I thought a prom was a Henry Wood Promenade Concert until I discovered Carrie. Clearly I wasn’t the only British filmgoer who in 1976 had never heard the word used to describe an American high-school formal dance, so for U.K. publicity the tagline for Brian De Palma’s film was changed from “If you’ve got a taste for terror… take Carrie to the prom” to “If you’ve got a taste for terror… take Carrie to the party”. Either way, we happily accepted the invitation.
Carrie was adapted from Stephen King’s first published novel; the paperback, with its lurid cover depicting a wide-eyed girl’s head streaked with blood, had been all over bookshops, impossible to miss. There were other firsts: this was the first time I’d seen John Travolta, cast as Billy Nolan, the class bitch’s bit-of-rough boyfriend. He was familiar to American audiences thanks to the TV show Welcome Back, Kotter, but as yet unknown in the UK; Saturday Night Fever would be one year later, Grease two years.
It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a film by De Palma, one of the Movie Brat directors who were changing Hollywood in the 1970s, but Sisters had played chiefly in rep cinemas and Phantom of the Paradise had flopped. Carrie, though, was riding the crest of a boom in big budget horror for mainstream audiences, following The Exorcist and The Omen, which had both been box-office smashes.
And it was the first time I’d seen anyone get their period on screen. To this day, it’s rare for menstruation to be even mentioned in the cinema, let alone shown; if there are any references to it, they’re tucked away in the genre ghettos of low budget horror (Ginger Snaps) or squeamish comedy (Superbad), though in Japan the subject has been treated with sensitivity and discretion in at least one anime (Studio Ghibli’s Only Yesterday).
And yet the credits had barely ended before Carrie was having her first period in the shower. De Palma starts as he meant to go on, with a virtuoso slo-mo set-piece in a schoolgirls’ changing room, featuring full-frontal nudity and culminating in the title character panicking when she sees the blood. Her classmates, instead of helping the terrified girl, mock her mercilessly.
Sissy Spacek, who had been recommended to De Palma by her husband, art director Jack Fisk, was already in her mid-twenties when she was cast as Carrie, but looked a lot younger. As the mousy outsider whose fanatically religious mother (Piper Laurie) has left her tragically ignorant of the facts of life, her raw performance gives the film a heartrending human centre that could so easily have been lost amid De Palma’s directorical flourishes. Both she and Laurie, giving two of the finest female performances of the 1970s, were nominated for Oscars.
After this astonishing beginning, the film builds slowly, more high-school comedy than horror, with a dash of exploitation as the camera, pitched at thigh level, ogles the girls doing squats in skimpy gym shorts. Meanwhile, we develop a fierce sympathy for the protagonist, not just bullied at school but physically abused at home. Her menarche has triggered telekinetic powers which (we already know, thanks to a trailer even more spoilerific than the plot synopses that pass for trailers nowadays) will be unleashed at the prom. King’s story is permeated by the fear of blood, but is also a reminder that nothing is scarier to an adolescent girl than her peers. This is one of the best films about bullying ever made.
I think it’s here that the original Carrie resonated so strongly with audiences. The story seems to depict the classic triumph of the underdog, the victim fatally underestimated by her tormentors, the poster girl for bullied adolescents. Except, of course, that it’s not a triumph. It may be cathartic and dramatically satisfying to see those little vixens get their just deserts, but this is Old Testament justice, not to be applauded, and like all violent responses it gets out of hand. It’s not just the guilty characters who suffer, but the innocents alongside them. Nobody emerges from this film unscathed, least of all the audience.
Carrie spawned a limp, belated sequel called The Rage: Carrie 2 (1999); a TV movie in 2002, unremarkable save for a terrific central performance by Angela Bettis; and most bizarrely, a stage musical (1988), such a notorious flop it became a byword for theatrical farrago, though it was revived off-Broadway last year.
And now, of course, there’s a remake. But instead of re-adapting King’s novel, which might have been a more fruitful approach, Kimberly Peirce (who directed Boys Don’t Cry, another film about the tragic consequences of bullying) and her screenwriter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (a writer and co-producer on Glee) have remade the 1976 movie (its screenwriter, Lawrence D. Cohen, gets a co-writer credit, as well he should). The results are far from catastrophic, but inevitably – as with so many other recent remakes – the film feels unnecessary, a pale copy of the original.
Here are some of the main differences. BEWARE SPOILERS!
1) Spacek, with her ginger eyelashes and almost translucent skin, had precisely the sort of weird alien beauty that might turn your peers against you. Drab styling can’t disguise the fact that the new Carrie, Chloë Grace Moretz, is cute, altogether less of an outsider. (Of course, neither actress resembles the “chunky girl with pimples” described in King’s novel.)
2) Peirce’s film begins with a prologue showing a traumatised Margaret White (Julianne Moore) giving birth to Carrie. Moore, giving a typically committed performance, is a self-harming bundle of neuroses who seems more disturbed and more emotionally damaged than Piper Laurie did – though by appearing less of a monster she ultimately inspires more pity than terror.
3) One of the girls uses her mobile phone to film Carrie having her menstrual meltdown in the shower, then posts it online. Welcome to the modern age, Carrie. There’s no indication she even has a mobile, but you can be sure that if she did, she’d be getting abusive texts on it.
4) One of the areas in which the remake improves on the original is in patching up a couple of plot holes, and providing stronger motivation for Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) to persuade her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom in her stead. Incidentally, unlike Amy Irving and William Katt in the 1976 film, neither Wilde nor Elgort has corkscrew curly hair.
5) Nancy Allen, who played Chris Hargenson in the 1976 film, made Carrie’s chief tormentor an unforgettable antagonist – all lip gloss, teen hormones and smarmy nouveau riche privilege – the sort of smalltown über-bitch who could eat Mean Girls‘ Regina George for breakfast. Her successor in the remake (Portia Doubleday), looks as though she’s been taking make-up tips from the Kardashians, but otherwise barely registers. Apart from some twins (whom you notice only because they’re twins, not because they do anything of interest) the classmates merge into an indistinguishable mass of meanness, with no individuals making their mark the way P.J. Soles and Edie McClurg did so hissably back in 1976.
6) Moretz polishes her powers, practising them in her bedroom. When she turns into a one-woman WMD at the prom, she even seems to be relishing them, striking angry Vogue-type poses. But by making her appear more in control, the film also makes her more malevolent. Moreover, whereas semi-catatonic Spacek barely registers the death of Tommy Ross, Moretz reacts to it, making her subsequent behaviour less the mechanical response of a traumatised victim than a calculated act of vengeance.
Maybe her mom was right all along! Carrie IS a monster!
7) It’s hard to top De Palma when he’s flexing his fancy show-off muscle by way of split-screen and revolving prism lens effects (and the split-screen wasn’t just showing off, but there for a reason – “because how many times could you cut from Carrie to things moving around?”), but even so Peirce’s prom is oddly perfunctory. You would have thought that with modern CGI she could have served up a more spectacular climax – the mass electrocution of the townsfolk as described in King’s book, for example. Images from the 1976 film seared themselves into my brain, where they’ve remained ever since; it’s only two days since I saw the 2013 version, and I’m already having trouble remembering what went down.
8) Perhaps the most shocking moment in the 1976 film is when Carrie kills the sympathetic gym teacher (Betty Buckley). It’s also the pivotal point, when the catharsis curdles, the destruction is exposed as non-discriminatory, and we’re reminded that killing classmates and teachers will never, ever make things right.
In the remake, the gym teacher (Judy Greer) survives, suggesting Peirce and Aguirre-Sacasa didn’t think this through. In the 2013 version, Carrie kills only the characters who “deserve it”. The same way, no doubt, the victims of real-life high-school massacres “deserve it” in the eyes of their murderers.
9) Chris and her partner-in-crime Billy Nolan, dispatched relatively cleanly in the original film (something that always seemed a little unfair, given the more gruelling fates of some of their friends), are subjected to more explicitly gruesome treatment in the remake. This might be more satisfying for the audience, but again, it underlines the idea that some victims are more “deserving” of horrrible death than others.
10) Inspired by the end of Deliverance, De Palma ended his film with a now-classic jump-out-of-your-seat shock. The remake, instead of trying to either top that or aim for something completely different, settles for such an half-baked anti-climactic effect it’s an insult to the audience.
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in October 2013. It has been lightly edited.
It’s only eighteen months since I saw the 2013 version of Carrie, and I can barely remember a thing about it. Have I been too harsh? Should I take another look at it? What do you think?