Movie review: ‘Carrie’ does not best the original, but it’s not bad

There are reasons filmmakers cast actors in their 20s to play teenagers. It’s not just to avoid child labor laws.

Sissy Spacek was 27 when she played the telekinetic 17-year-old lead character in “Carrie,” the 1976 Brian De Palma film based on Stephen King’s novel. Though Spacek barely passed physically for a teenager (sun-saturated cinematography helped), she fully embodied her character’s painful shyness and tentative discovery of her extraordinary powers.

Chloë Grace Moretz (“Kick-Ass”) was 15 when she shot the new “Carrie” remake. That’s too young.

Real-life teens often excel at showing everything they are thinking and feeling. But it takes more living to be able to impart, on screen, what someone else – a fictional character – feels.

Moretz has an angel’s face and exudes a vulnerability specific to the very young. There are moments when your heart aches for her misfit character, who wears home-sewn, old-fashioned clothes and tries to adhere to her ultra-religious mother’s (Julianne Moore) bizarre rules.

But Moretz struggles in attempts to project her character’s interior life. The movie’s many close-ups fail to transmit fully Carrie’s pain, or her joy at discovering she can move objects with her mind.

Apart from this casting misstep, “Carrie” emerges as a respectable remake. Director Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry”) hews fairly closely to King’s novel and to the De Palma film while updating the story to reflect technological advances.

De Palma’s “Carrie” was one of those 1970s movies, like Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws,” that elevated genre movies into art. Though luminous and dreamy in look, it carried heightened tension throughout – among hormonally charged teenagers at school and between Carrie and her unstable mother (Piper Laurie) at home. Spacek and Laurie were nominated for Oscars.

Peirce’s “Carrie” is not as accomplished but still feels more substantial than most contemporary teen horror films. It’s well-acted, insidiously creepy and sufficiently bloody, if you’re into that.

Is it scary? That’s harder to say, since I have seen the original enough times to be able to anticipate the remake’s horror content. You can’t unring that bell, or right that bucket.

The original was more about acting than thrills, anyway, and Moore and this film’s supporting cast deliver.

More daunting even than assuming Spacek’s role is trying to fill Laurie’s black Victorian ankle boots. Laurie’s abusive mother was towering, theatrical and wholly convinced of the sanctity of her delusions.

The mother role apparently ranks, along with Anne of Green Gables, among parts most coveted by redheaded actresses. There was Laurie, Patricia Clarkson in a so-so 2002 TV remake, now Moore. Clarkson was subtler than Laurie (it’s impossible not to be), yet still stern. Moore goes a quieter way, lending the mother, Margaret, great neediness and confusion.

Freaked out since Carrie’s birth (she thought her pregnancy was cancer), Margaret equates all interactions with males as sinful. She blanches at any hint of sexuality in herself, her daughter, the world.

Adding to a sense of the character’s deep neurosis is the film’s tame approach to sexuality. There’s sex in this “Carrie,” but it’s perfunctory.

Laurie’s sex-negative mother actually might have been on to something, since De Palma’s film, with its free-flowing 1970s manes and muscle cars, oozed sex and played up King’s telekinesis-as-sexual-awakening metaphor. But Moore’s character, with little to respond to, just seems shut down and scared.

Darn it if Moore, that expert portrayer of tragic figures, doesn’t make us wonder what terrible things happened to Margaret to render her such a wreck.

Peirce pays homage to De Palma by using slo-mo and showing heavy, visible steam in the story’s most pivotal sequence, in which Carrie and her classmates take showers after gym class.

Carrie, uneducated by her mother about menstruation, discovers blood and thinks she’s dying. She reaches out, desperate, to her schoolmates, who respond by throwing tampons. Carrie’s primary teen antagonist, Chris (Portia Doubleday), goes further, recording the incident on her cellphone and uploading it to social media.

Peirce shows how quickly, in 2013, intramural cruelty can go international. Though this “Carrie” often plays as timeless – the Whites’ small Victorian house does not scream “information age” – it updates the story by emphasizing how technology has intensified high school bullying.

The 1976 Chris (Nancy Allen) was mean, but offhand about it, a good-time girl mostly out for the next kick. This Chris, to whom the highly effective Doubleday lends smugness and resting bully face, is more calculated, her campaign of terror enabled by technology that distances people from decency.

Yet decent teens still exist at Carrie’s school. Sue (Gabriella Wilde), who was present at the shower incident and feels bad, enlists her boyfriend, Tommy (Ansel Elgort), to take Carrie to the prom.

This development plays as even less likely in cynical 2013 than it did in the original, but Wilde and Elgort sell their characters’ good intentions. Both exude the abundant optimism of the young and good-looking.

Their characters, however, could have used more back story. More scenes of Sue and Tommy, played by actors who are 24 and 19, respectively, might have taken some pressure off Moretz.


* * 1/2

Cast: Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Ansel Elgort, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday

Director: Kimberly Peirce

Rated R (bloody violence, disturbing images, language and some sexual content)

99 minutes