reckon on Peirce’s talent. By the end of the movie, much to my relief, she had managed to fit them all in, and then some.
Carrie manages to feel like a movie that was taken out of the hands of its director. Its two big scenes (locker room and prom night) are directed with all the dynamism and visual power of a Hallmark Christmas movie, and the rest of the movie feels like it’s padded with outtakes from every mid-90s teen movie ever made. The movie gets every single character motivation wrong, most importantly it misses the fact that the sick horror of the book comes from the fact that Carrie’s insane mother is right: her daughter IS the Devil, she does need to be destroyed, and she is seduced by sin. This movie, on the other hand, feels pointless. Does it have something to say about bullying? No. A message about the power of teen sexuality? No. Something about female adolescence? Nope. Religious mania? Unh-uh. High school as social hell? Nada. Ultimately it’s about nothing but itself, an endless hall of Carries, each of them reflecting the power of the original, each one dimmer and less memorable than the one before.
Let’s face it, we’re all rooting for Kimberly Peirce. Stop-Loss had some good performances, and Boys Don’t Cry was fantastic. But with years and years between movies, she had plenty of time to make Carrie exactly the way she wanted to. With its mismatched eyelines, bad dialogue looping, tossed-off plot points, half-baked characterizations, bad framing, sloppy editing, bland sets, and off-the-rack costuming, Carrie looks like a movie dashed off in the time it took her to microwave a Hot Pocket. But maybe this is intentional? Maybe this movie is Peirce’s cry for help? Maybe it’s the cinematic equivalent of the girl in the car in front of you mouthing “Help me” out the back window. Could it be possible that Peirce is being held hostage in Hollywood, her passport locked up in a safe, forced to direct movies against her will? Is her only hope to make a movie so sloppy, so half-assed, so outrageously amateurish that people will notice that something’s wrong and come investigate? Is Carrie her way of saying: stop them, before they make me do it again?
Grady Hendrix is the author of Satan Loves You, Occupy Space, and he’s the co-author of Dirt Candy: A Cookbook, the first graphic novel cookbook. He’s written for publications ranging from Playboy to World Literature Today and his story, “Mofongo Knows” appears in the anthology, The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.