Buckets of blood, flying tampons, crazy moms and ultimately, the bloodiest prom night in high school history. After Stephen King's prescient horror novel and Brian De Palma's somewhat overrated 1976 film, everybody knows the story of poor, bullied Carrie. And yet all these years later, the story still grips us and, with today's prevailing anti-bullying campaigns making headway across the country, it's perhaps more relevant today than it ever was before. It makes for a daunting proposition for forward-thinking director Kimberly Peirce to update such a classic, but not only is her version one of the few truly successful horror remakes in recent years, it's simply better than the original.
For one thing, Peirce is drawing from an intimate familiarity with the abused, the outcasts, and the powerless, having explored similar territory in the true story of Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry. She gives the film a cliché-free believability that trumps De Palma's more stylish, hysterical approach, while creating an ominous sense of impending doom that King himself would approve of. It starts in rather hideous fashion as we witness Carrie's (Chloe Moretz) hellish birth to her delusional, devout mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), who fears her daughter was born of sin. "It's a test!!" she screams in a combination of agony, disgust, and fear. It's a fear that only grows over time and gets worse as the shy, introverted Carrie navigates the confusing waters of adolescence.
There isn't too much here that breaks from King's story, but the changes Peirce makes help to give the film a more current touch. The volleyball scene is gone, deliberately replaced by water polo so as to tease the embarrassing arrival of Chloe's womanhood in the swimming pool. Instead it arrives, nearly in a frame-by-frame recreation of De Palma's film, in the shower room where the painfully ignorant Carrie is horrified by the blood flow. Amidst the hurling tampons and screams of "Plug it up!" by her classmates, a new level of cruelty is attained when one records the incident on her smartphone and uploads it to YouTube.
The bullying and systematic destruction of Carrie's spirit continues at home as her mother blames her for the incident, literally and figuratively beating her about the head with the Bible, and shoving her in a creepy Jesus closet. Moretz's version of Carrie is less of a basket case than Sissy Spacek's Oscar-nominated portrayal; she's just a girl who wants desperately to be normal but has never been given the emotional tools to do so. Instead she's force fed an endless stream of religious jargon in place of actual life lessons, and the results are pretty disastrous.
The unrepentant and borderline psychotic Chris (Portia Doubleday) keeps up her torment of Carrie, much to the disdain of teacher Ms. Desjardins (Judy Greer), one of Carrie's few sympathetic ears. Meanwhile the pretty and popular Sue (Gabriella Wilde) feels so bad about her part in Carrie's humiliation that she begins looking for a way to make up for it. And what fateful decision does she make? Forcing her boyfriend Tommy (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom and make her feel like a regular girl just for one night. Well, we know that doesn't quite turn out as she planned.
While Peirce and screenwriters Lawrence Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa don't explore the connection between sex and power as much as in the prior film, mostly because the Chris character is less manipulative and purely evil this time around, the theme of female empowerment is embedded effectively within a tale of simple revenge. When Carrie's telekinetic gifts begin to take shape, she sees it as more than just an escape from her tormentors, but as the realization of her full potential as a woman. It makes her whole, complete, and superior to her peers who have been flaunting their femininity in her face. Along with the good-hearted treatment by Tommy, it offers her a window into happiness, and once that window emphatically shuts thanks to a bucket of pig's blood; her retribution is terrible and pitiless.
There were some whispers that Moretz's age and beauty made her an imperfect fit for Carrie, but it's simply not the case. Her version of the character is different certainly; she's more of an undiscovered looker buried beneath bad hair and clothes that must have come from a survivalist compound. She gives Carrie a bit more personal strength and resiliency, which only makes our hearts break further when her dreams are dashed. Moore adds a sympathetic touch to Margaret's brand of crazy, and Elgort is surprisingly genuine and charming as Tommy.
Peirce doesn't really make the most of the R-rating, and for a film that deals pretty heavily with sex there's very little of it and less nudity. Even when the bodies start to pile up the deaths aren't overly graphic and barely register over a PG-13 level. Keeping the suspense at a high level without straying from realism, Peirce is still able to give us everything that made the original story great, just in a way unique to her. Things get a little off track as the film comes to its earth-shattering conclusion, with a rushed final showdown that doesn't live up to the anticipation, and the unnecessary suggestion of a sequel. But in the end, Peirce has given us more than just an acceptable modernization of Carrie, it's the one we should start looking at as the definitive version.