Somehow, I thought this one had promise: a remake of Carrie, the 1976 Brian De Palma film of Stephen King‘s first novel. Two enticing stars, Chloë Grace Moretz and Julianne Moore, in the roles created by Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie: the telekinetic teen and her crazy evangelist mom. A new script by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, a writer-producer for Big Love and Glee, under the direction of Kimberly Peirce, whose 1999 Boys Don’t Cry poignantly addressed a teen girl’s sexual confusion and earned a Best Actress Oscar for its star, Hilary Swank.
Having sat through Carrie, I now wonder: Why do we even bother to hope, when cynicism is the only appropriate armor to wear to the remake of a favorite film? Why did these talented folks decide to take on Carrie when they had nothing innovative to bring to it and, by refrying the same blood sausage, risked invidious comparison to the original? To put it another way: If the most modest expectations cannot be met, indeed must be crushed, then What Is Life?
(FIND: Carrie on the all-TIME Top 25 Horror Movies list)
Not that De Palma’s movie is exactly deathless. Only breathless: a film-school junkie’s mid-’70s essay in split screens and agonizing slow motion. (If every shot in the 98-minute movie were shown at normal speed, it would last hardly an hour.) But King’s story, in the screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen, had the puissance of stereotype transformed to archetype: a lonely girl, mocked and abused at school, gets a dream date for the prom and, when doused with a pail of pig’s blood, twists the curse of her telekinesis into revenge on all who wronged her and a few who didn’t. The movie is one long menstrual apocalypse; and the last scene initiated the now mandatory trend of giving viewers a final scare to keep them shivering on the way home.
With fearless acuity, and pitch-perfect performances in the key of scream, Spacek and Laurie played the melodrama as high tragedy, of a diseased couple whose enmity is trumped only by their pathetic love. Carrie’s tormentors were played by a cast of young comers: Amy Irving and William Katt as the “nice” kids, Nancy Allen and John Travolta as the vicious ones. A triumph of art direction (by Jack Fisk, soon and still Spacek’s husband), the 1976 film splashes a Jackson Pollock riot of bright, all-American colors all over the prom: blue for the decorations, white for the translucent skin of Carrie White and red for the blood spattered on her.
(READ: Richard Schickel’s 1976 review of Carrie by subscribing to TIME)
Since then, Carrie has been revived or embalmed in a 1988 Broadway musical (book by Cohen) that achieved classic flop status, a 1999 movie sequel (in which Irving played her teen character 20 years later) and, now, this. It’s as if the hand of Carrie White’s corpse, jutting out of her grave to grab Irving’s arm at the end of the original film, were orchestrating these later versions as a zombie army whose existence demonstrated only that, sometimes, a sweet dead girl should stay that way.
(READ: Richard Zoglin on the 2012 “revival” of Carrie: The Musical)
Moretz, the pre-teen darling of critics (including me) for her roles in Kick-Ass and Let Me In, was 15 when she shot the movie last year, 11 years younger than Spacek in 1976. Two-time winner of the MTV Movie Award for Best Bad-Ass, she is growing up fast; her full, pouty lips now have a kissable face attached to them. Unlike Spacek, who could projected the raw innocence of a gawky, geeky Star Child, Moretz is too conventionally attractive to play the outcast — who wouldn’t want her as a prom date, and not from spite?
(FIND: Chloë Grace Moretz on TIME’s 2011 list of Best Actresses)
Moore, the recipient of an Emmy (for playing Sarah Palin in Game Change) and four Oscar nominations, lends her authority to mad Margaret White, who believes that Christ’s blood is healing but every woman’s menstrual blood is the curse of Eve. To punish herself for this sin, she claws her arms raw; to punish Carrie, she locks the girl in the ground-floor closet. Moore doesn’t embarrass herself, but she lacks Laurie’s deranged contralto majesty. And because the movie denies Carrie the final gesture of love toward her mom, Margaret is reduced to simply being Carrie’s final villain-victim.
We get the same evocations of Jesus on the crucifix and Saint Sebastian perforated with arrows. In fact, virtually ever scene in Peirce’s film is a pallid duplicate of De Palma’s. The only additions are that the movie begins with Margaret giving birth to Carrie, and nearly killing her with a pair of scissors; and that the bad girl Christina (Portia Doubleday, who has a lovely cameo in Spike Jonze’s her), now posts Carrie’s school-shower freakout as a viral video. Neither Doubleday nor lanky Gabriella Wilde, in the Amy Irving role, can match their predecessors.
(READ: Corliss on Portia Doubleday in Spike Jonze’s her)
After Carrie’s transformation on prom night, when the event is called off due to high body count, she goes walking through the town’s streets like a Godzella unchained. De Palma showed Spacek dispatching Allen and Travolta with a killer gaze that sent the bad kids’ car into an eight-turn rollover and a quick burst into flames. Peirce draws out the comeuppance, delaying Carrie’s climactic confrontation with her mother. It’s just unnecessary, like the rest of the movie.
(READ: Gilbert Cruz’s definitive interview with Stephen King)
By coincidence, the same night I saw Carrie I tuned into Comedy Central for South Park. We were told that the South Park Studios had suffered a blackout and no new episode would be shown. Instead, we were treated to a rerun of the 2001 masterpiece “Scott Tenorman Must Die,” in which fourth-grader Eric Cartman is hoodwinked by a ninth-grader, as Carrie had been by her classmates, and schemes wicked revenge. (“Oh, let me taste your tears, Scott! … Oh, the tears of unfathomable sadness!”) Cartman’s powers are of malevolence, not telekinesis, and Trey Parker had devised too many narrative twists to waste time on slo-mo cinematography. Even so, the episode’s climax has a gross-out splendor that equals or exceeds that of De Palma’s Carrie, and is parsecs beyond what Peirce summoned for the remake.
It’s been a while since Parker and Matt Stone have scaled such heights, but re-seeing “Scott Tenorman” reminded me that from great irresponsibility can come great storytelling power. So I forget about Carrie; I embrace South Park; and, once again, I live in hope.