When you live in a popular culture predicated on sequels, remakes, rehashes, and clones, you grab what originality you can. For that reason, some of us were looking forward to “Carrie,” a new version of the 1976 Brian De Palma classic shriekfest. Director Kimberly Peirce proved with 1999’s “Boys Don’t Cry” that she truly understood the damage wreaked on adolescent misfits, and whatever you think of the “Kick-Ass” movies, they and the brooding vampire remake “Let Me In” indicate that 16-year-old actress Chloë Grace Moretz is one ambitious little cuss. Julianne Moore in the old Piper Laurie role of Carrie White’s Bible-thumping psycho-mama was icing on the cake. Could Peirce make a horror movie with added layers of empathy, thwarted empowerment, teen-grrl retribution?
I guess we had our hopes too high. The new “Carrie” is a thoroughly dispiriting remake — “retread” is the appropriate word — that could have been directed by any proficient Hollywood hack. It steps carefully in the footprints of De Palma’s film, sometimes down to the shot language, and retells this story without ever giving us a reason to watch it again.
True, there are nods to the 21st century: When Carrie (Moretz) has her first period in the girls’ locker room and is taunted by her classmates, the trauma is compounded by an
iPhone video posted on the Web. There’s a bit of texting — although not when it would be inconvenient to the plot — and an awareness of the current cultural conversation on bullying. It’s probably worth noting that Stephen King’s 1974 novel was an early outlier in that regard and that its vision of a harassed teenager visiting hellacious vengeance on her tormenters is as disturbingly powerful as ever and even harder to shake off.
So why does this “Carrie” feel so uninterestingly familiar? Is it the generic cast? Gabriella Wilde plays sympathetic Sue Snell, Portia Doubleday is chief mean girl Chris Hargenson, and Alex Russell is bad boy Billy Nolan — and none of them erase memories of, respectively, Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and John Travolta. Ansel Elgort holds his own as dreamy Tommy Ross, the nice-guy school star who takes Carrie to the prom, and Judy Greer (“The Descendants”) arguably improves on the original’s Betty Buckley as the only teacher who seems to be paying attention.
There’s also a bit more play given to Carrie’s investigation of her telekinetic powers, and the one scene that even slightly pushes the envelope comes when she levitates her bedroom with nearly orgasmic results. You’d think Peirce would be exactly the director to bring weird new energy to this story’s subtext — a teenage girl coming into the full supernatural power of her sexuality, with all the freedoms and dangers it brings — but the screenplay (by playwright and “Glee” scripter Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa) never breaks through into something that feels relevant, necessary, scary, or even entertaining.
Well, what does it matter if you’re in high school yourself and you’ve never seen De Palma’s version? Will the new “Carrie” speak to you (or simply scare the bejesus out of you) like the old “Carrie” did your folks? There’s something to be said for having an actual teenager play the title role — but there’s also something to be said for the stunned, almost childlike performance of the 27-year-old Sissy Spacek in the original. Moretz’s Carrie White is made of tougher stuff and you sense her lying in wait; she’s convincingly meek in the early scenes but much more convincingly cruel in the high school Gotterdammerung of the finale.
As for Moore, she plays Mama White as a curtain-chewing psycho from the first scene on, which blunts King’s bleak vision of religious extremists in our midst. Maybe she has gone too long between movies, but Peirce brings no sensibility, no voice, and no point to her “Carrie.” It’s a movie that feels made by a committee, and lord knows we get enough of those already.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.