I really REALLY wanted to like the 2013 remake of CARRIE.
For one thing, it was directed by Kimberly Peirce, badass director best known for BOYS DON’T CRY (1999), a movie that blew my mind in the denouement of my sheltered youth. For another, I love witchy stuff, and CARRIE is classic Powerful Teen Girl. It feels like it has the potential to be sort of THE CRAFT-y, but scarier.
CARRIE (2013) is no THE CRAFT (1999). I DID like it far better than the original film from 1976. And don’t even get me started on the bumbling 2002 attempt to turn CARRIE into a cop movie (no seriously watch this trailer, it will ruin your day):
I want to make it abundantly clear that CARRIE 2013>CARRIE 1976>CARRIE 2002. Here’s what worked about the most recent CARRIE:
- Carrie’s hyper-religious mother Margaret (Julianne Moore), portrayed as straight-up villain in the original, is a complex character with a palpable maternal love. Her cruelty stems convincingly from trauma and honest fear that her daughter will be damaged by the world. Gotta love when women are characters instead of caricatures.
- Carrie herself (Chloe Grace Moretz) is not an idiot! Sissy Spacek is a great actress in general, but I’d like to erase her glassy-eyed credulous sweet-girl portrayal of Carrie from my memory. By contrast, Moretz’s Carrie is distrustful of the popular kids, including during the prom itself. She’s looking for a prank at every turn. (To be clear, Moretz’s acting is otherwise mediocre in this role. We know she can do better. That’s not the point of this post. Moving on.)
- Tommy (Ansel Elgort, dreamy teen) comes off as a legitimately nice guy. I always felt like Tommy 1976 (William Katt) was a schmuck more worried about seeming nice than actually helping Carrie, whereas 2013’s Tommy reads as a legitimately kind kid. That makes the story more believable, and also makes the teen heartbreak ping a little more sharply – two very good things.
With these adjustments in mind, I think Pierce has done an admirable job of sticking to the source material while updating it for a more modern, hypothetically feminist, audience.
The problem is that the source material is fundamentally flawed.
Not that we care what Stephen King thinks, per se (see, IT), but the author himself has problems with his debut book, published in 1974 (he thinks Carrie is an un-relatable character. GEE I WONDER WHY). He has been explicit that the book is an expression of male fear of female power:
“I was fully aware of what Women’s Liberation implied for me and others of my sex. The book is, in its more adult implications, an uneasy masculine shrinking from a future of female equality.”-Stephen King
I’ve written before about how in horror films, subtext is text and every horror movie has a moral. If anything, the morality of CARRIE is more front-and-center than in most films, because the plot hinges on events that are obvious ideological signifiers: menstruation, puberty, prayer, discovery of secret abilities, murder of innocent animals, etc.
Baked into the premise of CARRIE is the idea that, once a girl has unlocked the hidden power of her hemorrhaging vagina, she’s doomed to a life of pain. There are only two paths forward: either accept pain as the consequence of a woman’s existence, or…destroy everything? Including herself?
The problem with Carrie the character is that she’s burdened by King’s stereotypically masculine idea of what the little guy does when he’s down – he hits back. Carrie has the power to change her own life, and instead she chooses to ruin other peoples’. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy the revenge she wreaks on her chief tormenters…
But Carrie also kills like a hundred people whom she probably doesn’t even know, which seems profoundly out of character for someone who can barely bring herself to stab back when her mother stabs her with a foot-long kitchen knife. It’s almost like her thinly-developed character is subsumed in service of a plot that fits King’s moralistic universe.
There’s a pretty good argument made by Holly Derr over at the Pacific Standard that Peirce’s CARRIE is actually criticizing Christian Fundamentalism for perverting female power, rather than condemning female power itself. I agree that the film is critical of Margaret’s religious zeal and depicts it as harmful to both herself and her daughter. But the directorial choices Derr highlights as criticizing religion (like the added birthing scene and increased occurrence and volume of blood) ALSO function as callouts to the perils of womanhood.
If at first blood (birth) = pain, and then blood (menstruation) = pain, by the time we get to blood (pigs’) = pain, that blood is coded female. Between the shower scene, the prayer closet scene, the prom scene, and the murdering-her-own-mother scene, almost every painful thing that happens to Carrie occurs while she is covered in blood. Blood repeatedly serves to represent womanhood and pain. While religion isn’t helping matters, it’s not clear that this pain would’ve remained dormant in Carrie if you took away the religious element. She’s not personally tormented by a sense of sinfulness; she’s crushed by the cruel behavior of other people, both religious and non-religious. She uses the only power she has (a feminine, emotional, notably un-muscular power) to fight back NOT against religion, but against the people who are mean to her.
The moral of CARRIE (1974, 1976, 2013, etc.) is this:
If a woman gains power, she will destroy everything, including herself.
In case it’s not clear, I hate this moral!
But to change the moral, the bones of the story would have to change. The plot of CARRIE fundamentally includes the idea that Carrie herself cannot win. She fights, she brings a lot of other people down with her, but she can’t actually not go down herself. She has to be punished for her monstrous actions. And if you take out the monstrous actions – if you change that iconic ending – you change the whole story. You might have a better movie, with a better moral, but it wouldn’t be CARRIE.
Would be just fine.