Stephen King's lost X-Men prequel "Carrie" has gradually passed so firmly into the canon that the trailer for the latest adaptation didn't mind giving away the entire shebang. That all hell breaks loose at its climactic prom is fated, at least since the 1974 novel, the 1976 Sissy Spacek movie adaptation, the Broadway musical, the made-for-TV version, and on and on. The quiet girl with the Bible-breathing mom and the tempestuous telekinesis starred in King's first novel, and as he became a prolific teller of dark fairy tales, it was only fitting that his inverted Cinderella story passed into pop-horror lore. The story's themes — bullying, puberty, pageantry — renew themselves along with high school seniors, so adaptations of "Carrie" might as well keep popping up every 17 years or so, a deadly locust that slaughters teen-agers in taffeta and rented tuxes every time it appears.
This "Carrie," directed by Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry"), updates the story to include obnoxious tweaks of the digital age. Now when Carrie, already an outsider, suffers through her first period in the school gym shower, her bratty classmates don't just mock her bleeding, they post a cell phone video on YouTube. Otherwise, the big development is that star Chloe Grace Moretz, of "Kick-Ass" renown, is still a bona fide teenager, unlike Spacek, who was in her mid-20s during her turn at prom. Moretz leverages her youth and her wide, spooked eyes to make Carrie as frightening as any child suddenly drunk on too much power. Carrie's discovery that she can sling stuff around with mere will is no more mind-blowing to her than a 1-year-old's epiphany that just by manipulating his arm he can sling food off his high chair.
As dark as Carrie gets, her foils at school and home are even more fearsome. Portia Doubleday plays the remorseless mean girl whose vendetta against Carrie begets all this carnage. She's a ruthless, bitter snot, but it's a weakness of the plot that she hate-stalks Carrie only from afar. By contrast Carrie's mom, the self-mutilating, scripture-twisting Margaret, played like an affliction by Julianne Moore, is at Carrie's throat from birth, when she struggles not to carve up the newborn with a pair of shears. It doesn't take a zealot to see dark forces at work in Carrie's budding telekinesis, but nor does it hurt.
Bedraggled and pinched, Moore hollows out Margaret and fills her with industrial-grade fundamentalist paranoia — to a fault, if anything. "They're all going to laugh at you," she says, trying to convince the daughter to skip prom. (As religious prophecy goes, it turns out to be uncommonly accurate.) At least this unrelenting mother gives Moretz a chance to show some range, as the girl tries to reason with and comfort her. "Carrie" doesn't really work if you don't get to care about Carrie, and Moretz builds a likable lead. You get to root for her, so by the time she lays waste in epic fashion, you've been seduced into cheering atrocity.
This might push you to ponder some sort of ethical dilemma, as you try to sort out which brats deserve which punishment. Don't overthink it. It ain't high art, but it is cathartic and gruesome and arrives in time for Halloween. There's a reason we keep revisiting the bloodiest girl at the ball.