Sunday 18 August 2019

From the archive: "Carrie"

The new Carrie might just have seemed another of those watered-down horror rehashes by which Hollywood now attempts to relieve wussy teenagers of their disposable income, were it not simultaneously something of an authorial test case. 1976’s original saw Brian de Palma using Stephen King’s book as a means of penetrating the hitherto forbidden territory of the girls’ locker room; its lingering nudie scenes would go on to be enumerated in the scarcely less gleeful and gynophobic Knocked Up some thirty years later.

Kimberly Peirce – who gave us one of the great turn-of-the-century indie breakthroughs with 1999’s Boys Don’t Cry – here approaches the same material with comparative restraint and discretion: her showers have partitions, and throw up a lot of mist. This is no bad thing, although the idea this is a major feminist takeback of Carrie is almost immediately undermined by a credit for two male screenwriters.

What Peirce and her collaborators achieve is a slight but appreciable shift in emphasis. The ’76 version had a hang-up on the uncanny, alien beauty of young women’s bodies, as viewed by a thirtysomething male director still trying to get his head around such sights. Peirce’s film knows rather better the agonies of inhabiting such a body, breaking from de Palma from the off by inserting a prologue in which a writhing Ma White (Julianne Moore) gives birth to her daughter without medical assistance.

This Carrie will, from this point onwards, be a mite more lived-in and thought-through than the average horror redo; its set-pieces are actually less memorable than the context in which they’ve been set. As befits a post-John Hughes, post-Glee Carrie, Peirce’s take has far greater reserves of sympathy than a sensation-hungry misanthrope like de Palma would permit – both for her young heroine (Chloe Grace Moretz) and the jocks and cheerleaders who contrive to make her life a living hell.

The latter are themselves shown to be at the mercy of external forces, whether overbearing parents or abusive boyfriends, pre-existing social hierarchies or the need to affirm their status through social media; though she’s helped by King’s gracious sketch of head cheerleader Sue Snell (the gazelle-like Gabriella Wilde, something of a find), it’s presumably all Peirce’s doing that they’re allowed moments of self-expression, including a pre-prom makeover sequence, before the final mise-en-abime.

It’s hardly this director’s fault that her young cast should this time resemble interchangeable Hilfiger models more than the character-actors-to-be who graced the original – they grew them differently in the Seventies – but Moretz makes an interesting, grounding pick, consciously less Other than the singular Sissy Spacek: her Carrie is just another pale outsider, flashing secret smiles that speak to some untapped, poorly nurtured creative intelligence.

Moore, too, overcomes the burden of the witchiest wardrobe any actress this century has had to don, and fleshes out something less weird, less archetypal than Piper Laurie’s monstrous matriarch: this Margaret White may preach hellfire and rend her own flesh, but she does so while holding down a steady job at the local drycleaners, an almost-too-perfect arena for a latter-day Puritan.

The original’s devotees will doubtless cavil at the ending, with its ADD-ish editing and desire to pursue its carnage some distance beyond the prom, yet Peirce’s affinity for these characters and this world is such that you may feel the film has earned the right to go there – and even here there are distinct and cheering narrative notes: where de Palma clearly saw girl power as an all-obliterating force, Peirce’s version finally grants its heroine a right to choose denied to her mother, allowing Carrie to spare some more sympathetic characters even while she damns others.

Ultimately, it may all come down to what you need from a horror movie: either a full-throttle Carrie that rocks a 70s bush, a gaudy split-screen effect and the young John Travolta’s shit-eating grin, or a careful, concerned Carrie that respects its source while adding the obligatory CGI and YouTube references. It’s nevertheless a tremendously wry, self-effacing joke that this appropriation of another’s signature work should play out to the strains of the New York band Cults’ rousing “I Can Hardly Make You Mine”: she’s right, but Peirce gives it a bloody good try nevertheless.

(MovieMail, November 2013)

Carrie screens on five tonight at 11.25pm.

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