Saturday, April 18, 2015

Movie Remakes

     I’m sure just about every movie goer in the past few years has groaned at the news that yet another successful movie is being remade.  This issue seems particularly common in the sci-fi/horror/fantasy genres—it’s almost hard to find a classic movie that hasn’t been remade.  But, although remakes may be more numerous now, they’re not a new phenomenon.  Remakes have been made since the very early days of cinema.  The 1931 horror classic Dracula is a good example.  While the main version with Bela Lugosi was being shot by day, simultaneously the Spanish language version, with a different cast, was shot using the same sets at night!  Foreign movies are often remade as well.  Arrogant U.S. studios assume (probably correctly, but still) that most Americans don’t want to read subtitles, or listen to (often ridiculously inept) dubbing, or simply won’t watch movies starring actors they’re not familiar with.
     As readers can probably guess, I don’t think much of remakes in general.  It is kind of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation with me, usually.  If they don’t change the story much, then it’s just kind of a parroted rehash.  But if they change the story too much then it often seems like a different movie, whose tone is all wrong, or is now hampered with a stupid storyline.  As an example of the former, I’m still surprised that the 1998 version of Psycho was ever made.  From everything I’ve read about it, it’s nearly a shot-for-shot remake of the 1960 original, with the only real changes being prices being increased to account for inflation.  So what’s the point?  The only reason I can see that working is if the original director (Alfred Hitchcock) was bad, or the actors unskilled, which is an opinion held by very few people.  Rob Zombie’s 2007 Halloween remake is an example of changing the story too much.  In the remake we see Michael Myers as a child.  He’s poor, has an abusive stepfather (or mother’s boyfriend, anyway), and is bullied at school.  These mostly trigger his rampage, and cause him to go insane.  I thought this explanation was weak, and made Michael much less scary.  In the original he’s (apparently) a normal suburban kid, with a normal family, and he just starts killing for no good reason.  More information about his background and reasons why he kills make him much less compelling and frightening, in my opinion.
     Anyway, at this point I’d like to discuss some remakes that have been good.  Not great, or better than the originals, but decent in their own way.  (SPOILERS ABOUT MOSTLY OLDER MOVIES SCATTERED THROUGHOUT, BE FOREWARNED).
1)      King Kong, 2005 remake of 1933 original.  It’s been a long time since I saw it, but I recall liking the original.  Yes, it was in black and white, and clearly the stop-motion special effects were crude, but it was still charming and fun.  Peter Jackson’s remake seems to be a bit polarizing, but I liked it, too.  It was overlong, but I still think it was respectable.  And the effects were very well done, too, even though they were mostly CGI.  Alas, the 1976 remake, with Jessica Lange and Charles Grodin, was terrible—very dated, poor effects, bad script.
2)      Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978 remake of 1956 original.  Basically, they just made everything bigger in the remake, going from a small town to San Francisco.  The replication effects are, naturally, more explicit and convincing than in the original.  But the story is still neat and creepy, and very disturbing in a paranoid way.
3)      Dawn of the Dead, 2004 remake of 1978 original.  I resisted seeing this one, as the original is one of my favorite movies ever.  And the remake isn’t better, but it’s still good in its own right.  They kept the same basic story, with more characters, but made the zombies fast instead of slow.
4)      The Hills Have Eyes, 2006 remake of 1977 original.  This remake stayed pretty close to the original story.  The major change is much more emphasis on the cause of the feral family’s plight—nuclear testing.  The newer one is a bit more explicit, and more violent, but not overly so.  You still care about the traveling family, and the interesting normal, healthy family vs. mutated cannibal family mirroring is still intact.
5)      The Exorcist: Dominion, 2005 remake of Exorcist: The Beginning (2004).  This one is convoluted.  The studio, Morgan Creek, hired Paul Schrader to direct the prequel to The Exorcist.  However, after Schrader nearly completed it, the studio decided it wasn’t frightening enough, so they fired him and brought in Renny Harlin, and had Harlin reshoot the entire movie, using most of the same sets and actors.  Then after Harlin’s version came out and tanked, box office wise and critically, Morgan Creek gave Schrader $35,000 to finish up his version, and allowed him to release it.  I thought Harlin’s version was dumb, with one particularly huge plot continuity hole.  Schader’s version wasn’t awesome like The Exorcist, but I thought it was decent, and had its moments.

     I was surprised, and amused, to find out that comedy classic Airplane! (1980) was essentially a remake of a 1957 movie, Zero Hour!  The innovation for the remake was that they totally changed the tone of the film.  The original was a completely serious airplane disaster movie.  The remake was clearly intentionally funny, one of those laugh a minute movies.  In many cases they replicated exact lines of dialogue from the original, only with a comedic spin on them.

     Now let’s get to those rare remakes better than the originals.
1)      Cape Fear, 1991 remake of 1962 original.  The original was good.  It’s about a convicted rapist, Max Cady, who’s released and is now looking for revenge on the man who testified against him, Sam Bowden.  Cady spends the movie terrorizing Sam and his family.  It has a great cast, with Gregory Peck as Sam, and Robert Mitchum as Cady.  However, Martin Scorcese’s remake topped the original.  First off, in the 90’s the studio was able to get away with much more violence, and intense situations than they were in the 60’s, so the movie is way scarier.  But also the story has been made much more ambiguous in the remake, which makes for a more mature, complicated plot.  Remake Cady actually has a legitimate complaint, as Sam was his lawyer, and intentionally sabotaged Cady’s defense because Cady had committed the rape.  Also, instead of being a bland, happy family, the remake Bowdens are a mess—Sam’s marriage is rocky, and their daughter is rebellious and becoming sexually mature.  Cady is especially terrifying because he’s vicious, determined, patient, and extremely intelligent.  Nick Nolte (Sam), Jessica Lange (his wife), Juliette Lewis (his daughter) and of course Robert DeNiro (Cady) all give exceptional performances.
2)      The Thing, 1982 remake of the 1951 original.  The original 50’s version was good, but had its flaws.  It’s about an alien life form that’s impervious to bullets, has super healing powers, and is terrorizing an Arctic research station.  Problems with it include the anti-intellectual vibe of it (the scientist is more concerned with protecting the creature than his own fellow humans) as well as a tacked on romantic subplot between the hero and the lone woman at the station.  The 1982 remake blows the original out of the water.  Now, the alien is a shape shifter, which can perfectly imitate any life form, including people.  So you don’t know if your friends are human or alien.  This makes for a much more frightening, paranoid feel to the story.  Also, Rob Bottin’s special effects are fantastic—we get all manner of bizarre dog-Things, people-Things, unknown creature-Things, all presented in mind-boggling, gooey detail.
3)      The Fly, 1986 remake of 1958 original.  The original was campy good fun.  A mistake with a scientist’s transporter leaves him with a fly’s head and hand, and the fly with his head and hand.  Even if you haven’t seen it all the way through, you’ve probably seen the clip of the hybrid fly-man being eaten in the spider web, yelling “Help Me!  Help Me!” in an eerie voice.  Director David Cronenberg’s remake is the same basic story, but is much more compelling.  Once again, part of this is due to the more sophisticated (and grosser) special effects—instead of a mask, and a glove, as in the original, the remake’s Jeff Goldblum character is shown becoming a human-fly hybrid in excruciating, amazing detail.  And I’m usually not big on romance in movies, but in the remake it really works—Goldblum and co-star Geena Davis’s characters’ doomed relationship is heart-breaking, but not in a lame, insultingly melodramatic way.
4)      The Blob, 1988 remake of 1958 original.  Yet another 50’s remake in the 80’s.  In the original Steve McQueen and the residents of a small town battle the titular alien being, which grows to an enormous size.  It’s an enjoyable view, but especially now is not very scary, and is fun in a so bad it’s good sort of way.  The remake, which I think was unfairly reviewed, and mostly unseen by audiences, ups the ante.  Now the teens in the small town are contending with both the Blob and nefarious scientists.  Obviously the effects were more convincing, and explicit.  Stars Kevin Dillon and Shawnee Smith are good, too.
5)      The Omega Man, 1971 remake of 1964 original (titled The Last Man on Earth).  Based on the Richard Mathewson novel, I Am Legend, which is about a vampire plague that has killed off nearly all humans.  The original, with Vincent Price, is fairly faithful to the novel, but wasn’t that exciting.  I’m actually unable to remember most of it, which is a bad sign for my appreciation of a movie.  The 70’s version was much less faithful to the book—instead it was very over the top, campy, and cheesy.  However, this is a case where cheese is good—The Omega Man is pretty ludicrous, but it’s definitely fun.  And I’ve always been a sucker for 1960’s-70’s Charlton Heston sci-fi, such as Planet of the Apes, and Soylent Green.  In 2008 there was yet another version, which kept the book’s title.  I found this one, starring Will Smith, to be frustrating.  I liked the beginning, as they set up that Smith’s character is alone, desperate, and going a little crazy.  But the vampires are absurd—unbelievably fast and strong, and look fake, like CGI effects often do.  Plus the ending never made any sense to me.  So, version #2 was my pick of the litter.
6)      The Shining, 1997 remake of the 1980 original.  The remake was a made for cable series, but I’m counting it.  Stanley Kubrick’s original is legendary—even non-genre fans have probably seen it, and it’s often held up as being one of the best horror movies ever.  I disagree with this, to a degree.  I like the Kubrick version, but I think it’s definitely overrated.  Most of this is because of plot changes that were made from Stephen King’s novel (which I adore, obviously).  These changes were puzzling.  I get why the hedge animals weren’t included (the special effects of the time weren’t up to snuff) but why remove the boiler subplot, and more importantly, why take out the main character Jack Torrance’s redemption at the end?  And then there’s the acting.  Jack Nicholson is clearly an excellent actor, but his portrayal of Torrance is wrong.  In the book Jack is a decent guy, struggling with alcoholism and then his sanity as the story progresses.  Nicholson’s Torrance seems crazy from the beginning, so his decline is barely noticeable.  Stephen King wasn’t happy with Kubrick’s version, and thus was heavily involved with the remake.  Therefore, it’s much more faithful to the book.  Actor Steven Weber (best known for the sitcom Wings) does a better job as Jack, because he seems properly decent and sane at the onset.  Also, the remake was a miniseries, so since it was about two hours longer it could go into more detail than Kubrick’s version could.

     Okay, let’s end by being negative.  Here are the worst remakes I’ve seen.  Keep in mind, I’m sure many others would make the list, but given my disdain for them, there are many I’ve never seen, so I can’t comment on them.
1)      Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2003 remake of the 1974 original.  The original is awesome—always talked about as being one of the best horror films ever, and rightly so.  It’s brutal, disturbing, yet oddly bloodless (seriously, rewatch it—most of the gore is off camera, or suggested).  Some older movies don’t hold up over the decades, but this one definitely still does.  And the remake was a waste of time.  Somehow they made a family of (inbred?) cannibals dull.  I know I saw this, but I literally can barely remember anything from it.  Even R. Lee Ermey couldn’t save it.  Worth it only if you like seeing Jessica Biel strut around in skimpy outfits.
2)      Planet of the Apes, 2001 remake of the 1968 original.  The original, as I alluded to before, is a classic—interesting, entertaining, and thought-provoking.  The remake is crap.  The plot changes don’t work at all—humans on the Planet are still intelligent?  Why?—and of course there’s the famous ending that tries to top the original’s shock ending image, but succeeds only in making no sense.  I often enjoy Tim Burton’s movies, but this was one of his misses. Although, to give it some credit, the ape makeup is vastly superior to the original’s.
3)      The Evil Dead, 2013 remake of the 1981 original.  This one got fairly complimentary reviews, but I can’t agree.  The biggest plot change didn’t work for me.  You’re trying to help a heroin addict go cold turkey, so you choose a decrepit cabin in the woods, far from any town, or a hospital?!  There were some good intense moments, but not enough to make it worth making, or watching.  Why bother viewing this pale retread when you can watch Bruce Campbell doing it better in the original?
4)      Day of the Dead, 2008 remake of the 1985 original.  Cheap, insulting, and moronic remake of George Romero’s great zombie opus.  Among its other faults, I’m not buying petite Mena Suvari as some military badass.  Plus the later plot twist involving the military scientists didn’t make it for me, either.  All flash, and no substance.  Followed by a direct-to-video part 2, which I won’t watch unless forced to at gunpoint.
5)      The Day the Earth Stood Still, 2008 remake of the 1951 original.  On the surface, this looks like one I might have enjoyed.  Readers may have noticed that some of the remakes I liked were 1950’s sci-fi movies remade decades later, with improved effects and slightly updated storylines.  Not in this case.  The original had primitive effects, but was entertaining, and quite charming.  Michael Rennie made for a compelling, charismatic alien Klaatu, and the movie’s message of peace was appropriate for all eras.  The remake had more huge scenes of destruction, but it’s all so soulless.  Keanu Reeves, let’s face it, is a limited actor—sometimes his wooden, confused-seeming persona is alright (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Speed, The first Matrix), but in this he’s just unlikable and oddly (since he’s so powerful) drab.  They took a fun, thought-provoking movie and turned it into a depressing, and dull slog.
6)      Last House on the Left, 2009 remake of the 1972 original.  This is it, the worst remake I’ve seen.  The original is one of my favorite horror movies.  It’s incredibly dark and disturbing, and at times is difficult to watch.  It’s tiny budget and minimum production values actually accentuate it—it seems like you’re watching home video footage of a horrific crime.  David Hess, as lead villain Krug, is great, and utterly terrifying.  His character even verbally forces his own son to commit suicide, basically out of spite!  The remake completely overturns the original’s tone.  It’s populated by actors who are too pretty and clean (the parents in this are absurdly young, too) and everything is watered down and sanitized.  It’s so slick and PG-13-itized that it loses all its impact, and realism.  I don’t think I can convey how much I hated this movie.  They took a vicious, jaw-dropping classic and made it into something that could probably be shown uncut on the Disney Channel (I’m exaggerating, of course, but you get my point).

     As usual, I’d welcome readers’ opinions, or dissenting views, about remakes.  As for upcoming remakes, I’m not hopeful about Poltergeist, but the Mad Max one actually looks promising.  We’ll see.



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