Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review: Carrie (2013)

Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie White in Carrie (2013).

I saw the Kimberly Peirce-directed Carrie remake last night and I was less disappointed than I expected to be. In fact, I genuinely liked some of the choices that were made, though I think in the end there were more losses than gains.

I am of course unable to discuss this film without comparing it to the Brian de Palma original from 1976. I cannot know what it would be like to see this remake without any knowledge of the classic original, so my review will reflect my familiarity with the 1976 version. For context's sake I will mention that I am not a super-fan of the 1976 Carrie but I am a fan of 1970's de Palma in general, especially Sisters (1973) and Obsession (1976), the latter probably my favorite de Palma film.

First, the good stuff: the new version is blessed with excellent casting, particularly Chloe Grace Moretz as Carrie, Julianne Moore as Mrs. White, and the great comedienne Judy Greer as gym teacher Ms. Desjardin. I was particularly taken in by Moretz's performance as Carrie; she and Greer were the main things keeping me on the hook throughout most of the film.

Also effective was the choice to give Carrie a bit more awareness of and control over her developing telekinetic powers. Those powers are much more pronounced in this version than in the original, more super-heroic one might say, and that change from the original -- in which Carrie's telekinesis seems a direct, if somewhat unconscious, outgrowth of her puberty and her rage -- is, in theory, a nice way to grant the 2013 Carrie a bit more conscious badassery and narrative agency.

Yet I say in theory there because in practice, the 2013 Carrie's enhanced control over her powers only diminishes the film's climactic prom scene. That sequence now plays out more like a rote superhero battle rather than a terrifying apocalypse of feminine angst. In the 1976 version, Carrie's naivete about what is happening (both in terms of the plot against her and her own telekinesis) makes her sudden rageful assault a horrifying thing to behold; she just fucking snaps at the end, ruthlessly killing every last motherfucker in that gymnasium. In the 2013 version, most of the prom-goers escape the gym -- Carrie's death-toll clocks in at maybe a half-dozen people -- and it feels more like an event she has been practicing for the whole movie, rather than a shocking, unexpected outburst of pure fury.

Furthermore, two additional factors compromise that crucial climactic scene at the prom. One has to do with camera work and pacing. Now I love Kimberly Peirce as a director, but she is mainly known for helming intense character dramas (Boys Don't Cry, Stop-Loss) rather than suspense thrillers or horror films. She is also a lot less daring with her visuals and camera work (at least in this film) than young de Palma was in the '70's. So where de Palma absolutely excels at drawing out suspense and delivering shocking thrill moments, Peirce doesn't quite hack it in this area. Her build-up to the dumping of the pig's blood in Carrie 2013 is not much of a build-up -- I personally didn't feel much tension. Instead, the pacing of the prom sequence is botched twice -- once by a hackneyed moment in which the villainous Chris improbably texts Sue Snell to gloat over the deed she has not yet committed, bringing Sue rushing to the rescue in a very dull and predictable way, and a second time after the blood has doused Carrie -- a moment I will return to.

By contrast, the 1976 prom sequence is chock full of artful and highly effective camera work that builds almost unbearable suspense even as it simultaneously wows the viewer with its technical finesse. Just to name the two highest points, there is the incredibly long take in which the camera circles Carrie and Tommy in a 360 degree arc as they dance, a take that is literally dizzying, conveying Carrie's own dizziness at being in a place she never expected to be.* Then there is the amazing crane shot that follows the rope from the bottom of the stage (where Chris and Billy are hiding) to the rafter with the bucket of pig's blood and then back to the table where Tommy and Carrie are seated, another long take that makes perfectly clear what is at stake spatially and physically, thereby brilliantly setting up the blood-dumping moment in a manner that the remake does not even attempt.

Dance anyone? The breathtaking camera work of the 1976 original 
is missing from the 2013 remake. 

Once that bucket of pig's blood falls, the 1976 version just GOES like gangbusters, frenetically conveying Carrie's wrath and the general mayhem in the gym via de Palma's signature split screen technique.

By contrast, the 2013 version instead takes pause, taking an undue amount of time showing the now-empty bucket falling and knocking out Tommy, then having Carrie inexplicably kneel down next to Tommy's fallen body, seemingly quite sentimental over him. This moment ruins the film's forward momentum and quashes the immediacy of Carrie's shocked reaction to the blood-dousing. The new version makes it seem as though Carrie attacks the crowd with her telekinetic powers as a kind of vengeance for Tommy, thereby shifting the meaning of her murderous actions away from that of a feminist rage on her own behalf (as it reads in the 1976 version) toward a kind of I'll-defend-my-man sellout.**

Yet the biggest failing of the new Carrie isn't its lack of bravura camera work nor its uneven pacing in the crucial prom sequence: it is its utter mishandling of the Mrs. White character. Julianne Moore does a fine job (as always) performing the role that was written for her, but the role is written in such a way as to make Mrs. White utterly inhuman and totally unsympathetic. This in turn makes it impossible for us to care about Carrie's relationship with her.

She's crazy yet somewhat sympathetic . . . 

. . . whereas she's just plain terrifying.

Piper Laurie's Mrs. White in the 1976 version is crazy and unhinged, yes, but still human; her craziness is a result of her barely-successful self-repression and her excessive religious fervor, a fervor that shows in her eyes, tipping over into hysterical mania at so many crucial moments. Yet she is also warm and vital and one can see why Carrie loves her and hates her. The 2013 Mrs. White is just a monster, impossible to feel much of anything for except revulsion. She is a cutter, which is an interesting innovation that could have been used to elicit sympathy for her, but is instead presented horrifically (as in the scene in her tailoring shop). And when she takes a huge kitchen knife upstairs with her to check on Carrie twenty minutes into the movie, the viewer knows something is terribly off. That moment makes Mrs. White into a would-be murderer long before things start going seriously awry with her daughter; it is the moment when she becomes irrevocably unrelatable, and the film loses a great deal of its emotional grip on the viewer.

Is the new version worth seeing? Possibly, at least for Moretz's and Greer's performances. But I would still have to recommend the original 1976 Carrie over the remake.

     "See my version, where the rage is REAL!"

* This 360-degree low-angle shot is also an homage to a similar (and very famous) shot near the end of Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958).
** Readers interested in the feminist implications of the original Carrie should check out Shelley Stamp Lindsey's article "Horror, Femininity, and Carrie's Monstrous Puberty."


  1. You mention "de Palma's signature split screen technique", and I remember this from Sisters especially vividly. But wasn't there split-screen before this? Was this 'signature' for the times (1970s)? And so who is de Palma referring back to with the technique, similar to how you note his homage to Hitchcock with the 360 low-angle shot?

    1. The most noteworthy previous use of split screens would have been in the late 1950s - early 1960s sex comedies starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, e.g., Pillow Talk. My guess is that it may have been used some before that but Pillow Talk is the first instance I know of where it was used in such a prolonged / obvious fashion. I don't know if split screens were signature for the 1970s writ large, but many blaxploitation films (Superfly leaps to mind) used split screens for montages etc. during that period.