Friday, October 18, 2013

Review: Carrie (2013)

Carrie (2013)

I am a huge fan of Stephen King's Carrie, both the book and Brian De Palma's film adaptation in 1976. (...let's not get into the made-for-TV version or the sequel, shall we?) It is one of the greatest horror stories I've ever read or watched, and in the oft-maligned world of teen horror, it has no equal. Both book and film are not only excellent thrillers, but also amazing character dramas that pull no punches when it comes to just how brutal bullying can be; I maintain that the book should be on high school reading lists across the country rather than being one of the most challenged books in school libraries as it currently is. That said, as much as I love the film, it's not perfect. Most notably, the fact that it is a product of the era of disco, malaise, and Burt Reynolds shows through in every frame, between Pino Donaggio's score (still amazing, but also very dated at times), William Katt's enormous blond 'fro, the opening scene's wall-to-wall nudity, and the presence of John Travolta as a sex symbol. As a film that's almost forty years old yet arguably more relevant than ever, a remake done right could stand as a modern classic.

And so I went into this film with a lot of anticipation, yet just as much trepidation. It's directed by a woman, Kimberly Peirce, and between her success with Boys Don't Cry and the unique perspective that a female director could bring to a film as girl-powered as this, her presence on the film gave me hope that this at least wouldn't suck. Ditto for the casting of Chloe Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore as Carrie and Margaret, which showed that they were going for something a little classier than your usual teen slasher. However, the trailer's abundance of CGI-filled action had me worried that they were shooting more for a thrill ride than the character-driven story of the book and the original film. Furthermore, as dated as De Palma's version of the story can be, watching it again this past Wednesday night reminded me of just how monumental a task the filmmakers had in front of them. This was like remaking The Exorcist. They had to bring their A-game, and go big or go home.

So, the result?

It's good! It doesn't come close to topping the original, which still stands as the greater film, but it does justice to it. It could've stood to take more creative risks and depart from the source material a bit more (both the book and the film), as well as slow down and take some time to breathe, but solid lead performances and an insane prom scene helped redeem it. It is a solid reimagining of a classic that certainly exists in its shadow, yet still stands on its own two feet. Perhaps the closest comparison I can think of to this is the Dawn of the Dead remake, a film that is by no means as good as Romero's classic zombie film yet is still great on its own merits.

My biggest question going in was whether or not Chloe Grace Moretz was going to make a good Carrie. The original film would not have worked half as well as it did without Sissy Spacek, while Angela Bettis was one of the few things that prevented the made-for-TV version from being irredeemably awful. While I had faith in her as an actress thanks to her work in Kick-Ass, Let Me In, and other films, there was also a lot of concern going in that she was too Hollywood-pretty to play a character who is meant to be an unattractive outcast; the fact that she wasn't particularly uglied up in the trailers, a la AnnaLynne McCord in Excision, earned this remake many unfavorable comparisons to She's All That early on.

Rest assured, any fears that Moretz is too pretty will be dashed away in the first ten minutes, in this film's harrowing rendition of the volleyball and shower scenes. Moretz is certainly believable as an outcast, with a lot of the complaints about her looks ignoring one key fact: she's a bumbling klutz to the point of annoying her classmates. It's not her looks that make her an outcast and a joke here, but her behavior. Furthermore, the casting of an actual teenager in the role next to the usual twenty-somethings that populate such films adds another dynamic, making Moretz appear smaller and less developed than the classmates that tower over her both physically and in terms of their position on the school's social ladder. Moretz wasn't content to merely mimic Sissy Spacek's performance, though, making her Carrie a bit more combative and proactive than the one from the original, having the will to stand up her abusive mother on more than one occasion. This is especially true when she learns about her psychic powers, gaining something else that I never thought I'd associate with Carrie White: swagger. Carrie's real transformation here comes not in Moretz's appearance, but in her growing self-confidence, her futile resistance to her mother's domineering will gaining teeth once she gets the tools to hit back. Moretz's performance is different from Spacek's, but no less captivating.

Ditto for Julianne Moore, the other half of the White family equation. Moore goes in a completely different direction from Piper Laurie's stark-raving mad religious fanatic, instead playing Margaret as an overbearing mother first and a crazy Christian second. She's not so much obsessed with protecting her daughter from sin as she is from protecting her daughter, period, seeing the entire world as being out to get poor little Carrie. (She's right, by the way.) The film even adds a little self-harm to the equation, depicting Margaret as being just as much a nervous wreck as Carrie is -- a mirror of what Carrie herself may have grown up to be had she the chance to do so. Moore's performance is far more down-to-Earth than Laurie's theatricality, accomplishing what Patricia Clarkson was perhaps trying to do in the made-for-TV version. Moore's Margaret is less visibly crazy than Laurie's, but no less terrifying.

The rest of the cast, though, doesn't live up to the high mark set by Moretz and Moore. Gabriella Wilde's Sue isn't nearly as interesting as Amy Irving's, her character coming across as a dull blank slate. (Her shaky American accent does her no favors.) Ditto for Ansel Elgort as Tommy, who feels like a bland "dumb jock" stereotype. Judy Greer as the gym teacher Miss Desjardin acquits herself slightly better, but still spends the film failing to escape the shadow of Betty Buckley. The exception to the mediocrity of the supporting cast, though, has to be Portia Doubleday as the film's second villain, the queen bee Chris Hargensen. Doubleday makes for an awesome Chris, easily measuring up to Nancy Allen and then some, being as venomous as Regina from Mean Girls and at the same time going through an epic breakdown when she realizes the hard way just what kind of monster she just pissed off. You will spend the entire film cheering for Carrie to squash Chris like a bug, for all the best possible reasons. Likewise, Alex Russell does alright for himself in what is otherwise the tiny role of Chris' bad-boy lover Billy, a character that I wish the film had spent more time focusing on. The dynamic between Chris and Billy was great in the original, so it's a shame that he's practically relegated to a bit part here.

That is indicative of perhaps my chief problem with this film. Whereas the made-for-TV version felt ridiculously bloated and overly long, here I had the exact opposite problem. The film was often in a hurry to get to the point, rushing through a great many scenes. Oftentimes, this came at the cost of atmosphere, or developing the film's supporting characters. It may well be this, and not the actors involved, that made the supporting characters feel so one-dimensional, as many of them get remarkably little in the way of any development. I'd like to see the deleted scenes on the DVD and see just how much was left on the cutting room floor.

In addition, director Kimberly Peirce makes the mistake of hewing much too close to De Palma's original film for my liking. While this film is being billed as a new adaptation of King's novel, it's far closer to the '76 film than it is to the book. If she was doing this out of reverence for the original film, then I believe that she was missing the point of remaking the film in the first place. This new film brings social media into the mix, but apart from the new twists that Moretz and Moore put on the main characters, it doesn't do nearly enough to make itself different from the original. It isn't nearly as bad in this regard as the remakes of Psycho and The Omen, but it could've used a few more creative risks.

Like, say, perhaps expanding on the prom scene. Despite being very heavy on noticeable CGI, Carrie's rampage at the prom is, without a doubt, one moment where this film blows the original out of the sky. It's been said that the story of Carrie is, in hindsight, a superhero (or rather, supervillain) origin story in which the main character never makes it past the first day, and it appears that both Peirce and writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (whose background is in writing Marvel comics) noticed that. While the setup to it was, again, rushed (De Palma's creeping dread is nowhere to be seen), Carrie's actual rampage looked and felt like something out of a superhero movie gone very, very wrong, going for broke with all manner of vicious, explosive brutality. This is especially the case in how it lingers upon the deaths of two characters in particular, who, in the original film, were taken out in all of fifteen seconds -- one of the rare moments when this film slows down for once. If I had one problem with this scene, it's that there wasn't enough of it. The first teaser promised an apocalyptic rampage through the entire town, while the film itself, once again, doesn't go that far beyond the comparatively narrow scope of the destruction in De Palma's film. In any case, Peirce proves here that she is more than capable of delivering high-octane, effects-driven action; I'd love to see what she's capable of in the director's chair of a big action movie.

Score: 4 out of 5

Is it as good as the original? No. Is it flawed? Oh, absolutely. But if you're someone who has little time for the '70s camp of the original film, then this is certainly a very good way to experience the story of Carrie White.

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