Thirty-seven years on, Brian De Palma’s Carrie—an adaption of Stephen King’s breakout 1974 debut novel—has long been a bona fide classic, capable of inspiring its own Halloween costumes, sitcom references, cross-generational dialogues, and, now, studio remake. Looking at the film today—in this writer’s case, for the first time—it seems like a miracle it was ever made in the first place. Released in 1976, at a moment when major Hollywood studios were still improbably willing to give space to the personal visions of young directors, Carrie remains a wicked piece of work: a film deeply committed to making its fragile teenage heroine’s sufferings palpable, pitiable, and relatable—but only so that it can twist the knife in deeper when the time comes.
De Palma is always trying to have his cake and eat it, too. One moment, he’s letting himself linger lecherously over a locker-room full of nubile teenagers; the next, he’s moralizing defensively about the naturalness of the human body. Carrie’s mother, played hysterically and unforgettably by Piper Laurie, is every secular young person’s nightmare of a crazed Christian fundamentalist, whereas the repressed teenager’s hormone-crazed, blithely homicidal classmates are every Christian fundamentalist’s nightmare of secular young people. Carrie herself comes off as a delicate, trembling wreck, and De Palma is ruthless about stripping away her defenses, making us ache to protect her, then activating our sympathy as a motor for suspense. In the film’s now-famous, agonizingly prolonged prom scene, he transforms this hopeful, naïve young woman’s violent humiliation into a bravura Hitchcockian set-piece, complete with elaborate cross-cutting, split-screens, and shadowy hands gripping ropes. Like the film’s many other moments of emotional and physical abuse, it’s shot through with a sense of giddy excitement, as if De Palma can’t help but enjoy putting his directorial authority to such malicious ends.
In the years since, a major shift has taken place in big-budget American horror moviemaking. As directors have gradually adopted newer, more meticulous methods of portraying injury and death, their films have grown increasingly liberal about violence and increasingly prudish when it comes to sexuality. There’s a certain strand of contemporary horror movies that lack De Palma’s sense of erotic delight over abusing their heroes. Instead, they trade in a kind of cold, impassive detachment, as if their characters were subjects in a clinical trial whose only objective was to chronicle how many ways the human body might be lacerated, broken, or burned. To find another point of comparison in Seventies horror cinema, their camera behaves like the blank-masked killer in Halloween, staring down one of his impaled victims and tilting his head with distant, mild curiosity.
Witness this year’s sexless, airless, joyless Carrie remake, the third film Kimberly Peirce has directed after Stop-Loss (08) and Boys Don’t Cry (99). It’s hard to know how much of the film to attribute to Peirce, a talented director who seems to struggle here to impose a measure of personality onto the final product. (Maybe that’s to be expected: in comparison to today’s carefully regimented, tightly controlled studio system, De Palma’s Hollywood looks like an auteurist paradise.) There’s a pair of strong performances: a suitably wide-eyed Chloë Grace Moretz in the lead, and Julianne Moore replacing Laurie’s feverish, eye-rolling displays with a steelier, simmering kind of menace. But on the whole, this Carrie is a revealing test case for the state of the 21st-century horror film—as timid in some respects as its predecessor was irresponsible, and aggressively exploitative in ways De Palma never dreamed of being.
One of the most striking contrasts between the two films has to do with the personality of Carrie herself. Along with her teenage runaway in Badlands and her withdrawn, childlike spa attendant in 3 Women, Carrie is one of Sissy Spacek’s great doomed innocents. She always seems painfully exposed, open to any threat or intrusion—not the least of which come, in this case, from De Palma himself. For me, the film’s queasiest moment takes place well before the physical violence sets in: Carrie waiting for her prom date in a slightly-too-revealing handmade dress, forced to simultaneously fend off her mother’s verbal jabs and, on another level, De Palma’s leery advances. Here and elsewhere, De Palma is always creeping threateningly into her personal space, capturing her in moments of particular weakness and vulnerability. Throughout the movie, she’s reduced to a passive, meek presence; when her telekinetic revenge finally comes, it’s almost like an involuntary reaction. (From which comes the film’s most iconic image: a blood-drenched Carrie standing stock-still, expressionless, as flames erupt around her.)
The new film plays things much safer: here, Carrie is a bold young woman with a mind of her own and full control over her supernatural powers, capable of tossing her mom’s Bible verses back at her and crushing cars with the help of some exaggerated, magician-like gestures. Where Spacek often seemed to be making a little too much of herself open and visible, Moretz is always sealing herself off, hiding behind her smoldering glower and tight-crossed arms. As a result, Peirce never seems to intrude on her 16-year-old star the way De Palma cheerfully does on his leading lady. The problem is that it’s arguably De Palma’s willingness to debase and lord it over Carrie that gives his film such a nasty, electric charge. That doesn’t mean that Peirce ought to have subjected her star to more abuse than she did—but it does raise the question: why take on the burden of remaking a film whose effectiveness depends so thoroughly on its readiness to intrude and exploit?
If this Carrie had stopped at neutering De Palma’s film, it would be forgettable; what makes it execrable is the way it drains the original movie of all its erotic tension, only to ramp up the final-act violence. Where the earlier Carrie’s prom scene felt like a relief after the film’s endless teases, taunts, and slow, steady acts of emotional attrition, this movie’s climax is very clearly the main event. We are treated to no less than four football-style instant replays of pig’s blood cascading over poor Carrie’s head—an extreme instance of this film’s studious, obsessive, and disturbingly blasé attention to physical harm. You get the sense that, if you could hear De Palma narrating his prom scene, you wouldn’t make out much more than maniacal cackling. In the new film, you might catch something more like: “And that’s what it looks like for a teenager to catch on fire!”
In De Palma’s telling, Carrie’s cartoonishly evil teenage rival, Chris, is dispatched with a split-second car explosion. But since that outcome denies us the chance to observe exactly what it looks like for a face to be sliced up by shards of glass, in Peirce’s film the young woman must collide with the car windshield in grisly slow motion—like a dummy in a crash test film—and stay stuck there as Carrie scrutinizes her for our benefit. The most disturbing thing about this Carrie might be that, even in moments such as these, there’s no sense of transgression. The result is a strange combination of voyeurism and priggishness: feel free to study these bodies in pain all you want, the movie seems to say—as long as you don’t enjoy it. Faced with this film’s icy lack of emotional investment, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the days of good old-fashioned sadism, where directors at least knew what they were transgressing—and, for that matter, that there was still something left to transgress.