The power of a horror film is often found in its cultural subtext. The radioactive monster films of the 1950s were frightening in large part due to the fact that the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing the world to find a new fear at the hands of radiation and all of its devastating fallout. In the early 70s, more gritty and grisly horror films, like Craven’s The Last House on the Left, and Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were informed by the atrocities in Vietnam that audiences were watching on television every night. While these films stand on their own, for good and bad, it’s impossible to completely separate them from the influence history had on both the filmmakers and the audience.
By the time DePalma’s adaptation of Carrie hit the big screen, our culture was in the midst of a war over abortion rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and a crippling recession. Vietnam had ended, Nixon had resigned, and the aftermath of Watergate had taken its toll on the way leaders were to be perceived for years to come. With these in mind, Carrie frightened audiences with its story of a teen girl who discovers her sexual power later than most, and loses control of it in the face of an ultra-religious, out of touch mother, an apathetic school system that can only do so much, and the cruelty of her peers. When Carrie White explodes with rage at her high school prom after being drenched in pig’s blood, she is a not just an angry, exploited teenager at the end of her rope, but a symbol of her gender, finally fed up with being bullied and put in their place by a society incapable of dealing with their needs and power.
Despite director Kimberly Peirce’s talents and sincere passion for the material, she can’t overcome the fact that Carrie is no longer a culturally relevant story. This is not her fault, nor the fault of the fine stable of actors on the screen. Carrie is a well-made, well-acted horror film, but its terrors never pack more than a minor kick.
The biggest problem facing this film is our cultural climate. Women’s rights are not as hotly debated as they were in the late 70s. This is not to say there is not still a troubling undercurrent of misogyny and oppression in our political world, or in the hearts of men across the country. Anyone who witnessed Texas state congresswoman Wendy Davis’ passionate filibuster over unfair abortion laws, or watched Paul Ryan embarrass himself by talking about rape during the last Presidential race knows that we still have a long way to go in terms of ensuring that America’s women are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve. We just haven’t had a hot button issue arise, like the Equal Rights Amendment, to get us talking again. Without the powerful presence of these issues looming over our culture, Carrie comes across less as a political story, and more as a story about the effects of bullying.
Carrie’s take on bullying is very on the nose. There is little complexity. From the moment we meet Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz), we see her as a bullied child. She’s pelted with tampons and maxi-pads after she has her first period in the high school shower room. Kids spray paint “Carrie White Eats Shit” on the lockers, and her principal can’t even remember her name. At home, her mother (Julianne Moore) is another bully, using the Bible to subdue Carrie’s blossoming femininity, and locking her in a prayer closet with bleeding statues of Christ. This is a miserable child for whom the greatest tragedy is a masochistic desire to keep reaching out for the love, support, and help of all those who continually betray and hurt her. As interesting as it is, the message is too simplistic – “bullying is bad,” the movie constantly tells us, and the congregation is supposed to say “Aye!”
When Carrie discovers she has telekinetic powers, she is at first scared, but then elated. For the first time in her life, something is under her control. This is a sexual awakening as much as anything else; Moretz’s face takes on a near orgasmic look as she levitates books and bed in the privacy of her room while her mother washes dishes and listens to gospel music on the radio. The film is at its best when Carrie is discovering her powers, and using them. It’s obvious this is the story the director wanted to tell, but by constantly bouncing back and forth between Carrie’s mom, the concerned gym teacher, and the bullies plotting their revenge, the film seems to get caught up in ruminations on guilt, sin, and penance.
By the time we get to the movie’s climax—which most everyone already knows, even if they were born in the last decade—the explosion is more of a relief than it is a tension-inducing nightmare. Without something under the surface fueling the horror, everything on the surface felt flat, forced, and expected. Who was Carrie really angry with? The bullies? The school? Her mother? When Sissy Spacek raged at the world, she was the ghost of all those oppressed women who came before her, fighting against the systems designed to hold them back. When Chloe Grace Moretz does the same, she just seems to be doing it for herself, which just isn’t as terrifying. Justified, but not particularly scary.
None of this, though, has anything to do with the film’s competence. I was impressed with the craftsmanship and the care that went into it. Obviously, everyone involved knew they were remaking a revered, iconic classic, and really wanted to hit the ball out of the park. It’s not their fault that they are merely a weak echo of what came before. Carrie White just isn’t as scary as she used to be.