The Corruption of the Innocent
I had (with notable doubt) high hopes for Kimberly Peirce’s remake of Stephen King’s Carrie. I know that taking on Brian De Palma, whose 1976 film starring Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in iconic history-making performances, was no short order to fill. On the other hand, I thought maybe a woman director taking on a classic female body horror narrative would give it a fresh take. Carrie was originally written by a man in 1974 and filmed by a man in 1976; perhaps seeing Carrie through Peirce’s eyes would lend a fresh vision to the story. Kimberley Peirce’s other films – Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss – are both very effective portrayals of class and otherness, two components which play in Carrie’s story. So while it seemed like an impossible task to conquer a remake of a horror film that holds that holds such high theoretical, cinematographic and an acting import in the genre, I thought maybe, just maybe, Kimberley Peirce would be the girl who could do the job. I was wrong.
I read Stephen King’s novel and re-watched the De Palma film in preparation for the remake. While the King novel is written like crap, it does have nuggets that Peirce could have used to her advantage. Even when Stephen King’s writing is at its weakest, he is very good at describing environment and class. His books are very well crafted in the details of the characters’ lives. He is largely an author of place and the effect that place has on the people who occupy it. (See The Shining for the most obvious example.) In the novel Carrie, King has many great descriptions of the environment that Carrie lives in – her house, the high school, the town in general including Sue’s house.
Most notable for grounding the book in place and class is the infamous trip to the pig farm where the villainous Chris and Billy slaughter a pig to get the blood to dump on Carrie in their great act of Prom Revenge. In the book, this is the scene in which King really exercises his chops, and we get a detailed scene of fucked-up working class suburban kids out for a blood thrill. De Palma handles this scene with the clean precision with which he handles the rest of his bloody masterpiece. Peirce turns it into a scene crafted more for shock value than social commentary, though her films generally lean toward the latter. In Peirce’s scene, we see a bunch of stick figure characters and watch as Chris ruthlessly cuts the pig’s throat. It is filmed more like “torture porn” than the American realism for which Peirce is known. Maybe Chris’s ruthless and gleeful killing of the pig is supposed to contain the heavy meaning of the film, which I guess is: “Look how bad and evil this rich girl is! She has no heart. All she has is privilege, envy, cruelty and greed. She can cut a pig’s throat without flinching!”
Yeah, girls are evil. That’s a large part of the subtext of the original book and movie. But some girls are lesser evil (the “outsider other”) even while seeming more evil (than the popular girls who run in packs). Carrie ultimately is a tale of the “other” as monster, and the other is largely female. The original book and film were released at a time when the market was glutted with stories about girls who come of age only to find themselves possessed by demons or supernatural powers (The Exorcist, Audrey Rose, Firestarter). In other words, female sexuality is the way to the devil. Carrie is a kind of “hysterical” narrative in the original sense of hysteria (the root of hysterectomy). Those female reproductive organs and the bloody mess they make sure can fuck things up and are scary. In relation to Carrie, I like to quote Sheila Ballantyne’s hilarious feminist treatise Norma Jean the Termite Queen in which she describes a caveman’s initial fear of women. When he discovers that she menstruates, he says, “She bleed all the time and never die.” (One of my favorite quotes ever.)
But Carrie isn’t just about female horror; it’s about other horrors as well: bad mommies, bullying, Christianity, and high school in general. All of these things should have given Kimberly Peirce something to dig her teeth into, and she tried, but she failed big time. The movie starts promisingly, on an entirely different note than the De Palma version giving it space to stand on its own. De Palma’s film opens in the infamous shower scene where Carrie gets her period and thinks that she’s bleeding to death. Peirce starts with the birth of Carrie (a scene which is in the book but not the 1976 film) and which is probably the best scene in the 2013 version of the movie. The camera closes in on an old house with a non-descript 1980s car parked in the driveway. We don’t know where we are in time. Horrific howls come from the house. Surely a horrifying act of violence is being committed. The camera enters the house and follows a trail of blood until we find Julianne Moore lying on the bed screaming and giving birth all on her own. The scene is maternity at its most horrific. You’ve got the blood of the womb, the crazy mother, the baby being pushed from her vagina like some kind of abominable act, all covered with blood, blood and more blood. (“She bleed all the time and never die.”) Julianne Moore raises a pair of scissors to murder her Devil Child, but at the last minute has a change of heart and decides to keep her baby. Which is good because then we have the story of Carrie.
From there, Peirce cuts to the shower scene. Here we see a different Carrie than DePalma’s. The girls in the shower room are skinny “Plastics” of the now. They wave their pink i-Phones in their hands, and waggle their bony asses in their Victoria’s Secret underwear. Carrie, on the other hand, is a voluptuous, curvy, sexpot of a freak played by Chloë Grace Moretz. Peirce has inverted the bodies of the original Carrie film in which Sissy Spacek is skinny as a rail and completely desexualized, but her tormentors, especially Chris and Sue, are curvy sexpots with boobs and hips. Peirce’s Carrie is somehow “other” because she is so overtly female (with a sexual fleshy unadorned body as opposed to the bulimic assless bitches in the locker room). This is interesting for sure, but Peirce doesn’t know where she’s going with it or how to get there. She piled on a sub-narrative where Sue is pregnant with Tommy’s baby (who over course is a girl as Carrie points out at the end) trying to tie together the opening childbirth scene, Carrie’s sexuality, and Sue’s maternity, but it’s all very shallow and brushed over quickly because Peirce has to make room for all of the tedious special effects which weigh down and ruin the film.
The shower scene is the last effective scene in Peirce’s movie. Carrie stands in the shower washing herself. She puts the soap between her legs. The soap comes out bloody and drops to the floor, and the image is terrific. The soap slowly falls to the drain with blood running off of it is cinematic poetry at its best. The dirty and the clean, the corruption of the innocent, all in one singular image. It’s the last good powerful image in this film, and there are still 80 minutes or so left to go.
Peirce does allude to the idea that Carrie’s otherness stems from class as well as her mother’s religious fanaticism and her steaming uncontainted sexual power. Clearly her classmates are rich. Tommy shows up at Carrie’s house in a limo not a beat up pick-up truck like in De Palma’s film. Chris throws fuel on the fire of Carrie’s humiliation by posting a video of Carrie’s menstrual shaming on Youtube from her sprawling rich girl bedroom. Chris is kind of like the female equivalent of Mitt Romney and looks like a Kardashian knock-off. Tommy plays Lacrosse (the rich boy’s sport) not baseball like in the book or track like in the 1976 movie. In the meanwhile, Carrie’s mom slugs away hemming and ironing at the town dry cleaners, clearly a woman from the wrong side of the tracks. When Sue’s mom stops by to pick up a prom dress, the tension between the women is driven as much by class as by religious crackpotism.
Julianne Moore’s “Momma” is in some ways terrifying, and if Piper Laurie weren’t looming over her shoulder in every scene, perhaps Moore’s performance would be noteworthy. But because it’s impossible to watch “Momma” without the magnificent spectre of Piper Laurie (“They’ll all laugh at you!”) hovering close by, it’s hard to give Julianne Moore a place to breathe. The best scenes of her are when she says nothing – when she sits pounding her head on the wall, cuts herself with a seam ripper, or claws at her arms. Silence is Moore’s best ally in this film because every time she opens her mouth, we can’t help but think, “You’re no Piper Laurie.” This is a shame, because Julianne Moore is a great actor. She never should have taken on this role.
In fact, this film never should have been made. Peirce clearly wanted to do something interesting. She has the pieces – class disparity, female body images, religious fanaticism – but as soon as Carrie gets her period, the film is smothered with shitty special effects. Carrie does this ridiculous arm gesturing with goggling eyes every time she exercises her telekinetic powers (making books float in her room, lifting furniture off the floor, etc) This Carrie is actually kind of a snotty bitch getting her rocks off by exercising her superhuman brain power. She is not sympathetic, not Sissy Spacek’s confused woman-child. Chloë Grace Moretz’s Carrie is a total, though pretty, dud, and her pouty Carrie plays to the very teen audience that the movie and book supposedly critique. This Carrie is shallow and vengeful, ridiculously pretty without any tension to fuel the prettiness (e.g. overt expressions of jealousy from the bulimic crowd). She becomes a kind of special effects joke, and the real tragedy of the film is not her character but how badly she is depicted.
De Palma’s film is so clean and precise in what it’s doing. There is no extraneous anything. He very clearly knows exactly what he wants his camera to do and why. The changing “look” of DePalma’s film between Carrie’s house and the high school play in great contrast. Carrie’s house is a dark, grainy den of religious fanaticism whereas the high school is a super-crisp, uber-glossy place of artifice and social construction. De Palma masterfully manipulates POV as we actually occupy Carrie’s body, follow Carrie as she ascends stairs, and watch Carrie in horror as she slaughters us with her power. Peirce shows none of these nuances in perspective. The camera basically is a tool to show-off ludicrous prolonged unnecessary special effects. Do we need to see Chris’s face pushed through the windshield and still talking even when it’s sliced to bits? No, we don’t. Do we need to see Carrie reconfigure the pieces of the mirror after she breaks it with her powers? No, we don’t. These are devices used to sell tickets to high school kids who could care less if this adaptation of the film is any good or has interesting class, gender, and religion subtext.
The biggest thing that Peirce’s film is lacking is the complexity of its main character. In De Palma’s film, Carrie is both monster and heroine. We cheer for her even as we’re frightened of her. She is an innocent abused child (abused by her own mother and her classmates), and he is also a terrifying scary “other” girl. Certainly Sissy Spacek allows this effect to come through, but so does De Palma’s restrained though bloody filmmaking. In the prom scene, Sissy Spacek simply looking out of her eyes to wreak havoc is way more effective than Moretz’s twisted arm waving which looks like some kind of cheesy CGI overlay on her body.
Really, watching Peirce’s film only reinforces how great De Palma’s movie is. The sad thing is that the elements are in the film to make in interesting, but they fall flat and are smothered by an industry-produced FX extravaganza marketed to the teen market that the story attempts to critique. What a disaster.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.