There’s an old saying: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. It’s a self-evident adage that the good folk in Hollywood clearly haven’t embraced, as they continue to churn out an endless series of movie remakes. This year has seen the release of Clash of the Titans, The Wolfman, The Crazies, Edge of Darkness and Nightmare on Elm Street, and these will soon be joined by True Grit, Red Dawn, The Karate Kid, The Mechanic and Red Sonja. Then there is Let Me In, the US remake of the Swedish Let the Right One In. Together with the numerous sequels that are a regular fixture during a year’s movie output (and I’ve complained about those already), this signifies a remarkable amount of money being funnelled into yet more unoriginal ideas.
The funny thing about remakes is this; more often than not, either the original was so good that there’s nothing you can improve upon, or so bad that it really should have been left alone in the first place. But sometimes, just sometimes, a movie had such potential and was so screwed up in its execution, that a remake seems a valid and worthwhile endeavour. And, yes, sometimes even a movie that was good to begin with is improved on the second attempt. However, these are the exceptions, rather than the rule, and more often than not great movies receive the unnecessary makeovers. The popular brand is squeezed for every last penny.
For me, there are two kinds of the more unforgivable remake. Firstly, there’s the simple cash-in remake, where a classic movie is regurgitated for the sole purpose of pulling money from a new generation of cinemagoers who fear movies made before they were born, perhaps because the clothes look silly and the music is embarrassing. Secondly, there are the translation remakes, where a popular foreign movie is regurgitated for cinemagoers that fear having to read subtitles and can’t deal with a cast that all have black hair. Or something. Both categories are infuriating for their own reasons, but mostly because they very, very rarely do the original any justice.
Then there are those remakes that take the basic outline of the original and change everything else around it, such as the setting and the characters. At least the bulk of these demonstrate a little creativity. Good examples are The Magnificent Seven (The Seven Samurai as a Western), or Outland (High Noon in space).
Of course, a special mention has to go to the recent trend for announcing remakes by alternative labels. ‘Reboot’ is a popular one. Tim Burton coined the phrase ‘re-imagining’ for his appalling Planet of the Apes, perhaps offended by the suggestion that he was remaking anything. He has subsequently ‘re-imagined’ Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland.
What follows is my list of the five best and the five worst remakes over the years, in my oh-so-humble opinion. You should know, I was planning to avoid using movies that were based on books. To my mind, these aren’t really remakes so much as re-adaptations (Listen to me. I sound like Tim Burton). However, a good friend told me I was being ridiculously anal, so I ditched that restriction. Thanks, Maggie.
Please feel free to comment with your own suggestions.
The Good Remakes
Steven Spielberg’s remake of World War II romantic drama A Guy Named Joe shifts the story to modern day North America, replacing bomber pilots with aerial forest-fire fighters. Richard Dreyfuss replaces Spencer Tracey as the pilot who must become guardian angel to his girlfriend (Holly Hunter) and her new prospective man, after he is killed in an accident. This is one of Spielberg’s lesser known movies, released just after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and possibly lost in the wake of Ghost. Always is a reminder that the most successful director of all time can deliver a quietly touching romance just as well as a rollercoaster blockbuster or heavy drama. Dreyfuss and Hunter are quite possibly one of cinema’s cutest couples, and Brad Johnson is entirely likeable as the hapless beefcake trying to heal Hunter’s grief and win her over. Always also features Audrey Hepburn’s final screen appearance, as Dreyfuss’s angelic guide.
The Blob (1988)
Director Chuck Russell, having cut his teeth on Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, made a surprisingly entertaining addition to his CV with this remake of the classic B movie. This version is a lot more fun. With a script co-written by Frank Darabont (who would go on to make The Shawshank Redemption), The Blob retains its popcorn-munching, monster movie credentials, but always manages to stay just the right side of ridiculous. It keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek, while delivering a series of entertainingly grisly deaths at the hands, well, pseudopods of the acidic, carnivorous mass which terrorises a small American town. The Blob is just a pure piece of bubble-gum cinema, but also ruthless and a little unpredictable with the characters it disposes of, treating you to some sly misdirection as it dispatches people you could have sworn would be safe. Fun, right?
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
It takes some kind of self-confidence to decide that your debut movie will be a remake of one of horror’s most revered classics. Clearly not lacking in self-belief, Zack Snyder did just that, and the result was one of the best horror movie remakes to date. George Romero’s original, as with all of his zombie instalments, mixes horror movie thrills with social commentary, and Snyder is smart enough to realise that the critique on consumerism doesn’t need to be reinforced the second time around. Instead, the pettiness and pedantry of the human race in the face of extinction is explored in the interactions between the band of survivors, holed up in a shopping mall as the growing number of zombies look for a way in. The script is witty and intelligent, and throws in just the right mix of original material and knowing nods to its progenitor (look out for the appearance of Ken Foree and the Gaylen Ross store).
Freaky Friday (2003)
Before Lindsay Lohan imploded in bratty fashion, she was showing all the signs of a talent on the horizon. Shame. Taking the Jodi Foster role of a girl who swaps bodies with her mother, Lohan was both convincing and funny. Jamie Lee Curtis, who stepped into the mother’s shoes when Annette Bening stepped out, turned out to be the ideal choice to portray a teenage girl in a woman’s body, and matches Lohan for comedy value at every turn. Freaky Friday is a guilty pleasure, to be sure, and not the kind of movie you’re supposed to admit liking during talk of great cinema, but who cares? It’s funny, well-observed and most importantly to this topic, it’s better than the original. Hey, my tastes are eclectic. Deal with it.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
Don Siegel’s original adaptation of Jack Finney’s novel was by no means a bad film needing a remake. The story of a man who discovers that people are being replaced by emotionless duplicates, grown from alien pods, was an effective exercise in post-war paranoia. However, when writer and director Philip Kaufman made his own version, he took the paranoia and tension to much greater levels. Donald Sutherland takes the role of Matthew, who along with a group of growing (and then dwindling) survivors, tries to defeat the threat from the alien pods. Kaufman creates an almost unbearable atmosphere of threat and doom from the simplest of scenes, and the score is often a pared down series of noises and hums, which just adds to the unsettling mood. The sense of mistrust between the characters, and the tension as they attempt to move among the pod replicas, unable to display even the slightest emotion for fear of being discovered, is palpable. Invasion of the Body Snatchers has moments that are genuinely horrific, and the final scene will live in your mind for a very long time.
See also: The Thing, Ocean’s Eleven, The Departed, Scarface and The Fly.
The Bad Remakes
Rob Zombie claims to be a huge fan of John Carpenter’s original, so what he thought he could achieve by remaking it is a mystery. Zombie’s Halloween fails on just about every level, but his biggest mistake is in giving the faceless, implacable killer Michael Myers a complete back story. Zombie spends half the movie doing what Carpenter managed with a five minute opening scene and a few choice Donald Pleasance lines. Do we really care about Myers’ childhood? Does his oedipal fixation make him any more interesting or scary? And does Zombie’s wife have to be in every movie he makes? Zombie’s fascination with redneck family life takes what was an effective, very scary movie icon, and reduces him to just another by-the-numbers moron with a mask and a knife. Also, in leaving himself with much less running time for the actual Halloween story itself, there is none of the build-up and tension which permeated Carpenter’s masterpiece. Zombie’s follow-up, Halloween II, is even worse. Stick with the original.
The Haunting (1999)
Cinematographer Jan de Bont had hit the jackpot with his directorial debut, Speed. With the keys to the kingdom, de Bont went from one turkey to the next, but never sank quite as low as he did with this misguided and badly executed remake of Robert Wise’s supernatural classic. It could have been okay, it might have worked. The sets are gorgeous, the actors do fine, even with a rather flimsy script. The big problem is that The Haunting isn’t scary. At all. In fact, it’s ridiculous. De Bont is too reliant on CGI effects and, quite frankly, animated wooden cherubs, moving beds and rooms that turn into giant faces are about as scary as a character from Toy Story. The tone is clumsy from the outset, lacking any real atmosphere or subtlety. Add to this a final act that is way, way, way over the top and what we have is an anti-horror movie.
King Kong (1976)
When legendary producer and master of hyperbole Dino De Laurentiis announced he would be remaking one of cinema’s most influential monster movies, he promised to deliver ‘the most exciting motion picture event of all time’. This version was to feature a forty-foot, fur covered, robot Kong, which would replace the original’s stop-motion animation and herald a new dawn in celluloid spectacle. However, the movie failed spectacularly to live up to any of its producer’s rash boasts. With a pedestrian script, camp performances and plodding direction, King Kong wasn’t even the most exciting motion picture event of the year, let alone all time. And the forty-foot robot ape, while actually built as promised, was such a dismal failure that it only appeared for about twenty seconds, standing still and lifting an arm slightly. Not much hope of getting that thing to climb the World Trade Center, then. The rest of the time Kong is portrayed by special effects guru Rick Baker in a gorilla suit, smashing around miniature sets like Godzilla. Dreadful.
The Ladykillers (2004)
I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers, so it pains me to take one of their movies and brand it a travesty. However, with The Ladykillers they leave little choice. Once again professing to be huge fans of the original, the Coens took Ealing Studio’s timeless comedy about a group of inept bank robbers lodging with a sweet old lady who turns out to be more than a match for them and moved it from 50s London to contemporary Mississippi. Tom Hanks is the sinister, but charming Professor, leading the band of oddball criminals to their eventual comeuppance. Despite his best efforts he never quite emerges from the shadow of the original’s excellent Alec Guiness. And that characterises the film as a whole. Woefully unfunny, especially from the makers of Fargo and The Big Lebowski, The Ladykillers is an unfortunate blemish on an otherwise remarkable body of work.
Possible victor when they hand out the Most Pointless Remake Ever award. For reasons that may never be properly explained or understood, Gus Van Sant, hot off the success of Good Will Hunting, decided to remake Hitchcock’s seminal horror movie shot-for-shot. With Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates and Anne Heche as the doomed Marion Crane, Van Sant’s Psycho is a carbon copy of the original and as such can only suffer from the fact that it isn’t the original. The only noticeable difference is the addition of Bates masturbating as he watches Crane through the hole in the wall. You’re left wondering if Van Sant spent 38 years yearning to see Norman Bates spank his monkey, finally deciding to make his own Special Edition where his fantasy could be realised. Anthony Perkins made Bates a tragic, almost sympathetic figure, but for all his talents Vaughn just cannot do the same. Van Sant’s Psycho replicates the camerawork and editing of Hitchcock’s, but utterly fails to replicate the emotional punch. A meaningless exercise.