Reviewing remakes is a tricky business. While a reviewer may aspire to be objective and analyze a film on its own terms, when a director sets out to remake a film as iconic as Brian De Palma's "Carrie" (1976), it is all but impossible to wholly separate the new work from its predecessor. The tale of poor, bullied Carrie White and her rampage of telekinetic terror on prom night is a tale familiar to most; and the image of a girl soaked in pig's blood is one that has been seared into the public consciousness over the past several decades.
One may question why an attempt to remake such an indelible film would even be made. But it has (and this isn't the first), this time with Kimberly Peirce in the director's chair (whose only feature-length credits are the acclaimed indie dramas "Boys Don't Cry" and "Stop-Loss"), Chloë Grace Moretz ("Kick Ass") replacing Sissy Spacek as the title character, and Julianne Moore taking over for Piper Laurie in the role of her Bible-thumping mother. Parts of this "Carrie" are disappointingly by-the-book, but underneath this slavishly faithful adaptation is an interesting new take on the material.
When most people think of "Carrie", they remember the merciless bullying she suffers at the hands of her cruel classmates, all leading up to the apocalyptic prom. For the audience members fixated on this half of the story, the remake may very well be a let-down. Carrie's high school seems to be populated entirely by models who have no scruples about torturing a loner and their sneering jock boyfriends. Oh, and they all look at least 25-years-old. Led by the evil-incarnate Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday), they are all merely props used to propel Carrie towards her inevitable psychotic break -- and to make the only two students at the whole school who aren't sadistic creeps look like angels by comparison. Those angels would be the impossibly leggy Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) and her über-suave boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort), whose plan to give Carrie one perfect night backfires (to put it mildly). The only human being in the whole school who's not a walking plot device is Judy Greer ("Arrested Development") as Carrie's gym teacher, and she's also the only adult who appears to notice or care that a young girl is being psychologically tormented in their midst. She's the rare "perfect teacher" archetype whose kind heart doesn't render her soft-hearted -- she's surprisingly fierce in her protection of Carrie.
One of the few places where the remake departs from the original is in the ripped-from-the-headlines cyber-bullying that Carrie now has to endure. Not only is she pelted with tampons by her classmates when she gets her first period, but the soul-scarring incident is posted online for all to enjoy. This kind of torture is so inarguably wrong that the viewer feels no qualms when Carrie slaughters the entire student body. When Carrie finally goes berserk, the effects-driven results are indistinguishable from Loki going berserk on NYC or Zod going berserk on Metropolis. It all just feels like a revenge-fantasy-cum-anti-bullying-PSA: "Don't post videos of your schoolmate's most traumatizing moments online...because she may turn out to be telekinetic and murder you at your prom."
Fortunately, there's a whole other half to this movie: the relationship between Carrie and her mother. It is clearly this part of the story that Peirce was most interested in, and it shows. Julianne Moore is absolutely terrific as Margaret White, who in this version is transformed from a one-note religious maniac into a layered, sad, lost woman just as tormented as Carrie, only by herself instead of her peers. Clearly, to Peirce, "Carrie" is the story of a broken mother/daughter relationship, and the havoc that such a damaged relationship can wreak on not just their lives, but on the lives of those around them. Piper Laurie delivered a memorably unhinged performance in the original film, but her Margaret was little more than a run-of-the-mill horror villain, dressed in a nightgown instead of a hockey mask. Moore's Margaret is more sympathetic for so clearly suffering from mental illness. She's a woman who never got the help she needed, and as such falls woefully short of helping her own damaged daughter.
And as that damaged daughter, Moretz successfully separates herself from Sissy Spacek's turn, if she doesn't quite reach the compelling heights of Moore. Perhaps it's because she's most famous for playing a foul-mouthed child assassin in "Kick Ass", or perhaps it's just because she's more sturdily built than the willowy Spacek, but Moretz's Carrie feels less vulnerable this time around, and this comes as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Carrie's evolution into a murderous supervillain is less shocking, because it's easier to believe that she had the powerful potential in her all along. But on the other hand, it attributes her outcast status less to physical appearance and more to her upbringing. In this version, Carrie doesn't turn into a freak because she's bullied. She's bullied because she's already been made to see herself as a freak by her own mother. And that distinction is what makes Peirce's version less a horror film and more a heartbreaking tragedy.