Back in 1973, two young couples whom you may have heard of by the names of Paul & Jan Crouch and Jim & Tammy Faye Bakker co-founded The Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN). They did so in order to distribute religious programming through the rapidly growing cable television market. Although the fledgling network barely survived its first month, it would eventually grow into a multi-million dollar media powerhouse, one that is still going strong today. While lately TBN has taken some flack from critics for allegedly softening its Christian message and over-emphasizing the decidedly non-biblical theology of the prosperity gospel, in the beginning the channel's programming resolutely reflected its founders' roots in the Assemblies of God. The world's largest assemblage of Pentecostal protestants. That means if you tuned in to TBN back in the day, you were assured a healthy helping of in-your-face fire and brimstone evangelism served with a generous side order of requests for monetary donations.
At about the same time this new breed of televangelists was making the scene, a young aspiring novelist (whom you also might have heard of) by the name of Stephen King was putting the finishing touches on his first full length book to be accepted for publication. As a lapsed Methodist freshly graduated from college with a degree in literature and a head full of liberal political ideals, it's not hard to imagine what King's reaction to the televangelists beginning to flood the airwaves was at that time. In an 1988 interview, the world's most popular purveyor of horror stories had this to say; "Yeah, I clearly learned my Bible, and I took a lot of what it says to heart enough to be disgusted by the Jim and Tammy Baker's and the Rex Humbug's of the world."
And nowhere does that disgust with a particular breed of Christian display itself more clearly than in the character of Margaret White, the mother of the titular character from King's very first novel, Carrie. As written, Margaret is a total nightmare, a mentally ill woman who believes most things in life (especially anything sexual) are an affront to God, and who constantly abuses both herself and her daughter in an effort to keep her family sinless. She's basically a small scale realization of everything King believes can go wrong with organized religion. In truth, it's a broad characterization written by an author not yet at the full peak of his powers, and even King himself winces a little at the immaturity of his efforts whenever he revisits Carrie.
Even so, there's something about Margaret White that's drawn a number of high caliber actresses to the role whenever the novel has been adapted to screen or stage. The most memorable take on Margaret is, of course, that of Piper Laurie in Brian De Palma's 1976 version of Carrie, a performance that netted her a nomination for both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for best supporting actress. Laurie somehow managed to embrace the inherent campiness of the character while still imbuing her with a touch of humanity. It's a bravura performance which has pretty much haunted every other adaptation of the source material ever since. And nowhere is that more evident than in the latest version of Carrie now showing in theaters (bet you were wondering when I was finally going to start reviewing the movie).
This time around, it's multiple Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore who takes up the role of Margaret, and the movie opens with her writhing in pain on her bed crying out to God and Mary (like the first movie, this Carrie mashes up its Catholicism and protestantism) to save her from the stomach cancer she believes was her punishment for having sex with her husband. The lump in her belly turns out not to be tumors, however, but rather a baby girl whom she unexpectedly delivers with no one to aid her. Margaret's first impulse is to plunge a pair of scissors into the newborn child's skull, but instead she reconsiders and decides to keep the girl, vowing to raise her in love and purity. The movie then flashes forward sixteen years to the now grown Carrie as she goes about her miserable existence as an outcast at the local high school.
It's hard to imagine at this point that there are too many people out there unfamiliar with at least some version of Carrie. Myself, I've read the book and seen all of the adaptations, including a bootleg video of the legendarily disastrous Broadway musical from 1988 (if you're a fan of "what the heck were they thinking" type productions, it's a must-see). But even if you've managed to catch only one, then you know how the story goes as the the new movie touches all the familiar bases. We see Carrie's humiliating first experience with menstruation in the school shower, her merciless teasing by the other girls in the locker room, and the subsequent punishment of those bullies by Miss Desjardin the gym teacher. We see Sue Snell, wracked with guilt over the incident, convince her boyfriend Tommy to ask Carrie to the prom. We see a vengeful Chris Hargensen plot with her boyfriend Billy to dump pigs blood on Carrie once she is crowned prom queen in a rigged election. And of course, while all this is going on, we see Carrie eventually discover her telekinetic powers, an ability which convinces Margaret her daughter is a witch who must not be suffered to live.
There's really not too much new in this latest take on the story. In a depressing nod to current events, not only do the mean girls throw sanitary napkins at the hysterical Carrie while she pleads for help from the shower floor, but they also film the incident with their cell phones and post the video to the Internet. Today's technology also raises its ugly head during the climatic scene at the prom where Carrie's destructive rampage is enhanced (not really) with a few CGI effects. Plus there's some Tim Tebow jokes for what that's worth. But really, unless you've somehow managed to avoid Carrie your entire life, about all you can do with this production is approach it the same as you would an oft revived play, watching it to see if the performances offer anything insightful to well worn characters.
To the lead actors' credit, they give it a good try. The problem is that Chloë Grace Moretz, fine actress that she is growing into, is just miscast as Carrie. She's too conventionally attractive to convincingly come across as an outcast, no matter how much they mess up her hair or how many baggy shirts they put her in (amazingly they didn't have her wear glasses, Hollywood's shorthand for ugly girls). All in all, she just looks like a popular girl who didn't have time to make herself up before coming to school. Plus her choice to gesticulate wildly whenever she uses her telekinesis makes her look like she's in an X-Men movie rather than a horror film. Carrie has mind powers, not jazz hand powers. Moretz could have befitted from toning the arm waving down a bit.
In contrast, Moore could probably have stood to relax and let loose every now and then. It's one thing to purposely play the role in a low key way, but another altogether to refuse to act bonkers when the moment calls for it. As noted before, she plays the role of Margaret as if the specter of Piper Laurie was hanging over her shoulder at every minute. Every time a line of dialog approaches that people associate with Laurie's iconic over-the-top performance, for instance the one in which she admits to having enjoyed sex with her husband, Moore tries to quietly rush through it as if to say "Please, please don't compare me to Piper!" Which, of course, we end up doing because it's so noticeable.
Still, you have to give the filmmakers some credit for trying something a little new with Margaret. Rather than having her simply portrayed as the one-note religious lunatic found in King's novel, the new movie's script emphasizes her obvious mental illness. Perhaps as an attempt to diffuse criticism from those Christians who (quite understandably) view the character as an ad hominem attack on their religion, this Carrie even includes a few lines of dialog that point out how many of Margaret's ramblings are either misinterpretations of Scripture (God is actually a big fan of sex within the confines of Holy Matrimony) or don't appear in the Bible at all (disobedience was the first sin, not intercourse). It's not much, but it does at least suggest that Margaret's craziness comes not from spending too much time going to church or watching the Crouchs on TBN, but rather from her diseased mind. Again, it's not much, but in a movie based on a Stephen King story, it's more consideration than we usually get.