Shudder's Creepshow Presents Different Seasons: The Many Sides of Stephen King, an Alamo Drafthouse series of Stephen King screenings in anticipation of It Chapter Two. Click here to see the schedule and get tickets!
We all know the Brian De Palma version of Carrie, and those of us with a memory for okay remakes remember the 2013 version. But there was another adaptation of the Stephen King novel that landed eleven years earlier than the theatrical remake, though I wouldn’t blame you if it slipped your mind. The 2002 adaptation of Carrie was made as a TV movie, is inexplicably a half-hour longer than the original, and has some of the strangest and most hilarious tone problems of any horror film I’ve ever seen. What’s particularly mind-boggling is that the screenplay was written by none other than Bryan Fuller, who at that point was primarily known for writing much of Star Trek: Voyager but would go on to create such shows as Dead Like Me, Pushing Daisies, American Gods, and, of course, Hannibal. So what exactly went wrong with this early post-Star Trek attempt? Well, it starts to become more clear as you start to realize why exactly NBC commissioned a TV movie in the first place.
The film opens on a very quick shot of a young woman giving birth alone in a room before cutting to CGI meteors falling directly toward the camera, which makes absolutely no sense if you aren’t familiar with the source material, and it is never really addressed again. Cut again to Sue Snell (Kandyse McClure, who would go on to star in Battlestar Galactica) being interviewed by Detective John Mulcahey (David Keith) in a green-tinted interrogation room that puts The Matrix to shame. This is our framing device for the film, alluding to the massacre that we all know is coming, even though the film is strangely unconcerned with the possibility that younger members of the audience might not be familiar with a then-26-year-old film or the novel it’s based on.
The reason this is strange is because it’s fairly obvious that teens were the target audience for this thing, as this film is shot and scripted like a teen drama what you might have seen on the WB or UPN at the time. We are introduced to a large cast of twenty-somethings playing teenagers with the expectation that we pick up on their cliquey attitudes as if we’ve already spent two seasons and a Christmas special following their locker-bank drama. This is only complemented by the extremely melodramatic soundtrack, sound effects that are cartoonishly overblown when violence strikes, and a love of Dutch angles that isn’t quite as egregious as Battlefield Earth, yet here I am drawing a comparison to Battlefield Earth.
As for the plot itself, it mostly follows the beats that you’re already familiar with from the better versions, albeit in scenes that feel interminably stretched to their breaking point and with much funnier moments borne from a complete lack of self-awareness. Angela Bettis’ turn as Carrie White is actually pretty good when the role calls for her to be withdrawn and suspicious of the other students’ intentions, but her attempt to roll her eyes back into her head during Carrie’s psychic freakouts inevitably results in her going goofily cross-eyed. There’s other uncanny weirdness that surrounds this Carrie, like a bizarre attempt to update the story as she uses a fake search engine to look up the term “miracles” to justify her newfound abilities, and a relationship with gym teacher Miss Desjarden (Rena Sofer) that is framed as if it’s going to cut the romantic tension at any second. But Carrie herself is not the strangest characterization to plague the film.
Chris (Emilie de Ravin) and Billy (Jesse Cadotte), the couple that dumps the blood on Carrie on prom night, are certainly contenders in that arena, from Chris’ petulant, out-of-nowhere line reading of “This is far from over. This isn’t even in the same area code as over!” to Billy’s bug-eyed commitment to being a cartoon devil literally peering over Chris’ shoulder, to the fact that the duo somehow magically teleport out of the gym and back to Billy’s bedroom in the mere moments between dumping the blood and when Carrie melts down. However, if we’re going to give the award for silliest read on a character, Patricia Clarkson as Carrie’s mother absolutely takes the cake. Margaret White is supposed to be an off-putting and puritanical character, but the material Clarkson has to work with pushes the character almost into camp self-parody. After learning that Carrie performed her faux-Google search, she delivers a baffled line-reading of “The Internet?” as if she’s never heard of the world wide web. When she yells at Carrie to go to her closet and pray, it sounds less like the threat of an abusive parent and more like the half-hearted admonishment of a parent with weekend custody. When Carrie makes her own dress for prom, she proclaims without preamble that “It’s Godless,” and when she comments that she can see Carrie’s dirty pillows – a phrase that is much funnier in this iteration – Carrie uncharacteristically responds that “all the girls have them; they’re very fashionable these days,” to which Clarkson reacts with an expression worthy of a sitcom. Every scene with Carrie’s mom is a delight, and she makes you forget for a moment just how long it takes to just get to the prom and subsequent rampage.
The actual decimation of the school and surrounding town plays out pretty much exactly how you’d expect on a 2002 TV budget, albeit with some very funny acting by extras who are electrocuted by the gym’s scoreboard. Where things start to go a little haywire is at the final confrontation between Carrie and her mom. Rather than incinerating the house, Carrie uses a psychic hand motion to crush her mom’s CGI heart and passes out on the floor. And then, wouldn’t you know it, Sue Snell shows up and Carrie initiates some kind of psychic empathy link so that Sue is caught up on everything that Carrie felt and experienced in the days leading up to prom. Also, Carrie apparently went into a fugue state where she was no longer in control of her actions, so in the aftermath of the massacre she is still clueless and softspoken as ever, completely blameless as a protagonist.
This is where all the pieces start to fit together. This is why the framing device with Detective Mulcahey was necessary. This is why the whole movie feels like three episodes of a substandard teen drama series. As Sue secretly sneaks Carrie out of town to go to Florida, while Carrie has visions of her mother and Chris come back to haunt her in teases for last-minute plotlines, it becomes clear that the 2002 version of Carrie was an attempted backdoor pilot for a TV show adaptation. And as easy as it is to see the producers’ train of thought in translating the high school setting of Carrie to the ever-popular high school drama genre of television, Carrie’s horror elements and the necessary finality of the story creates a tonal mish-mash with the melodramatic push for continuing adventures. A sick part of me wishes this had gone to series, just to see if it would have continued on as a perpetual Miami-tinted trainwreck or if Fuller and crew could find a way to develop this absurd premise into something watchable. But 2002’s Carrie will just have to remain this strange oddity of bizarre intent and hilariously botched execution.