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CARRIE

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B

This is the third cinematic go-around for Stephen King’s telekinetic teenager—the second being a dismal 2002 NBC telefilm—and that’s not even counting the notorious 1988 musical or the only slightly less appalling 1999 sequel (“The Rage: Carrie 2”). One can cut to the chase quickly by saying that everything since Brian De Palma’s brilliant 1976 adaptation has up to now been, if not totally atrocious, basically unnecessary.

That could also be said of this new “Carrie” by Kimberly Peirce, but though it fails to measure up to the 1976 version, it has considerable virtues of its own. Peirce made an auspicious debut in 1999 with “Boys Don’t Cry,” so it’s understandable that she should have been drawn to King’s modern classic about a another young outcast treated brutally by those she tries to fit in with. And her treatment is very different from De Palma’s, which brought the director’s wickedly comic sensibility and extravagant visual panache to the material. What emotional depth his film contained—and there was a good deal—came from the extraordinary lead performance by Sissy Spacek, who gave the tormented title character a remarkable degree of inner life.

Peirce doesn’t depart much from the narrative arc of De Palma’s film—indeed, she follows the original script by Lawrence Cohen so closely that he gets primary screen credit, something he really deserves for having wrestled King’s book, which is structurally a compendium of extracts from news reports, depositions, memoirs and the like, into not only a conventional narrative but an effective one. (The alterations by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa are actually pretty minimal, mostly involving such updating as the inclusion of cell phones and YouTube postings. And when he does make a notable change—as in the final cemetery scene—the result is pretty flat.)

But Peirce’s attitude to the material is entirely unlike De Palma’s: she eschews any hint of a tongue-in-cheek approach, treating the story with a seriousness that suggests near reverence not only for King but for Cohen as well, although she and Aguirre-Sacasa do occasionally add bits from the book that Cohen didn’t use, such as a revelation about Sue Snell (Gabriella Wilde) at the close. And she mostly avoids visual flourishes designed to call attention to themselves, though she takes advantage of the advances in special effects to introduce scenes of Carrie (Chloe Grace Moretz) testing her new-found powers and jazzes up the culminating prom sequence somewhat—though not as much as one might expect. (The one exception to her restraint comes in the final confrontation between Carrie and her chief tormentors, Chris Hargensen and Billy Nolan, played by Portia Doubleday and Alex Russell, which goes much farther than the original did, presumably in an effort to appeal to today’s hard-core horror movie audience.)

The result is a “Carrie” that’s faithful to the outline of De Palma’s movie but equally to the spirit of King’s book, a poignant tale of a bullied girl’s vengeance against a mother who’s herself deeply damaged and classmates who victimize her for her awkwardness and lack of social skill. Though King spiced it up with a heavy dose of fantasy wish-fulfillment, it’s a story that has even more resonance in the present, when incidents in schools are so prevalent, than it did back in 1974. Given that, Peirce’s decision to treat it earnestly is certainly defensible, and working with cinematographer Steve Yedlin, she pulls it off quite well.

The cast fit nimbly into the director’s vision. Moretz is rather too attractive to be a genuine ugly duckling—she’s more a pretty girl trying to appear to be one—but she conveys Carrie’s shyness and fear, as well as her fury toward the close, to considerable effect, while Julianne Moore, as her religion-obsessed horror of a mother, replaces the oversized, operatic approach of Piper Laurie with a degree of fragility to go along with Margaret’s fanaticism. Wilde and Doubleday do their bits as good girl and bad girl efficiently, and Ansel Elgort is a standout as Tommy Ross, the good-natured classmate who, at his girlfriend Sue’s urging, draws Carrie out of her shell and proves a genial escort to the dance until tragedy strikes. Among the other adults, Judy Greer is aces as the hard-nosed gym coach who becomes Carrie’s champion, and Barry Shabaka Henley proves an affable presence as the befuddled principal.

Audiences are far too familiar with the original “Carrie” for Peirce’s version to offer any real surprises, and indeed when it tries to do so (as in the very last scene) it stumbles. But while it will never achieve the classic status of De Palma’s take on King’s first novel, its offers a serious, respectable alternative.

But one does miss Pino Donaggio’s wonderful background music. It probably wouldn’t fit with Peirce’s more straightfoward retelling of the story, but Msrcio Beltrami’s bland contribution is no substitute.

WE ARE WHAT WE ARE

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A horror film that takes considerable risks and generally makes them work, Jim Mickle’s “We Are What We Are” can be described as a movie about a family of cannibals, but leaving the matter there would be terribly unfair. Eschewing the one-slaughter-after-another mentality that’s practically mandatory in such movies nowadays, it opts for subtlety over grossness and, until the last reel, for creepiness over explicit gore. As such it might disappoint viewers whose major interest is in counting up the corpses and gallons of fake blood, but the more sophisticated will appreciate that it sends shivers up the spine more often than kicking you in the stomach.

The film is adapted from Jorge Michel Grau’s similarly-titled Mexican picture of 2010, but Mickle and his co-writer Nick Damici have altered the narrative substantially. Set in an unspecified small town in Appalachia, it begins with the death of obviously ill Emma Parker (Kassie Depaiva) in a shocking accident outside a convenience store during a driving rainstorm. The focus then turns to the grieving family: her husband Frank (Bill Sage), a religious zealot; daughters Iris (Ambyr Childers) and Rose (Julia Garner), both on the cusp of womanhood; and their little brother Rory (Jack Gore).

It’s gradually revealed that the Parkers have some peculiar culinary needs that aren’t a matter of choice but of physical necessity—the result of events from eighteenth-century family history that are revealed in periodic flashbacks. Their needs are also related to the occasional disappearances that occur in the economically depressed neighborhood.

One person who’s lost a loved one is Doc Barrow (Michael Parks), who also happens to be the town’s medical examiner. As he performs the obligatory autopsy on Emma, he discovers disturbing signs that she was suffering from a most unusual ailment. And when his dog finds a bone washed up by the torrential rainstorm, his suspicions are further aroused and he enlists Deputy Anders (Wyatt Russell) to help him investigate further. The fact that the amiably inept lawman been carrying a torch for Iris since high school makes him eager to help, since the search for more remains will be conducted near the Parker place. Of course, the fact that Frank finds the family in jeopardy just as he’s preparing a special meal doesn’t bode well for anyone.

For the first hour or so, Mickle coasts along mostly on atmosphere, gradually building up the uneasiness until he springs a sudden shock that begins a last act replete with carnage. But even here the level of violence and gore is far more subdued than what occurs in most of today’s horror films. And “We Are What We Are” is also distinctive in that its villains aren’t drawn in a conventional mode. The mindless killer mentality that drives the vast majority of thrillers nowadays is replaced by a strangely sympathetic attitude toward the Parkers, who after all are driven to do what they do not out of mere bloodlust but from genetic compulsion. It’s the trick that Fritz Lang pulled so memorably in “M,” and if Mickle doesn’t match him, that’s hardly a surprise.

He does, however, get unusually shaded performances from his cast, who complement his subtlety of approach with some of their own. Parks and Sage, to be sure, have a tendency to play to the rafters occasionally, but that’s only to be expected—and it does add some dark humor to the mix. The younger players—Childers, Garner, Gore—keep themselves more in check, as does Kelly McGillis as the next-door neighbor whose solicitude might not be entirely appreciated and Russell, who doesn’t overdo the aw-shucks routine as the clueless deputy.

One will never confuse “We Are What We Are” with a big-budget blockbuster, but its low-key look contributes substantially to its impact. Russell Barnes’s production design and Elisabeth Vastola’s costumes give an appropriately odd appearance to the Parker household, and cinematographer Ryan Samul adds a gray, gloomy overlay to the exteriors and a gothic dimness to the interiors. Mickle’s editing maintains his somber directorial pace while ratcheting up the tension at the right points before the explosion of the final reel. The score by Philip Mossman, Darren Morris and Jeff Grace, meanwhile, adds to the mood without calling undue attention to itself.

Hard-core horror fans may find Mickle’s film too sedate for their taste, and in many respects it does represent a throwback to the days when shockers weren’t so in-your-face as they are now. But there are those who will consider its old-fashioned qualities a welcome relief from the nonstop splatter of its rivals.