The resulting film might not be necessary—remakes nearly never are—but removed from the shadow of De Palma's 1976 masterpiece, director Kimberly Peirce's Carrie is a capable piece of bloody camp. And, more significantly, it is a female-directed film about female sexuality that's going to play to Friday-night blockbuster crowds in mainstream mall theaters. That is meaningful, whatever your opinion of the movie's execution.
In case you're not familiar, Carrie is the tale of a gawky high school outcast named Carrie White, who lives with her horrible mother in a horrible house filled with an unreasonable amount of scissors. Carrie's mom (Julianne Moore, bleaker but less menacing than the original's blackly cherubic Piper Laurie) is really into Jesus (LIKE REALLY REALLY INTO HIM), and not so much into sin, polyester blends, these modern sluts, the basics of puberty, and Carrie. Just doesn't care for that stuff! Nothing personal, but who has the time? I mean, Jesus isn't going to rock and mutter about himself all day, you guys.
Everyone's forever jazzed about Joan Crawford as evil mom archetype #1, but I've always thought Margaret White—volatile, unreachable, righteous, a wounded monster—deserves way more cred than she gets. Carrie just wants her mom to love her and fix her a PB&J and help her with her geometry homework and teach her about her changing body, but Mags is more of the "lock your shrieking daughter in the prayer cubby so you can self-mutilate with a seam-ripper" type of mom. She's a single-issue gal.
It's implied that Carrie is the product of a rape, which may or may not be what ushered Margaret down the path of dissociation and abusive piety, and planted in her the thought that Carrie is an evil hell-baby sent to boil the world. There's a reason why "think of your child as a kind of tiny Nazgul watching you while you sleep" appears in almost none of the mainstream parenting manuals. It doesn't pan out well for Carrie. (If you're feeling sad, get used to it—Carrie is brutal on the heart.)
Turns out, though, Margaret's kind of right about her strange, quivering, corner-dwelling daughter—Carrie's not a normal human person. She has powers. When she's upset, things explode. And, because the jagoffs in this movie have even less common sense than they do empathy, Carrie is upset LITERALLY ALL OF THE TIME. What she needs is a ticket on the Hogwarts Express. What she gets is nonstop, omnidirectional torment.
In an iconic opening scene mimicked (with love, clearly) from De Palma's original, Carrie pops in for a shower after gym class and discovers that blood's pouring out of her Mines of Moria. Seeing as her mom is a repressive kookaburra zealot who thinks vaginas are the devil's cubicles and periods his morning joe (don't even TALK to Satan before he's had his cup of clotty), Carrie doesn't know what the fuck is going on. Therefore, she is all like, "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah." Then she smears period-blood all over the cheerleaders, which is a little bit satisfying.
The gym class mean girls, smelling literal blood, surround Carrie in a pack, pelting her with tampons and chanting, "PLUG IT UP! PLUG IT UP!" which is totally unhelpful advice for someone who clearly doesn't even know she has a hole down there. Carrie just screams and screams. Then she explodes a lamp with her brainz. (To be fair, this is not that different from my reaction to my first period, and I'd been studying up on that shit for years. Had Google existed in 1994, my search history would have been something like: "HOW MANY CUPS COME OUT. HOW TO STOP IT FROM COMING OUT. CAN DOGS SMELL IT. HOW FAST IS THE GUSHING. HEY DUDE SPOILERS.") I won't synopsize the rest of the movie, because it basically just repeats and escalates this same pattern—someone's mean to Carrie, Carrie makes something explode, all laugh. Until they don't.
This being a 2013 remake, the horriblest mean girl obviously films the whole thing on her smartphone and puts Carrie's menses up on YouTube. Since online bullying is so au courant, I expected director Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) to split from De Palma in that direction—digging deep into the false distance and security of the internet, and the ways that virtual bullying can have flesh-and-blood consequences. It might feel like a game, but the internet is real. The people you cyberbully are real, and—FYI—some of them might be telekinetic witch princesses.
But Peirce doesn't diverge much at all, really. The phone footage goes largely unmentioned for the rest of the film, only to be whipped out as a bonus insult-to-injury in Carrie's big razzle-dazzle finale (although, if you do imagine 2013's Carrie as a dark fable about online discourse, the epigram "burn the internet to the ground" acquires some satisfying visuals).
Despite that missed opportunity, Peirce makes Carrie her own in a few significant ways. Carrie has never been particularly frightening, as horror stories go; it's more of a heart-rending, knee-buckling tragedy with some loud noises and knife stuff tossed in. It's also a deeply female story—about alienation and yearning and fear and unearthing your own power—so it's unsurprising (and, perhaps, unavoidable) that Peirce, as a female director, brings a painful immediacy and emotional lushness to her fragile protagonist that a male director couldn't. De Palma plays the horror for thrills; Peirce, you suspect, has lived it.
That emotional detachment works in De Palma's favor when it comes to crafting a successful horror movie (aided, in no small part, by the presence of SISSY SPACEK'S FUCKING FACE)—his film is undeniably a better piece of art than Peirce's. But there's something primally satisfying, as a woman inured to consuming almost exclusively male-produced media, about watching female stories brought to life by female hands.
The high school girls in De Palma's film are like magnificent aliens—cruel and beautiful, but distant. Uncanny. Peirce's are close by, fluttery, insecure, breathing hot and fast, drunk on their looming golden futures. They're broad, they read like caricatures (except for Carrie herself—Moretz is flawless, if a bit too believable as post-makeover prom queen), but you can always feel something human in there. And if you're a woman who's familiar with teenage alienation—if you've felt the sickening realization that even literal supernatural powers would be no match for shiny hair and thin thighs and the glance of a lacrosse adonis—that beating heart will get you, just a little bit.