Talking Movies: Girls rule in Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie

So what does a more female interpretation of Carrie look like? — photo by Rachel Jessen

Even with the internet on your side, bullying a witch in high school probably still ends up with you dying in a fiery crash in your boyfriend’s car. The crash is fierier now, the car and the boyfriend slightly faster and you get to text your dad for help before it happens; otherwise, everything is much like it was in 1976, when Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Carrie first hit the screen. In fact, Kimberly  Peirce’s recent update to this horror classic leaves much of the original intact, while making a few key additions to the story, upgrading the role of the mother Margaret White (played by Julianne Moore) substantially and—you guessed it—adding even more blood.

I have always felt that Carrie is not so much a horror story with high school as a backdrop, as much as it is a high school psychodrama where Carrie White’s telekinesis is merely an additional tool to ratchet up the tension. De Palma’s 1976 film understands this well: The long, atmospheric shots on seemingly unimportant details add texture (in one scene, the opening credits of a James Garner Western play as popular mean-girl  Sue does her homework in the den while trying to convince her dim-witted boyfriend to ask the shy, picked-on Carrie to the senior prom); the measured rise to the bloody prom night escapades builds suspense in a way that is tense but still believable and organic.

Remakes of modern classics must be somewhat nerve-wracking for directors, not only because they are always measured against the original, but because in addition to being good, their film must also provide some putative answer to the question, “Why do this remake now?” In the remake of Carrie, the role of social media in altering traditional high school social dynamics is certainly part of the reason, as are questions about whether alienation and victimhood have changed much for teenagers since 1976. More interesting, though, may be the opportunity that Peirce’s film gives us to see how a prominent female director handles differently a story that is almost exclusively about girls.

De Palma has never had many feminists among his fan base, and his shortcomings are revealed in the way he deals in objectified images, even of his strongest female leads. In his adaptation of Carrie, he opens with extensive camera time to the largely nude scenes inside the girls’ locker room after gym class—nubile young bodies sprawling before the lens in somewhat inexplicable slow motion.

So how does a more feminine Carrie handle this? Peirce’s hand is perhaps heaviest in altering this opening sequence, upon which most of the following action is contingent and the signal example of what an outcast Carrie (played by Chloë Grace Moretz in the remake) really is. Peirce opens the film not at school at all, but in Margaret White’s bedroom at the moment of Carrie’s birth, when her mother makes the fairly momentous decision not to murder her only child as repentance for the sin of her conception. This is our first indication that Moore’s Margaret White is going to play a much more believable and sympathetic role in the remake than in the original. Later, Peirce also tightens up the locker room scene quite a bit and makes it substantially less gratuitous: Carrie gets her first period in the gym shower, is horrified by the blood (since she hasn’t been prepared for the event by her uptight mother) and all the girls mock her and throw tampons until she is rescued by the sympathetic gym teacher (Judy Greer).

Carrie has always been a movie where girls run the show, manipulating boyfriends, fathers and school administrators to get what they want. Male characters in both versions are few and are largely superfluous to anything the film is trying to do, other than to demonstrate how easily boys can be manipulated by their female consorts to help carry out the pranks and deceptions that eventually lead to the film’s climactic violence.

A world made by men, though, is still present and seems pretty comfortable to both directors. The theme of school as a bulwark against anarchy is certainly present in both films: These are places where the social order is created and ones in which magical, telekinetic powers must be kept under wraps—this is not Hogwarts after all; crazy religious parents (especially mothers) cannot be trusted to raise their own kids—they need the calm, grey-toned influence of state institutions to tell them what’s best for their children (as an update, Peirce even takes a hilarious cheap shot at homeschooling). We think of today’s high-schoolers as more assertively individual, something disappointingly unaddressed in the remake.  Though Peirce’s Carrie does not outright say, “I wanna be normal,” as Sissy Spacek did in the original, she most certainly still wants to fit in. There is still very little sense that the central character sees her special powers as very liberating, at least not consistently so.

Substantial experience informs me that in actual high school fights security guards are generally warier of girl fights than boy fights, mostly because girls really mean it. Boys want to posture and look tough and then have the vice principal break it up just in time; girls want to fight. While Peirce’s sets would suggest she has not been inside an American high school recently (20-student classes? With chalkboards?), her approach indicates that she at least gets this difference. When it comes time for her close-up at film’s end, Peirce’s Carrie takes her time. We find out why Peirce rushes through other parts of the movie: to save time for this extra bloodshed. Her Carrie’s vengeance is less defensive than De Palma’s—it is less an ill-defined lash out at forces that, after making her feel she might finally belong, ultimately identify her as a freak and an outcast. Peirce’s Carrie targets her victims specifically, looks them in the eye before killing them and goes out of her way to hunt down the ones she really hates. Carrie’s mono e mono showdown with nemesis Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) at the end of the movie takes a full five minutes of screen time, while in the De Palma version it is sort of an afterthought.

There are shortcomings to the remake to be sure: Though the casting of Julianne Moore in an expanded role as the mother works great, Chloë Grace Moretz is simply not Sissy Spacek—not even close. Peirce’s film also lacks some of the humor: Carrie’s telekinetic outbursts are no longer accompanied by a carbon copy of the screeching strings from Psycho, nor is the high school any longer called ‘Bates High.’

So what does a more female interpretation of Carrie look like? In Peirce’s interpretation it’s more sympathetic, more violent, more blood-soaked, more vindictive. Way to go, ladies.

Warren Sprouse teaches high school in Cedar Rapids. He avoids prom nights for obvious reasons.