They're Not Gonna Laugh At You: Maturely remade "Carrie" still shocks and resonates

Carrie (2013)
100 min., rated R.

It would be very easy to dismiss "Carrie" as just another cheap, needless (horror) remake for a new generation. For starters, the ill-advised ad campaign is "You will know her name." Unless you've been living in a prayer closet all this time, virtuoso filmmaker Brian De Palma already made the title character's name known with his 1976 classic, which is definitely of its time but holds up as a resonant, shocking, and time-tested horror tragedy about bullying, high school alienation, religious fanaticism, teen development, and the worst prom ever. Being the first adaptation of Stephen King's first-published novel, that film has been so steeped in our cinematic culture, from there being an unjustifiable quasi-sequel with 1999's "The Rage: Carrie 2," a 2002 TV miniseries, and, of all things, an Off-Broadway musical and its revivals. On one hand, come thirty-seven years later, if it ain't broke, why fix it? On the other hand, there's no music video director calling the shots this time but independent-minded director Kimberly Peirce, who's most notable for 1999's searing "Boys Don't Cry" and hasn't made a film since her 2008 war drama "Stop-Loss." Pierce isn't trying to fix anything or gild the lily; simply, she's telling King's story with a grounded, sensitive humanity and disturbing darkness while still respecting De Palma's work. You can tell she has so much compassion for her heroine that milking the horror-remake cash cow never corrupted her mind. So, blood-thirsty fans of the original, put your pitchforks away: a new "Carrie" exists and it's more than able to stand on its own two feet.

A mature and respectable retelling of the teen drama-cum-horror tragedy, "Carrie" isn't the watered-down copy-and-paste job that many feared it might be. Updated with the relevance of social media, which can make bullying all the more cruel, the film rings heartbreakingly true in its milieu of high school, even as it's hitting all the same story beats we already know. This making three for her banner of horror remakes, Chloë Grace Moretz plays Carrie White, the meek, put-upon outcast at Ewen High School who's been raised, more like sheltered, by her evangelical seamstress mother, Margaret (Julianne Moore). Her high school torment worsens the day she gets her first period in the girls' locker room, pleading for help as she thinks she's dying. The other girls throw tampons at her and petty, malicious classmate Chris Hargensen (Portia Doubleday) captures the whole incident on her phone. As caring gym teacher Miss Disjarden (Judy Greer) breaks it up and explains the poor girl that what she's experiencing with her body is normal, Carrie also learns she has the ability to move objects with her mind. As prom approaches, Chris' best friend, Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde), feels guilty and has a change of heart, deciding to give up her unforgettable night and convince boyfriend Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie as his date. This act of kindness gives Chris ammo, with the help of delinquent boyfriend Billy Nolan (Alex Russell), to concoct an even bigger and crueler prank. Of course, just as Carrie is feeling that she fits in for the first time and believes it's not another trick, she really finds her backbone and the ultimate revenge in her telekinetic powers that make her special and dangerous.

Credited to Roberto Aguierre-Sacasa (TV's "Glee") and Lawrence D. Cohen (the sole scribe behind the 1976 forebearer), the screenplay fine-tunes and nourishes the Whites' relationship, as well as fleshes out Carrie's tormentors and allies to build more context for their motives. An unsettling opening birth scene, where Margaret thinks she's dying from cancer before a baby emerges, is fresh and makes for a pitch-perfect parallel to Carrie's menstruation and telekinesis that comes full circle in the end. Though many of the lines from De Palma's version are left intact and feel anachronistic (i.e. "I can see your dirty pillows"), Pierce doesn't seem to be going for overt lip service as much as a faithful translation of Stephen King's novel. While the vengeful trajectory of the tale is no longer a surprising one, the filmmakers still judiciously inject a classical building of unease instead of just rushing to get to the inevitable climax at the prom. Everything leading up to Tommy and Carrie taking the stage as prom king and queen is touchinga nice touch is having Tommy's friend's date who doesn't go to that school genuinely compliment Carrie's home-made dress—and then tense and wildly menacing once the bucket of pig's blood drops and certain people get what's coming to them. There's even a nastily satisfying tweak in how Chris gets her just desserts.

Without shortchanging Peirce's direction, the two valiant lead performances are what keeps the spine of the story and its universal themes potent as ever. When Sissy Spacek played the frail, almost-alien Carrie White, she was 27. Chloë Grace Moretz is actually 16 years old, one reason why she's so in-tune to the fears and sensations of becoming a young woman who just wants to be accepted. When we first meet Carrie, who sheepishly stands to the side of the pool's shallow end in a game of water volleyball during gym class, she immediately has our emotional investment. At first blush, Moretz would seem to be too pretty, too confident and too precocious to become Carrie White, but she crushes anyone's preconceived notions. Earning our sympathy, pulling off just enough vulnerability without falling to pieces, and then biting back with a palpable inner (and outer) fire, the teenage actress is captivating and proves she's the most versatile of her generation. Then there's Julianne Moore, who completely seizes the monstrous role of Margaret White that was frighteningly introduced by Piper Laurie. She could have played the character as a broad, scenery-chewing Bible-thumping zealot and instead finds her own nuances (and a touch of self-flagellation), fiercely playing an unfit mother so scarily warped and out of touch in her beliefs of sin, laden with guilt and regret, but loving her daughter so much that she'll protect her from experiencing or knowing anything about the real world. Forgetting about the baggage that comes with retelling a well-known story, both actresses interpret their characters with a refreshing contrast from Spacek and Laurie's Oscar-nominated turns. Strong support is there, too, from those playing Carrie's vicious/kind-hearted peers and faculty members. Portia Doubleday bites into the role of Chris, adding more shadings and walking the line of a mean girl, a daddy's girl, and an evil psycho. Initially, Gabriella Wilde and Ansel Elgort, as the more empathetic Sue and Tommy, come off merely as faceless Hollister models but, as these two show their selfless true colors, they're ultimately solid. Last but not least, Judy Greer adds personality to all of her scenes as Miss Disjarden, a sly casting choice that probably wasn't lost on Peirce if she saw the actress early on in 1999's "Jawbreaker," which shares revenge at the high school prom.

Once the nutty carnage kicks in and continues at the White household, a few of the bigger visual effects might be too overblown, threatening to take the viewer out of the moment. Also, the weak coda isn't much of a rival to De Palma's startling final scare. However, one can forget minor debits when director Kimberly Peirce deftly captures the essence and emotional undercurrent of the story with her own stirring vision. She also knows how to make a stylish-looking film without color filters or split screens, utilizing the classy lensing of Steve Yedlin ("Looper") and Marco Beltrami's foreboding score. Sure, nothing can hold a candle to the source—after all, it was there first—but, when so many lazy, slick, corporate-made reduxes suffer from a dearth of creative inspiration, 2013's "Carrie" offers enough reasons to belong in this world, too.

Grade: B +