No-nonsense Detective John Mulchaey (David Keith) interrogates sassy, smart-mouthed teenager Sue Snell (Battlestar Galactica’s Kandyse McClure), one of only a handful of survivors from the prom night massacre at Chamberlain High School. Mulchaey suspects Sue had something to do with those terrible events but while his suspect proves effusive about the truth, flashbacks piece together the tragic tale of a tortured misfit called Carrie White (Angela Bettis)…
An early casualty of the Seventies horror remake craze, Stephen King’s bestseller-turned-Oscar-nominated Brian De Palma classic was reborn as this hit-and-miss TV miniseries from the director of Star Trek: Generations (1994). David Carson and screenwriter Brian Fuller borrow a fair amount from Lawrence D. Cohen’s 1976 script but restore a fair few elements from the original novel: the rain-of-flaming stones flashback (which De Palma shot but deleted from his movie); the telekinetically-frozen heart that kills Margaret White (rendered via computer graphics but less of a bravura set-piece than the famous death-by-flying knives); and a great confrontation between the principal and Chris Hargensen’s oily lawyer dad, that renders the former a more heroic, sympathetic character. The de-saturated colour palette renders Chamberlain High a lot closer to King’s rainy Maine setting, yet lacks the seductiveness of De Palma’s Californian fantasy vision of Bates High, crucial towards appreciating the satire.
Those of us who grew up loving the 1976 version were always likely to feel bias, so it’s worth noting a number of younger (noticeably female) viewers voiced their preference for the remake, given its less exploitative rendering of Carrie’s shower room humiliation and perhaps easier to relate to, TV friendly cast. And yet there remains the nagging suspicion everything has been dialled down a notch, which results in something akin to a very early episode of Smallville without Clark Kent.
The good news is that Angela Bettis, in her first role since her powerful turn in May (2002), is a very strong Carrie White. Despite being disconcertingly rewritten into a more assertive character, displaying a knack with an offhand quip, Bettis still captures that combination of soulful yearning, vulnerability and adolescent rage that makes Carrie such a potent horror heroine. Like her predecessor Sissy Spacek, she scrubs up good come prom night and makes the most of her one, heartbreakingly brief moment of happiness. However, with a few notable exceptions, the supporting cast including Lost’s lovely Emilie De Ravin as Chris Hargensen and Katharine Isabelle, wonderful in Ginger Snaps (2001), can’t match the same level of venom that made their big screen counterparts so ripe for slaughter, although they’ve been hampered by Fuller’s script. Queen bitch Chris even has second thoughts about dropping that bucket of blood!
In his book Danse Macabre Stephen King went so far as to admit he wished he had written Billy Nolan the way John Travolta played him, as an almost childishly vicious redneck over-awed by his rich bitch girlfriend. In place of Johnny T we have Jesse Cadotte as a scrawny, antisocial misfit with dead eyes, drawing parallels to the perpetrators of the Columbine high school shooting. How did he score a hot number like Chris? Bland beefcake Tobias Mehler falters as Tommy Ross, a tricky role that requires a strong dose of personality and makes one appreciate how much William Katt brought to the table. Patricia Clarkson, a fine actress, is more subdued as religious zealot Margaret White, but consequently a less monstrous mother.
Doing better by the update is television regular Rena Sofer as Ms. Desjardin, regaining her Maine-specific French name in place of the 1976 version’s Miss Collins. She shares a nice scene with Carrie, smartly remarking how high school reunions often play better for onetime misfits given how the in-crowd have already peaked. There is a lot of truth there. That said, it’s doubtful many viewers will recall gym teachers being quite so beautiful - a concession towards photogenic telecasting instead of accuracy. Another surprise is how Meaghan Black steals all her scenes in the hitherto unmemorable role of peppy, prom night organizer Norma Watson. Black, a gifted yet often ill-used actress, was equally striking as the Robber Girl in the Hans Christian Anderson adaptation The Snow Queen (2002).
The wraparound scenes involving Detective Mulchaey interrogating Sue, Ms. Desjardin and Norma (with the survivor count also upped from De Palma’s movie) seem like a gimmick and add little, but actually represents a sincere attempt to replicate Stephen King’s narrative that combines witness reports, book extracts and newspaper articles, which was inspired by Bram Stoker. However, forgive my hazy recollections, but was the literary Sue Snell quite so… off-balance. Equipped with a double-dose of sass, Sue wisecracks her way through the interrogation, in a manner somehow oblivious to being implicated deeper in the unsolved murders, laughs off her kindness to Carrie in public as being born from a lesbian crush, and engages in a surreal religious debate with Mulchaey when she claims that picture of dogs playing poker is more spiritual than Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Okay…
In updating the script, the filmmakers miss a trick by not recognising the (seemingly) lone African-American student at Chamberlain High would have more reason to find kinship with a misfit like Carrie, and decide to ignore the issue entirely. As in King’s book, Carrie’s vengeance goes further than high school as she rains hell over the whole town. And then there is the ending. It helps knowing this was intended to be a TV pilot for an ongoing series - in the manner of the later The Dead Zone - but those less tolerant are liable to scream profanities at this redrafted conclusion. David Carson tries to match the original shock ending, this time from Carrie’s point of view, but unfortunately implies her mom was right (“Your sin will find you”).