Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Cinema File #262: "Carrie" Review

Let's face it, nostalgia aside, the 1976 Brian De Palma film Carrie isn't exactly the classic horror thriller its so often remembered to be. Really, its two great central performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, and two iconic scenes set in a school locker room and a Prom Night gone wrong, which bookend an otherwise pretty boring 70's drama. Even so, Carrie is a story that has been adapted and reworked more than any Stephen King book, remade for a back door pilot TV movie in 2002, a terrible sequel that in execution might as well have been a remake, and lest we ever forget, that beloved Broadway mainstay Carrie: The Musical. The latest iteration is probably the best attempt at rehashing this material if only by default, but despite a few novel twists here and there and the presence of one of the brightest young female actresses working today in the title role, it fails to live up even to the low standards of the original.

The new Carrie, much like the original, follows the titular teenage outcast dealing with the ostracism of her classmates, the increasingly bizarre behavior of her religiously overzealous mother, and her burgeoning telekinetic powers developing upon the onset of puberty. It should go without saying that any remake must walk a fine line between paying adequate homage to its source material and providing something new and different enough to justify a second pass. This is especially true for horror remakes, where the core audience is typically much more insistent on fealty to what has come before, while at the same time always searching for something fresh and innovative to surprise them. In its attempt to modernize the Carrie story for a new generation, this new take valiantly tries but utterly fails at both tasks, its nods to the original perfunctory and unsatisfying, and its twists on the formula lazy and in some cases completely counter intuitive.

While its legitimately surprising that they would even want to recreate the infamous "tampon" scene in a modern horror film, the way its incorporated this time around takes the new Carrie into a direction that is ultimately to its detriment. The problem, ironically enough, is that the way it and the larger issue of high school bullying it represents is handled much more realistically, which one would think would be a good thing, but in this case simply doesn't work. Back in the time of the original, what those girls do to Carrie would have been dismissed as roughhousing, allowing the bullies involved to maintain the social power that ultimately dooms them, but today, we rightly stigmatize the bully over the victim, and the school treats the incident as importantly as it should via a no-tolerance policy. The problem with this is that it marginalizes the antagonists rather than creating an atmosphere of oppression around Carrie, who by the end is essentially punishing a class full of sympathetic well wishers for the actions of one stubborn jerk who refuses to admit she did anything wrong.

And Carrie's famously troubled home life regrettably doesn't make up for the loss of dramatic tension at school. One of the highlights of the original film was Piper Laurie's impossibly crazy fundamentalist monster of a mother, but if anything, Julianne Moore's portrayal finds her more a victim of her daughter than the other way around. You might think this would make for a more nuanced and complicated character, but aside from softening her malevolence and making her more sympathetic, she still has the same basic role, just like the bully, dramatically neutered. By the end when mother and daughter have their final confrontation, I was solely rooting for mom to cap this little brat's reign of terror and move on with her weird insular life of ascetic self-flagellation. Even the closet she locks her daughter up in to pray looks a lot more homey and comfortable than you'd think!

Perhaps most disappointingly, the biggest problem with the film and its translation to a modern sensibility lies with the character of Carrie herself. As much as I have enjoyed Chloe Grace Moretz in pretty much everything I've ever seen her in (even the otherwise terrible Dark Shadows), and despite how seemingly perfect you would think she would be in the role, I can't get away from the fact that she is simply woefully miscast here. She's just too good at playing self-assured, confident characters that are wise and tough beyond their years that I just don't see her as the innocent, naive ingenue ready to snap at a moment's notice. That would be bad enough, except that the movie can't see her that way either, so the character changes to suit the actress' strengths. Carrie stands up to her mother, understands more about the world than she should given her upbringing, and ultimately comes across as more rational and responsible for her heinous actions in the final act as a result. What should be madness comes off more like malice, which is the exact wrong way to go with this story.

And as for that final act, well, I suppose it was memorable, but probably not in the way the filmmakers intended. With any reboot of Carrie, no matter what changes are made to the story as a whole, it eventually becomes a waiting game to get to that famous money shot of pig's blood. This time around, the aftermath of Carrie's public humiliation is milked for all its worth, but in such a way that proves more silly than scary. Without the proper set up to justify what should be Carrie's legitimate rage, her wild eyed vengeance stare is just goofy, and as she wildly gesticulates to command snake-like electric wires, what few fond memories I had for the original were placed in stark contrast. And then she literally pulls a Vader choke on a teacher. It goes on, outside of the Prom to a confrontation with a speeding car that is genuinely fun, but then it goes on even further, well past the point where I could feasibly give a crap.

And that's really Carrie in a nutshell, a pointless exercise in rehashing a tired tale that's already been run through the cycle one too many times before. There's not nearly enough here that's new or interesting and the few clever tweaks there are mostly take away from what is supposed to make this story work. The result barely even qualifies as a horror film, falling somewhere more in the teen sci-fi superhero camp up until the bloody climax, and even then its not very good at doing that either. I've read a few interviews and articles suggesting that this was meant as a breakout role for Moretz to open the door for bigger and better things after the less than stellar critical and box office performance of the Kick Ass franchise, and I certainly hope she gets another chance with a better movie to showcase her obvious talent. She deserves better than Carrie, and for that matter, so do we all.

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