Re-Fear: Carrie (2013) by Kimberly Peirce
Retro Review by Andrew Swafford
“If, as our own Andrew Swafford has described them, horror movies are ‘laboratories for processing fear,’ sequels, remakes, and reboots attempt to reconduct the experiments, exposing old formulas to new elements...Old frameworks give us a different perspective on current problems, and some stories compel us to revisit them under different parameters. Even the most cynically-produced, crassly commercial horror movies—in their direct engagement with what scares us—can reveal something worth knowing about the cultural context in which they were produced. In this series, the Cinematary crew will revisit, review, and rethink several decades of horror reimaginings.” - Nathan Smith, in the first installment of Re-Fear
“I want you to think long and hard about what it would be like to be Carrie White” - Judy Greer as Ms. Desjardin in Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie (2013)
The story of Carrie is worth telling sensitively—it’s about a teenage girl made into a pariah. She experiences private torment when alone with her sexually repressive and psychologically abusive mother, and she experiences public trauma at school when she is mocked relentlessly for having her first period in a gymnasium shower. Her inner pain is the driving force of the narrative, and when she can carry the burden no longer, it is forcefully released in an explosion of violence, fire, and blood.
Carrie is, fundamentally, a woman’s story; the types of fear being processed within it are felt most acutely by young women who have endured the cruelty of high school and the sexism of certain strains of religious dogma. However, the story has historically been, of course, told by men; first conceived by Stephen King and then retold by Brian De Palma—neither of whom are exactly known for having a lightness of touch. One need not look further than the opening scene of De Palma’s adaptation—in which Carrie’s traumatic bleeding is couched within pornographic close-ups of Carrie’s legs as well as the nude bodies of her classmates—to see this as an experiment worth reconducting (to use Nathan’s phrase) by someone who has more skin in the game.
This has happened twice: once in 1999, when the film was given a sequel helmed by Katt Shea, and again in 2013, when it was remade by Kimberly Peirce (We’ll talk about The Rage: Carrie 2 on the Cinematary podcast next week, by the way). Director Kimberly Peirce, along with her male screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, took the 21st century’s obsession with remaking horror classics as an opportunity to reframe the story of Carrie from a more authentic perspective. Unlike Rob Zombie’s revision of Michael Myers (to be discussed later in the month), Peirce doesn’t drastically restructure Carrie’s narrative; in fact, she only adds a couple of scenes. But what she does do is modulate the story’s undertones in order to find new sympathies and layers of humanity for each of Carrie’s many characters.
Even the most despicable of satellites plaguing Carrie’s orbit is granted some humanity in Peirce’s remake. Case in point: her mother, played in the 70s by Piper Laurie and here by Julianne Moore. In one of the film’s only invented scenes, we see Moore give birth to Carrie alone at home, clearly unaware that she was ever pregnant. The scene offers a parallel to Carrie’s own bodily naivety in the locker room scene later, but more importantly, it centers the mother’s pain. It is hard to hate this character when we see her in such distress, and she is even given her own “save the cat” moment when she spares Carrie’s life despite thinking she’s being given an Abrahamic test of faith. The rest of the film shows Moore toning the character down in contrast to Piper Laurie’s hyped-up fanaticism. One couldn’t imagine Laurie’s mother character walking through the halls of Carrie’s high school or working a day job—she belongs in a gothic castle somewhere—but Moore’s character does, and is ultimately human despite her abusiveness; she’s even clad in earthtones.
As for Carrie herself, she is here, above all, grounded and relatable. As a victim of bullying, Carrie’s plight has always been broadly recognizable, but Carrie herself has not been. Sissy Spacek’s Carrie is wide-eyed, passive, and mysterious, often infantilized by her inability to even either at school or at home. Moretz’s Carrie is far more of an everywoman; she is introduced not in her shower freakout but in a mandated game of volleyball, in which she stands far away from the other girls before clumsily bungling a serve. In the iconic shower scene, her washing herself is never lensed with any sense of voyeurism or fetishism: there is no slow-motion, soft focus, or romantic music; her body parts are never lingered upon suggestively. (The girls who torment Carrie are also fully clothed—and their use of cell phone cameras to document the humiliation is another relatable stressor for young girls in the 2010s.) In her home life, Moretz’s Carrie displays far more autonomy than Spacek’s, showing an assertiveness in response to her mother that seems to come from a place of unspoken feminism. When Moore raves about sexual sin in the Garden of Eden, Moretz confidently counters: “that’s not even in the Bible!” She then cites Psalms 100:5 as a positive alternative to her mother’s dour theology, perhaps allowing Christian viewers a window into a story that previously just made them psychotic villains. It’s a considerate touch in a film full of considerate touches.
The film’s generosity to its characters is perhaps best seen in the scenes between Carrie and Tommy, here played by Ansel Elgort, plucked straight out of the pages of Non-Threatening Boys magazine. Much of Carrie’s latter half involves Tommy convincing Carrie to go to the prom with him as an act of goodwill on the part of his girlfriend Sue, who regrets her role in Carrie’s abuse. In De Palma’s version, Tommy is fairly reluctant, and the scenes he shares with Carrie are awkward and forced for a long time. In Peirce’s film, however, they’re downright romantic: there is enough space in the line delivery to allow for genuine chemistry between the actors, and each of their scenes is scored by a soft acoustic guitar plucked over gently swelling strings. None of it would work, however, if the film didn’t give Tommy his own cat to save: when a clueless English teacher makes Carrie’s poetry reading the butt of a joke (“that was...disturbing…are you done scaring us for the day?”), Tommy shows moral spunk by grumbling “asshole” to himself from the back row. Instantly, Elgort’s character is positioned as a possible ally for Carrie in a narrative that previously gave her none.
The moral center of the narrative, however, is the character of Sue Snell, who feels deep remorse for what she and her friends did to Carrie in the film’s opening scenes—even moreso in the remake, which offers more wordless shots of Sue wrestling with her conscience solo. However, the remake alters her initial transgression slightly: here she is merely complicit in Carrie’s humiliation, recognizing the cruelty of her friends right away but doing nothing to stop it. By lessening her crime but deepening her remorse, the new film raises the bar for what counts as kindness in a bullying context: in order to be morally righteous, one must not only refuse to participate in cruelty, but make a good-faith effort to stop it. (And perhaps it’s also worth mentioning here that Peirce inverts the blonde/brunette dichotomy that is employed so often by De Palma and his idol Hitchcock; here, the more malicious girl has brown hair, while the repentant Sue has blonde. Another small touch, but it undoes a type of gender essentialism often present in horror movies directed by men.) Sue’s desire to make things right eventually leads her to Carrie’s house in one of the film’s final scenes--another addition to the De Palma script--where she attempts to comfort Carrie even after Carrie’s gruesome unleashing of violence. For her moral purity, she is the only character spared by Carrie, who helps her escape the house that Carrie is bringing down upon herself and her mother. It’s a small act of mercy added by Peirce to offset the narrative’s most ruthless passage.
At risk of belaboring the point, I think it’s clear that Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Carrie is a much kinder version of the story. It is a version that understands Carrie’s pain and one that goes out of its way to give every character a sense of humanity, softening the blow of the story’s cruelty while making its evils sharper in their recognizability. Does this make it a better film? Well, um...heh...no? This is a tricky thing to articulate, but I’ll do my best: on a surface level, De Palma does get points for being first, of course—Carrie was the first great horror movie of the late ‘70s and it may very well have set the tone for the way in which horror would laser-focus on gendered fears in the years that followed (with movies like Eraserhead, Alien, Halloween, The Shining, Ms .45, Slumber-Party Massacre, etc.). But perhaps more importantly, what De Palma’s film lacks in sensitivity it makes up for in just about everything else: it moves at a much faster clip, it is packed with countless stylistic flourishes and an abundance of gorgeous lighting, and it captures the cruelty of teenagers in a way that I think is still valuable despite Peirce’s much more admirable humanism/feminism.
Because at the end of the day, every iteration of Carrie is allegorically a school-shooting story (one of the only great ones, next to Elephant and We Need to Talk About Kevin). In order for the narrative arc to resolve, we need to see a put-upon teen grow more and more miserable until their last hope of joy is snatched away and they snap, murdering countless peers in a locked gymnasium. Carrie may kill with telekinesis rather than an AR-15, but the climax’s real-world analogue is spelled out pretty clearly in Peirce’s adaptation:
Carrie: Look what you turned me into.
Sue: Don’t hurt me, Carrie.
Carrie: Why not? I’ve been hurt my whole life.
And later, in voice-over, we also get:
Sue: She was just like me…and we pushed her. And you can only push someone so far before they break.
I don’t have a problem with the remake making this parallel more pronounced, but the fact that this conclusion is hard-wired into the Carrie story poses a bit of a problem for Kimberly Peirce: it’s hard to reconcile the kindness of the film more broadly with its merciless climax. The updated version of the prom-night massacre features deaths that are much more gnarly—including teenagers being crushed by bleachers, teenagers being trampled by high heels, and teenagers getting their faces caught in broken windshields (all done with CGI, which, despite its higher pain-threshold, makes the new climax’s digital goop a lot less scary than De Palma’s engulfing flame). I suppose there’s a constructive message here about how even a student body with the best of intentions can heap on enough psychic distress to drive a potential killer off the deep end, but as a whole the film feels a bit too tonally incongruous to work in the same way that other Carrie films have. As a revision and a reframing of the story, I really like Peirce’s Carrie—it’s an incredibly valuable counterpoint to De Palma’s relatively mean-spirited version. But once the blood starts pouring, all that kindness is for nought.
Upcoming in Re-Fear:
Reid Ramsey on Psycho (1998)
Courtney Anderson on Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)
Zach Dennis on Jaws 2: The Revenge (1978)
Mike Thorn and Nathan Smith on Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009)