Horror remakes are a tricky proposition; Stephen King remakes even more so. While there have been any number of terrible King adaptations down the decades (no one would complain – or care – if the likes of THE MANGLER, GRAVEYARD SHIFT or DREAMCATCHER were to be remade), there have also been more than a few classics. Who in their right mind would consider remaking THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, STAND BY ME or THE SHINING? (King himself unwittingly proved this point by penning a TV miniseries version of THE SHINING, to considerably less effect than Kubrick’s masterpiece). Another seminal translation, CARRIE, was ‘reimagined’ last year by screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and director Kimberly Peirce. While not quite as stupefyingly redundant as Gus Van Sant’s infamous PSYCHO retread, it nonetheless serves to highlight all the many reasons why returning to a classic piece of cinema is a bad idea.
Peirce’s CARRIE is bad for two main reasons. The first being that it has nothing new to say. It’s not a scene-by-scene remake of Brian De Palma’s influential 1976 thriller, but it’s damn close. The social context has been updated – Carrie’s locker room humiliation is filmed and posted online – but any concessions to modernity are strictly skin deep; the film still looks and feels like a product of a bygone era. The story is slavishly faithful to De Palma’s version, even down to the dialogue, much of which is repeated verbatim (little wonder, given that Cohen also wrote the original screenplay, almost forty years ago). All of which begs the question – if you’re not going to take the narrative in a new direction, why bother in the first place?
The second big problem is the denouement. The first time around Carrie’s prom night prank, and the bloodletting that followed, was as shocking as it was unexpected. This time it’s old hat. Sissy Spacey in her skin-tight, blood-drenched party dress is one of cinema’s iconic images, and one of the horror touchstones of the twentieth century. The problem for Peirce and co. isn’t recreating it – anyone could do that – but recreating its impact. Not only is this pivotal scene no longer a surprise, it’s so readily anticipated that it reduces the rest of the story to mere preamble. In effect, therefore, the audience spends the first seventy five minutes twiddling their thumbs as they wait for the film to catch up with their expectations. It might have helped (not much, but a little) if Carrie’s revenge had taken a different or more expansive form, but even that is business as usual.
There are other issues. Most of the astute characterisation that helped make De Palma’s version so mesmerising is absent from the remake. Chris (Portia Doubleday) is reduced to a rich bitch with psychotic tendencies, and Sue (Gabriella Wilde) to a bad girl turned good, whose conversion is never adequately explained. Boyfriends, teachers and fellow students are empty ciphers, and Carrie’s mother (Julianne Moore) is so antiquated and out of step with the modern world that she comes across as more comical than sinister. Carrie herself is also problematic. While Chloë Grace Moretz gives a typically accomplished performance, investing the character with soul and pathos, she never quite convinces. She’s far too pretty and composed to pass as a genuine outsider, and lacks Sissy Spacek’s fragility and otherworldliness. As such, there’s none of the sense of transformation, of a frog turned into a princess, that Spacek brought to the original, and little in the way of character development. Nor is there any engagement with her escalating powers. One moment she’s a frightened adolescent struggling to cope with the idea that she might be able to move things with her mind, the next she’s a telekinetic super-witch with X-Men-level abilities.
There’s a little light among the darkness. Most of the players are as anonymous as their roles, but Moore and Moretz are exceptional. They’re both better than the material (especially Moore, who’s trapped in a reheated Piper Laurie impression), and add more than a touch of class to proceedings. In the right circumstances, the proliferation of CGI augments the experience (the climactic rain of stones is better realised than De Palma’s clumsy period effects). The fact remains, however, that Peirce’s film struggles to justify its existence. In an age of genre excess, when horror films are becoming ever more extreme and controversial, CARRIE feels downright prim (De Palma’s famous locker room fantasy opening has been replaced by a sanitised version, in which everyone’s modesty is preserved, and the CGI violence feels cartoonish compared to good old-fashioned practical bloodletting). Worse, it feels superfluous. The worst of both worlds, it doesn’t come close to reaching the heights of the original, nor does it offer a single meaningful innovation.
In a word, unnecessary.