When Brian De Palma adapted Stephen King’s novel “Carrie” for film in 1976, he turned the simple story of a bullied teenage girl with telekinetic powers into a dreamy pop-horror fantasia — a lush, operatic fright show that grooved on its excesses. De Palma threw everything into the movie: split screens; slow motion; cartoonish humor; shameless sentimentality; a merciless sense of justice. The film made you laugh as much as it scared you. Often, it did both at the same time.
De Palma’s “Carrie” became so iconic that it remains fresh and vital 37 years later — practically an eternity in Hollywood time — and casts an imposing shadow over the new version by director Kimberly Peirce (“Boys Don’t Cry,” “Stop-Loss”). Instead of trying to outdo the grandness of the original, Peirce takes a more grounded approach, treating the characters of Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz) and her religious-fanatic mother Margaret (Julianne Moore) with more emotional gravity and empathy.
Although the beautiful Moretz looks nothing like the “chunky girl with pimples on her neck and back and buttocks” King described in his book, the actress invests the character with a fragile vulnerability that runs deeper than her unkempt hair and shabby clothes. She looks like she wishes she could shrink away into herself and disappear. When she gets her first period while taking a shower at school after P.E. class, she howls with terror and panic — she doesn’t understand what’s happening to her — and the other girls in the locker room descend on her like a mob, mocking and taunting and taking delight in her hysteria.
But menstruation also awakens something in Carrie — the ability to move objects with her mind. The power emboldens the timid girl, even though she must keep it hidden from her mom, who would undoubtedly consider telekinesis the devil’s work. Moore plays Carrie’s monstrous mama as a tragic figure, a sheltered and awkward woman who is as confused and befuddled as her daughter. Margaret is constantly cutting and scratching herself — flagellation as a form of worship — and although her parenting skills are misguided to the point of abuse, Moore makes us understand why she does the things she does. The world betrayed her, and she’s not going to let the same thing happen to Carrie.
She will fail, of course, in a most spectacular fashion. Carrie is going to suffer, and that’s where the movie starts running into problems. Peirce is good at illustrating the complexities and contradictions inherent in all her characters: The repentant Sue (Gabriella Wilde), who feels bad about having participated in the locker room debacle and asks her boyfriend (Ansel Elgort) to take Carrie to the prom; the mean girl Chris (Portia Doubleday), who plots bloody revenge after being barred from attending the prom; and Coach Desjardin (Judi Greer), the teacher who takes a motherly interest in Carrie.
Peirce fares much worse with the horror elements in the film, relying too heavily on cheap-looking CGI for ineffective shocks — she totally flubs the movie’s Big Moment — and turning her heroine into a kind of demonic superhero who uses her hands like Magneto to manipulate objects (this Carrie looks like she should have been part of “X-Men: First Class”). The beauty of De Palma’s movie is that the crazier the story became, the scarier and more unnerving the film got, building to an enormous “Gotcha!” scare in its final scene. This “Carrie” becomes less involving as it goes along, ceding its emotional power to special effects and unconvincing gore, and culminating with a closing shot so lame and uninspired, it’s as if the filmmakers just gave up and called it a day.