In horror literature and films alike, the Outsider has always been a dominant figure: Their motivations arouse our sense of curiosity as much as their deviancies terrorize us. In 1974, prolific horror author Stephen King presented the concept of the Outsider as a telekinetic misfit teenage girl in his debut novel Carrie, and two years later it was vividly adapted into a film by the visionary director Brian De Palma. Thanks in part to Oscar-caliber performances by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie as, respectively, Carrie and her religious-zealot mother Margaret, as well as a shock ending that started a trend that continues to this day, De Palma's movie is considered a high-water mark of the genre. For all of these reasons and a few more, Kimberly Peirce had her work cut out for her when she signed up to direct a contemporary take on King's story. As the filmmaker who told the tragic tale of Brandon Teena in Boys Don't Cry, Peirce has a reputation as a storyteller with an acute understanding of Outsiders and the challenges they face; she uses that understanding to poignant effect in this worthy remake.
A misfit from the moment she first stepped out into the world, high-school senior Carrie White (Chloë Grace Moretz) has been taunted and teased by her peers as far back as she can remember. Her mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) is a Christian zealot prone to locking her in a small broom closet and making her pray for hours on end. All Carrie wants is to fit in, but after the shock of experiencing her first period in the gym shower results in a devastating bout of bullying initiated by cruel Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) and her circle of friends, the young outcast realizes that she has the ability to move objects with the power of her mind alone. Meanwhile, as gym teacher Miss Desjardin (Judy Greer) bans Chris from the prom following a defiant outburst by the entitled teen, Chris' best friend Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) begins having second thoughts about the way that Carrie has been treated. In an attempt to atone for her past misdeeds, Sue convinces her lacrosse-star boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to ask Carrie to the prom -- an invitation that she eventually accepts. But Chris isn't finished with Carrie just yet, and later, when a cruel prank at the prom goes horribly awry, Carrie puts her newfound telekinetic powers to terrifying use.
The first sound we hear in Peirce's Carrie is an agonized moan as the camera drifts through a lonely house to find Margaret White giving birth, alone, on her bed. She doesn't seem to know exactly what is happening to her until she lifts up her gown and sees a baby lying between her legs. Her first thought is to kill the infant, but as her motherly instincts kick in, she chooses to nurture her. By starting her film with this striking sequence, Peirce immediately leaves her own distinctive mark on the material (not to mention setting up a tidy bookend for the movie's climax), and while her tactics may initially appear less than subtle, they are viscerally effective. The very next scene finds that baby now a teenage girl, nervously getting into her high-school pool to play volleyball. Chloë Grace Moretz might be a conventionally attractive actress, but as Carrie White she exudes a sense of social isolation that seems to radiate from deep within her soul rather than the surface of her skin. She knows she doesn't fit in, and should she forget it for even a moment, her tormenting classmate Chris is quick to remind her.
Much like Peirce, Carrie screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen (who wrote the screenplay for De Palma's film solo) and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa seem well-attuned to the cruel social hierarchy that is high school, and given the anti-bullying campaign that proliferated in the wake of Lee Hirsch's 2011 documentary Bully, King's story feels as topical today as when it was first published. By folding cell-phone-camera videos and social media into the mix, Cohen and Aguiree-Sacasa eloquently explore the many ways that even a smart and pretty teenage girl can have her soul ground into the dirt by entitled, self-centered brats with no sense of empathy. Additionally, they explore with great skill the conflict experienced by Sue Snell, a member of Chris' clique with the power to think for herself and the willingness to do the right thing. As the girlfriend of lacrosse champ Tommy Ross, Sue's obviously had an illustrious high-school career, and Wilde makes her intention to give up the one night that most girls anticipate for four years entirely believable. Later, at the prom, Elgort complements Wilde's benevolence with the handsome charm of a genuinely earnest adolescent. The supporting cast of Carrie, including Greer as the sympathetic teacher who comes to the protagonist's defense, are universally strong -- a factor that gives the drama of this retelling genuine gravity.
Still, it's the central character and her dangerously unstable mother who give the story its terrifying drive, and Moretz and Moore portray this deeply complex relationship with careful attention to detail -- a righteous glare from the mother or a wounded yet forgiving glance from the daughter speak volumes about their tempestuous history. Carrie's drive to fit in is just as strong as her mother's drive to preserve her daughter's purity, and the discord between Moretz's innocent, desperate protagonist and Moore's self-flagellating Margaret creates a resonate air of tension that settles deep in the pit of the stomach; whether we've experienced this story before or not, we know that it can't end well for either of them.
Behind the camera, Peirce guides her actors with a knowing hand. Small moments like a teacher's complicity in the taunting of Carrie offer insight into the infectious nature of bullying while setting a suitably oppressive tone, even as we hope against hope that the poor pariah will get her perfect night. Together with her screenwriters, Peirce seems to know that it's those 1000 tiny daggers that can bleed you to death; the trio sharpen them to a point, then drive them into their lead actress with the precision of someone who's been pricked by them in the past.
There's also genuine joy in Carrie's gradual discovery of her unique gift, presented with passion both in front of and behind the camera. Peirce and her writers develop this aspect of the story with a more explicit edge this time around, which makes it all the more tragic when Carrie ultimately uses her powers in such a horrific manner. And that brings us to the prom scene, which was executed with split-screen virtuosity in the 1976 original as Piper Laurie's screeching voice taunted the tortured teen on her very worst night: The climax of De Palma's Carrie is a masterstroke of horror cinema, an infernal conflagration of sound and imagery that awakens a deep dread. Aside from a few brief visual nods to the original, Peirce displays a basic understanding of horror iconography in her own right, despite her disposition toward character drama over monster mayhem. So while it's tempting to be cynical about a remake of a film that gave the much maligned horror genre a rare moment of real prestige, dare to judge Peirce's version on its own merits and you might just be frightened at how well it measures up.
cast-crew for Carrie on AllMovie