I always thought that “Carrie” — the 1976 horror film based on novelist Stephen King’s debut about a telekinetic teenage misfit whose self-loathing turns outward when she is the victim of bullying — was more sad than scary. It was disturbing, to be sure, and almost operatic in the climactic crescendo of violence that Brian De Palma depicted the title character wreaking havoc on her tormentors, in a high-school gymnasium, on prom night. But despite (or perhaps because of) seeing acne-prone evildoers punished, with a mythic and indiscriminate fury, it felt more like Greek tragedy than horror.
Director Kimberly Peirce has called her sturdy remake, starring Chloë Grace Moretz in the role made famous by Sissy Spacek, a “superhero origin story.” And there are some moments when the new film feels a bit like the next “X-Men” installment. One scene in particular, when Carrie is just learning how to control her new powers and a pile of telekinesis reference books is floating around her bedroom, is just this side of cheesy.
For the most part though, “Carrie” holds its power to rattle, thanks to a sympathetic performance by Moretz and an icky one by Julianne Moore, as Carrie’s religiously wackadoodle mother, who regularly locks her daughter in a closet and, in Peirce’s re-telling, mutilates herself with sewing tools. Superhero or supervillain, Carrie is enormously relatable, with Peirce bringing to bear the full force of the director’s affinity — nay, advocacy — for outsiders, so evident in her transgender-themed first film, “Boys Don’t Cry.” “Carrie,” the tale of a gawky teen who is led to believe that the class hunk (Ansel Elgort) likes her, but who is then humiliated by a mean girl on steroids (Portia Doubleday), is heartbreaking.
That story is also strengthened by the passage of time. The original “Carrie” could be read as a universal allegory of adolescence. Who hasn’t felt like a freak in high school, or fantasized about lashing out — or more often, inward — after being hurt or rejected? But more recent events — the Columbine massacre and the news, just this week, that a young Florida girl killed herself after being taunted by bullies who allegedly boasted about it online — have added resonance to the source material.
Peirce takes full advantage of this zeitgeist, updating the story for the Facebook and YouTube age with the assistance of screenwriters Lawrence D. Cohen, who wrote the original “Carrie” adaptation, and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, perhaps best known as the script-doctor hired to fix the Broadway musical “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” after Julie Taymor was fired. Early in the film, in the famous shower scene when Carrie gets her period without knowing what it is, a classmate immediately whips out her cellphone, and then posts the video of a bloody, bawling Carrie online.
The casual cruelty feels frighteningly real.
Is “Carrie” a massive improvement over the original? No. De Palma’s film is a classic, and its theme of the bullied becoming the bully still resonates. But the new film, which includes some of the same lines from the original plus an even bigger bloodbath at the end, works for a new audience. It’s as affecting as drama as it is effective as horror. It wrenches, even as it unnerves.
Cinematically, it may be unnecessary. But from a sociological standpoint, perhaps we need “Carrie” now more than ever.
★ ★ ★
R. At area theaters. Contains violent and disturbing images, crude language and sexual content. 100 minutes.