Everything old is new again, especially in Hollywood. Studios remake movies as frequently as stars have plastic surgery.
The latest retread is "Carrie," the horror film about a picked-on teenage girl who, after being pushed too far by nasty classmates at her prom, unleashes her newly discovered telekinetic powers on her tormentors in a monumental act of revenge.
The original "Carrie," based on a novel by Stephen King, was made into a movie in 1976. Directed by Brian De Palma, it memorably starred Sissy Spacek as the bullied titular heroine and featured a young Amy Irving and John Travolta (pre-"Saturday Night Fever"), along with Piper Laurie as Carrie's religious zealot of a mother.
The movie proved a major hit, grossing $34 million (making it the twelfth highest ranked film of the year) and earning respectful reviews at a time when few horror films were accorded much respect. Pauline Kael, the contentious critic at The New Yorker, hailed it as “a terrifyingly lyrical thriller.” Long a fan of De Palma’s, she further gushed in her review, “No one else has ever caught the thrill that teenagers get from a dirty joke and sustained it for a whole picture.”
The new version, while surprisingly effective, is unlikely to be a cultural marker in the same way that the original was. This latest "Carrie," directed by Kimberly Peirce (“Girls Don’t Cry”), stars 16-year-old Chloë Grace Moritz in the leading role (Spacek was 26 when she played the part) and the redoubtable Julianne Moore as her whacko mom.
What gives the film relevance to a new audience (and older moviegoers who want to revisit it) is that, in the more than three decades since the original came out, the issue of bullying and cyberbullying has come to the forefront of national consciousness. We now know that what Carrie’s classmates do to her is not just mean, it’s criminal.
Early on in the new movie, just as it happened in the original “Carrie,” the heroine discovers that she’s begun menstruating for the first time during a shower in gym class. Thanks to her restrictive upbringing by her fruitcake mother, she has no idea what’s happening and is terrified. Her classmates mock her relentlessly and pelt her with tampons and sanitary napkins.
Now though, in the updated version, a classmate captures Carrie’s humiliation on a cell phone and the video is posted online. Additionally, the reaction of the school administrator and the gym teacher are no longer as clueless or impotent as in the original film.
While the new awareness of bullying and cyberbullying give au courant oomph to this “Carrie,” they’re just window-dressing on the real reason behind this and most other remakes. The real motive: There’s money to be made.
“Carrie” isn’t the first remake and it won’t be the last. Studio executives constantly comb through their back catalogs looking for old movies to remake. In most cases, the studio already owns the rights to the properties and, while they may have to pay a screenwriter to do an update, that’s unlikely to cost as much as an original script.
More to the point, prospective filmgoers are already “pre-aware,” to use a term popular in industry circles. Mention “Carrie” (or “Spider-Man,” “Red Dawn” or “RoboCop”) and they know the title and are familiar with the content; it won’t take a huge, expensive marketing campaign by the studio just to explain what the movie is about to sell it to viewers.
There’s also a sense of reassurance to nervous executives in that very familiarity. Hey, it worked once, so it might just work again. It’s a lot easier to remake an existing property than come up with a whole new idea, execute it skillfully and then get an audience to buy in.
All those factors play into Hollywood’s propensity for making remakes. But even more to the point is that, by and large, movie audiences, especially for horror films, are made up of younger moviegoers, those in their teens and early twenties.
As far as they’re concerned, a movie made almost 40 years ago is ancient history. Prehistoric, even. Maybe their parents saw “Carrie” the first time around. Heck, maybe even their grandparents. This new “Carrie,” though, is their “Carrie.”
Which is exactly how their own children or grandchildren will feel in another 30 or 40 years, when “Carrie” is remade yet again, this time for direct transmission to Google Glass or Apple Watch or however we’re all watching entertainment by then.