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Sunday, May 24, 2009

The VOH Roundtable: When Are Remakes OK?

In our first installment of The Vault of Horror Roundtable, the stalwart staff of the VoH tackles that implacable question: When is a horror remake actually acceptable?

Long-time readers of the Vault know that one of my favorite topics to rant about is the dearth of original ideas in horror cinema today, and the rash of endless remakes that we've been bombarded with for the past few years now. It seems there's not a month that goes by that some cherished treasure of ours isn't being pissed upon by the Hollywood movie-making machine.

And yet, I want to be very clear in saying that, despite my reputation as an old-school curmudgeon, I do, in fact, believe that there are times when a remake is perfectly acceptable--in fact, sometimes much more than that. In my years as a fan of horror films, and of films in general, I've held to a couple of personal rules as to what makes a remake OK in book.

Here's how it breaks down for me. First off, and I guess this should just be a given, but I believe that if a movie isn't anywhere near an unassailable classic in the first place, than a remake is fair game. I mean, if the original makers didn't get the job done right the first time, then why shouldn't someone else have a crack at doing a better job?

The first example of this that comes to mind is The Blob. I'm sure I'll get flamed for this, but as much fun as the 1957 original is, it is also far from untouchable. And you know what? There are many, including this blogger, who felt that the 1988 remake knocked the ball out of the park and pulled off that rare feat--it topped the movie it was remaking.

On the other hand, and it seems like this is the case the majority of the time, most remakes are stepping on holy ground, which is where I have a problem. The most insidious example of this would be the Gus Van Sant's version os Psycho, which goes down in history as perhaps the most wrong-headed remake ever attempted. Simply put, there is no reason on God's green earth for anyone to ever put his or her grimy fingers on the work of Alfred Hitchcock. There is nothing you could do to make it any better, so why bother, other than to cynically make a buck, and piss off a lot of people?

That said, I have one other major criterion for what I would consider an "acceptable remake". I'm sure there are more who would disagree with me here, but I've always felt that in the case of movies that are largely effects-driven, if special effects have advanced so dramatically in the ensuing time since the original was made, and it looks like there is a chance these new advances could really add something, I say go for it.

Since most FX-driven flicks fall into the categories of horror or sci-fi, that's usually where this second rule of mine has applied. For example, the two movies people always point to when they talk about superior horror remakes are John Carpenter's The Thing and David Cronenberg's The Fly. In both cases, I would argue that these remakes were justified from the beginning because their conceits were both rooted partly in strong special effects (for their time), and with 30 years having passed, and light years in special effects technology, it seemed a worthy pursuit to see just what these new, young whippersnappers were capable of bringing to two of horror's old warhorses.

And in both cases, it was well worth the effort. Now, I'm not trying to reduce the success of those two movies to strictly their special effects, but it is true that the '80s versions of those films pull off things from an FX point of view that would've been unthinkable to Howard Hawks and Kurt Neumann back in the '50s. They literally take the concepts advanced in their respective originals to a whole new, breathtaking, and previously unthinkable level. And I say that makes them OK in my book.

That said, there are also cases where this can easily backfire. After all, as I've made clear, special effects aren't everything. Allow me to direct your attention to King Kong. The 1933 original is an uncontested cinematic classic. Yet the techniques used to create its monster effects some 76 years ago have been so completely eclipsed that it seemed to me, at least on paper, that Peter Jackson and company had earned a right to take a stab at creating something fresh and new with it.

And boy, was I wrong that time. I don't know about you, but I found Jackson's effects-laden remake to be a tedious, abominable bore, so vastly inferior in every way possible to the original film as to make it completely unnecessary. And the overblown CGI, as amazing as it often is, only serves to lead me to prefer Willis O'Brien's elegant 1930s stop motion work.

So to sum up: Remake of mediocre original by competent filmmakers=Fair game. Remake of FX-driven original with vastly improved FX=Worth a try. Anything else=Stay the hell away from my beloved originals.

I was camping the first time I watched the 1999 remake of The House on Haunted Hill. I sat in our squeaky camper with my friend Taylor, a bowl of popcorn, and a blanket to put over my eyes for the scary parts. The beginning started out in black and white, and I remember saying to her "Great, this is going to be so stupid." The second I closed my mouth, a deranged mental patient grabbed a stack of sharp pencils and jammed them through the side of a doctor's neck. It was all downhill from there. I was screaming at all the murders, and I will forever be haunted by the underwater scene. While most horror fanatics out there scoff at this remake, it is what made me find old horror films.

I know it sounds completely ridiculous to think that one of the "worst horror remakes" could have influenced me to enjoy old-school horror, but I promise it does have a point. After that weekend, I ran home to my computer and used Ask Jeeves (yes, this is before Google blew up) and typed in "the house on haunted hill movie". I was hoping to see if it in fact WAS the guy from Night at the Roxbury in this film. Instead of getting a bunch of images from the movie I had just seen or finding out that YES Chris Kattan did a horror film, I was given a picture of Vincent Price.

Being only 9 years old, I had no idea who the HELL Vincent Price was. My mother did a great job leading me to the Freddy films, Jason, Michael, Carrie, and the rest of Stephen King's characters, but I had no idea who this guy was with the Boris Badinov mustache. So I went to my local family owned video store and asked "Do you have anything with Vincent Price?" The man smiled at me and said "Of course I do, and I wouldn't let most kids rent his stuff, but then again Brit...you've never been like most kids".

I scurried out happily from the video store with VHS copies of House of Wax, The Pit and the Pendelum, Theatre of Blood, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, The Fly, and on top of the stack..."The House on Haunted Hill". Along with those films, he sent me home with a few of Castle's other greats, like Uranium Boom, The Tingler, Macabre, and what ended up my personal favorite, 13 Ghosts. I must have looked pretty bad-ass to any middle-aged pedophiles down the street--a little 9-year-old girl with a vast collection of horror films bungie-corded on the back of her Huffy.

We have a tendency to write off remakes as a bunch of crap that can in no way ever live up to the original. I can't say that the people saying these things are wrong, but I can't say they're right either. The thing about remakes is that it inadvertanly brings the old horror genre along to a new generation. These remakers are trying to be a part of cinematic history (or taking a slice of the pie the original brought) but if you get the word out that it is a remake, then the original starts getting more play. Of the stack of films my video store owner sent me home with, a handful of them ended up being remade. I can't begin to tell you how many of my friends I made come over and watch the classics before we snuck into the theater to see the new ones.

Most of my generation doesn't really have the horror chops that I do. Which is both a blessing and a disguise. It's a blessing in that old horror films aren't being completely worn down. We may love Michael Myers, but after watching him every Fear Friday on AMC, he loses his fear. Bash as you may on Zombieween, but the theater I was watching the premiere in screamed, yelled at the screen, and cheered in excitement when he pulled out the mask from the floorboards once more. When My Bloody Valentine 3-D hit theaters, I went to my campus' Family Video in search of the original copy. It had been checked out, and a waiting list was created for people who wanted to see the original first.

Does it break our hearts when we see our favorite films being remade? Of course. But we cannot go into these films with a bad attitude or boycott them. Look at the remake of The Fly. That film is a BILLION times more terrifying than good ole Vinny's version. Sometimes an update, or an up-keep for that matter, is in order. It's impossible to keep these old films in circulation when they have to compete on Blockbuster shelves with big-budget explosions and Megan Fox. However, when a remake is happening, people browse the shelves to find the original versions, and a lot of the time, pick up other old-school ones sitting next to them.

I'm only 19 years old. Most of the people reading my blog, as well as The Vault of Horror, are well into their 30s, and these are the people that got the blessing to grow up along with the classics. I'm not so lucky. My generation DEPENDS on remakes to be made. A good amount of the people who HAVE seen the originals--we're brought there by some sort of remake.

Face it, people are LAZY. They're going to go watch what is available to them and what is recommended. Only freaks like us die-hards are the people that pick a horror movie out of Netflix or Blockbuster based off the back cover. I honestly don't know anyone who actually reads the back of those anymore. It's all about marketing, and remakes are GREAT marketing for the originals.

I thank people who remake films, because without them, most people wouldn't even know the original versions existed. To be honest, I probably wouldn't be the young horror connoisseur I am today without that remake of House on Haunted Hill.

Well, to lean a little on my Philosophy minor, you can never know a priori whether or not a given remake is ok. Unfortunately, the remake needs to be made and then judged. I say this because, a posteriori, there are remakes better than originals, and some that were terrible flops. And then there are some that are not bad, but that just begs the question of whether they should have been made.

That being said, there are horror remakes throughout at least my lifetime that were great. These include, from the 70's and 80's, in no particular order: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly, The Thing [of course], and The Blob. Each of these brought something new to the table missing in the original, and each had respect for its forbearer. The Fly, in particular, is superior as a whole, telling a much more compelling story, and if anything, only lacks the gut wrenching "Help me!" from the end of the original.

Between the originals and the remakes, times changed. As B-Sol has pointed out in his posts, there were once codes and policies which prevented either gore or unhappy endings. Also, Hollywood in the '50s and '60s was often in the thrall of anti-Communism, and the movies reflected this. In particular, the invaders in Body Snatchers and James Arness' Thing from Another World were metaphors for Communism and/or Communist infiltration.

In the remakes the stresses were not on the politics of the day, but more about the isolation that can come from hysteria. And while the ending of the original Body Snatchers is vague, the ending of the remake is terrible and foreboding. Similarly, the admonishment to the world of "watch the skies" in Thing From Another World is replaced by a quiet "see what happens," which is much more chilling.

In others, the abilities of special effects improved so much that The Blob and The Fly were almost begging to be remade. And the fan bases were happy to see these movies redone.

Each of the above movies was successful, one way or the other, in remaking their original. And each brought something new to the table, either a new look, a twist, a return to the original source. In their own way, each was an improvement.

And I think there are some very commendable remakes done these days, as well. I think the new Dawn of the Dead holds up well against the original, though I am not the Romero freak some others are. But I have yet to see the remake of Night of the Living Dead, of which I have heard mixed reviews. However, DotD is excellent, both as a remake and a stand-alone film.

I also think the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre was also well-done, and told a little more of the story of that terrible family without encroaching on the original. To be frank, I have always had mixed feelings about the original TCM. When I first saw it, I was really disappointed with the poor film quality, especially the interior scenes with the decrepit grandpappy. Over time I have come around on the original TCM, and now recognize its greatness. There are some truly great scenes, notwithstanding that there was better film quality in some contemporary pornography.

Other remakes have fallen into the category of simply having good special effects, like the remakes of House on Haunted Hill and Thirteen Ghosts. Neither is a bad movie, but neither is really a good stand-alone movie. Sans effects, the same can be said of the remake of Psycho - not bad, but not necessary, especially as a near shot-for-shot remake.

Then there is Halloween. Halloween, the remake, as a stand-alone movie, is fantastic. As I said in my review, it's biggest problem is it is a remake of Halloween. And while it brings a lot of new material to the table, while respecting the ground trod by John Carpenter, it is the baggage of the original that sinks this as a remake. Too many questions are needlessly raised. I also think it is a complete waste of the skill and style of Rob Zombie. More often, I would rather he use his considerable talent to spin new visions on old themes, not on H2. Let him rip with more insane twists, like what he gave us with his dreadful Firefly family.

And then there are the rest, as far as I am concerned. While I didn't see the "remake" of Friday the 13th, I didn't need to. Seriously, what ground is going to be uncovered? I got sick of Jason after he was killed by Corey Feldman. How many different ways can Jason stab, crush, twist or break the human body? Simply put, this is just laziness and cynicism at the studio level. I can, and will, say the same thing about the remake of The Hills Have Eyes. It brought nothing new to the table, and was a cheap attempt at making money, not a good movie [for which I do not begrudge making money].

And then there are the remakes that have almost everything going for them, except that they forget the focus of the movie they are making. Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds is one of these. The original is nearly perfect, a movie that holds up, full force, till today. It is absolutely terrifying at every turn. Even the quiet moments are fraught with unknown terror.

When I heard Spielberg was remaking WotW, I was overjoyed. I don't think there was a Spielberg flick I didn't at least like, and most I loved [E.T. excepted, now that I am an adult]. And I was also banking on Tom Cruise once again turning to gold any movie he is in [yeah, sorry, I liked Cruise's movies before he went batshit. I mean, have you ever seen Cocktail? B-movie masterpiece].

Yet this was one of the biggest disappointments I had, Star Wars prequels aside. It had it all in the beginning - Morgan Freeman's narration, an unassuming introductory sequence, and a fantastic initial attack scene from a visual standpoint [though the idea of 200-foot-tall secretly buried mechs under city streets was a tad far-fetched]. After that, the movie devolved into Cruise's character not trying to survive, but learning how to be a Dad. Give me a friggin' break. The friggin' Martians are coming, and the daughter is going to get snippy about peanut butter? Eat your friggin' bread! No to mention the vercochte idea of traveling to Boston as a strategy in the middle of an interplanetary invasion. What, Martians are Sox fans? What about finding a hole?

Then the movie totally lost focus. If you recall, the climax of the original was in the very end, with everyone praying for deliverance in a church. The Martians are still going strong, with no end in sight. A Martian attack ship comes through the CEILING, AND THEN...........!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Wow, who knew the human race was going to have its fat pulled from the fire by microbes?

But as the new WotW was winding up, the Martians were already faltering, and you see one get blown up by a handheld anti-tank rocket. That doesn't make the invaders all that impressive, after all, considering we hadn't dropped any Daisy Cutters yet, or nukes, for that matter. Apparently, we were supposed to be happier about the mysterious survival of a petulant teenager than the human race. Personally, I liked it better when I thought Robbie bought it doing the one brave thing he did in the movie. At least it would have brought gravity to the story, which by the end it totally lacked, [except in the scene when Daddy had to beat a man to death to keep him quiet].

By relieving the stress of imminent extermination, by failing to respect the original, Spielberg had carnal knowledge of the proverbial canine. In short, it was an error to try to make it a film about growing as a family, rather than huge monstrous death machines killing everything.

In conclusion, I think it is impossible to know when it is ok to remake a horror film. Perhaps you have to look at the motivations of the people making a given film. Did they love the original? Are they trying to add something to it? What is their angle? Then you have a chance for a good film.

But Spielberg had the best of intentions. He wasn't trying to cynically make money. He wanted a blockbuster for all time. What WE got was an all-time bust. So I guess it has to be okay to produce remakes, just don't expect too much.


BJ Colangelo said...

This was much fun to do. And RayRay you now go along the ranks with B-Sol as people to make me spit diet coke at my computer. "The friggin' Martians are coming, and the daughter is going to get snippy about peanut butter? Eat your friggin' bread!"

that did it for me :)

B-Sol said...

Nice work, my associates. Let's try and make this a weekly thing! And anyone should feel free to send in any weighty questions they'd like the VOH Roundtable to tackle in the future...

Joshua said...

A very interesting read guys...and gal. You all make some good points and I agree with a lot of what y'all said. I am not a fan of the over saturation of remakes coming out of Hollywood these days.

I can see remaking films from the 60's or earlier cause there is a lot that we could improve upon, although I still like a lot of those. But the redoing of films from the 70's and 80's is getting ridiculous. There's just not much you can improve upon, in my humble opinion of course. Maybe I'm just getting old and jaded? hahahaha

Nice job and I'm looking forward to further Roundtables.

John Sunseri said...

Fascinating discussion, folks. Thank you.

I'd agree with B-Sol's two rules, with caveats. First--you should never remake a perfect movie UNLESS you're doing something new with it. Take Christian Nyby's THE THING (with all its Cold War sensibilities) and remake it in the age of AIDS (infection replacing the inexorable spread of Communism as the bogey), and you've got a winner. Take Val Lewton's CAT PEOPLE and focus on the weird sexuality that had to be downplayed in the original, and you have, if not a modern classic, at least an interesting experiment. But take PSYCHO and shoot it scene-for-scene, and you end up with a masturbatory mess. I mean, no one's remaking THE GODFATHER or CHINATOWN, because each of those movies are so perfect that you are inevitably going to lose the comparison. Try something different, and I'll give you a pass.

Of course, you also have to have talent and vision. Otherwise, you end up with THE WIZ.

B-Sol said...

Thanks very much, guys. Josh, I think from my own point of view, that in remaking movies from the '60s and earlier--the main thing that can be improved on is special effects. Because other than that, a classic is a classic. Just because it's old doesn't make it inferior for any other reason in my opinion. Hell, I think the 1930s might have been the best decade for movies, ever!

Garg Unzola said...

This almost convinced me that remakes are not the worst thing to hit the planet since AIDS. But not quite.

Anonymous said...

Remakes help you appreciate the originals Black Christmas-Friday the 13th-Halloween! We will wait and see about Nightmare on Elm Street!

RayRay said...

@ BJ-C: I am glad to be among such good company as B-Sol. Sorry about the computer.

@ B-Sol: my pleasure. I think the more I write, the more I write, so bring it on.

@ the rest: thanks for the feedback.

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