The Original Sin: Carrie (2013)
It seems almost fruitless to attempt to draw out a comparison between the two cinematic incarnations of Stephen King’s debut novel Carrie. All it seems to elicit is the same two sides of a single coin. On the one hand, Brian De Palma’s 1976 version appears definitive in and of itself, a perfect realisation of the source material filtered through De Palma’s unique directorial sensibilities that has achieved cultural accreditation. On the other hand, any adaptation has validity due to its different creative variables.
New voices, new ideas and a contemporary approach can offer alternative experiences to previous adaptations and in the process obtain their own value. While such an argument is no doubt a compelling one, it also frequently fails to address exactly how a comparison can create new meaning. Whether or not director Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie deserves its place on the silver screen or not is irrelevant, it already exists. What seems to make sense is to comprehend it both in its cultural context and also as a solitary entity, unbeholden to any other influence. Only then can we clearly see 2013’s Carrie for what it truly is, a mediocre experience that both benefits and suffers from its historical trappings.
For those that aren’t aware, Carrie follows a somewhat unpopular young girl in her final year of high school. Previous to attending high school Carrie (Chloë Grace Moretz) was homeschooled by her ultra-conservative, religious mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) who now maintains a stranglehold on her native curiosity. So much so that when Carrie publically menstruates at school she believes she is dying, leading to an incessant tormenting from her classmates.
From this moment on Carrie begins to develop an uncontrolled ability to move objects in her environment, a condition sparked by rage or fear at any given moment. The incident sparks a rivalry between girls of the in crowd, with Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) feeling great regret for her actions while Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) seeks vengeance for having her prom privileges stripped as punishment. The tension culminates at the end of year prom in which Carrie’s humiliation by the hands of her sadistic classmates results in disaster as Carrie sees red and embraces the immense weight of her telekinetic repression.
Carrie ultimately serves as a metaphor for the dangers of denouncing physical law. Peirce obviously understands this and thus chooses to open her film with a prologue of Carrie’s birth, a sequence that demarcates the body as a source of abjection with a squeamish and grizzly detail. Kimberley Peirce previously directed Boys Don’t Cry, a film similarly about the physical manifestations of psychological repression, so tackling Carrie seems a natural progression of those interests.
Carrie’s birth is, according to her mother, the creation of sin. She is a product of an unholy intercourse, which exists at the root of Catholic guilt. Peirce essentially plants the seed of repression and then continues to show how it bears mental instability and ultimately physical harm. It’s obvious how Carrie’s repression manifests itself, and is of course the core of the film, but Peirce also gives us real life consequences in the form of Margaret’s self-harm.
At one point, to deal with stress, Margaret constantly breaks the skin on her leg with a seam ripper. Both Carrie and Margaret experience ritualistic bloodletting and self-harm in their quest to denounce sin, an attitude that significantly decreases their quality of life.
Peirce understands the fundamentals of Carrie; the despotism of the family unit, the fundamentalism of Catholic guilt and the polarity that exists between desire and abjection. Unfortunately however, her eliciting of such ideas as anchored strictly to a narrative function. While De Palma utilised cinematic affect to elicit Carrie’s predicament through techniques such as slow motion and forced perspective, Peirce allows us to comprehend the situation through dialogue first and foremost.
There are times when Peirce forms consistent symbols but they are often given second ranking. One example of this finds Carrie looking in a prom shop window as the reflection of her head assumes a position on the dress-wearing mannequin, a clear formation that posits her desire as a tangible element. De Palma worked in the realm of his audiences’ unconscious mind, the territory of the story itself, and while this is more than likely a by-product of his Hitchcockian obsession, it is an aesthetic far more suited to the source. While Peirce might be in sync with the themes of Carrie, her toning down of the visual in favour of the textual results in those very themes resonating less.
In other areas however Peirce plays her cards very close to De Palma’s chest. From a design perspective much of the small town (which is no longer called Bates, much to De Palma’s dismay I imagine) and even the White family house share a striking similarity with the 1976 film’s realisation. Much of the iconography of De Palma’s vision remains intact here also, a reflection that ceases to solidify the uniqueness of Peirce’s vision. These factors make it easier to undermine Peirce’s Carrie, and although, as previously mentioned, there certainly are unique flairs to her film, not all of them amount to a positive contribution.
It’s unfortunate that much of the sour taste is experienced in the back end of the film, a point where broad genre concerns override any previously laid plans. While Carrie’s explosive moment is certainly one of terror, Peirce ends up playing it as possession, with Carrie unconsciously levitating around the gymnasium. Chloë Grace Moretz, never the most expressive of actors, takes the notion and runs with it, as her blank stare nulls any emotional response.
Throughout the sequence she dishes out blow after blow of violent and grotesque attacks on classmates that seem to privilege knee jerk repulsion above all else. When one student finds their face in a car’s windscreen, the moment plays as horrible rather than horrific, demeaning the psychological complications originally laid out. It isn’t until Carrie returns to the nest (or is it a womb?) that psychology resurfaces, but by this point the notion is almost redundant.
Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie is certainly not another studio train wreck of a remake that we have almost become accustomed to of late. In actual fact it’s a great example of yet another constantly occurring trend: the hiring of a uniquely focused director and the simultaneous stifling of their craft. Beneath the comparisons to previous texts and the cultural expectation lies a potentially competent and dare I say idiosyncratic vision of Stephen King’s book. Unfortunately, it seems that Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie has some mummy issues of its own.