If there’s one thing guaranteed to summon the rage and ire of horror fans, and cinema buffs in general if we’re being honest, it is the subject of remakes. But the whole business of remaking movies has been around nearly as long as cinema itself. The earliest movies were very short affairs and naturally when film became established as a popular entertainment medium, it was only natural that stories that had previously been on screen as what we now would call shorts, returned as full length features.
And as the medium changed over the years, with every innovation and expansion of the cinematic art, old flicks were retooled for the new age. Hence silent hits were remade, but now with sound, and leap forward a few decades and something similar happens with the advent of colour film. However it’s only relatively recently that remakes have become the movie fan’s bête noir.
Now while there is the old argument that some stories are so timeless in their themes and so ageless in their appeal that they deserve to be retold for each passing generation, in recent years such claims have worn a little thin. For while the ‘timeless classic’ theory holds up well when applied to cinematic adaptations of literary works – after all, rarely is the first translation of a text to the silver screen the best * – in the general context of Hollywood remaking anything and everything, from classic movies to kitsch TV shows, and increasingly looking towards books and comics as a source of scripts, it does look like Tinsel Town is rapidly running out of ideas of its own. And currently it would seem that it’s the horror genre that is the prime target for alot of lazy cultural strip mining.
Now while it’s generally a safe bet that any remake is going to be inferior to the original, in the horror genre in particular we’ve seen this rule broken many times. To begin with as I’ve observed before, every Frankenstein flick since 1931 owes more to James Whale’s movie than Mary Shelley’s original novel, including allegedly back to the source productions such as Frankenstein – The True Story (1973) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein(1994). Such has been the power of this Universal classic that one could argue that virtually every rendition of the tale of the scientist and his Creature has been a remake of Whale’s two Frankenstein features.
Moving further afield, Hammer Films as well as bring Dracula and Frankenstein back to the cinemas, resurrected the Mummy with Universal’s permission to great effect. And lest we forget, Hammer made their name as purveyors of cinematic terror by delivering quality movies that remade the BBC Quatermass serials for the big screen.
But perhaps it was in the 1980s that we saw some of the best horror remakes ever made. Firstly in 1982 John Carpenter remade the classic The Thing From Another World (1951) and later in 1986, with similar body horror stylings, David Cronenberg masterfully reinterpreted another scifi-horror from that decade, The Fly (1958). Both these movies are all the proof you need that remakes aren’t automatically rubbish, and that in the right hands you can get a classic that equals the original.
And if that‘s not enough ‘80s goodness to convince you, consider that two other iconic films from that decade, Alien and An American Werewolf in London. Scott’s film borrows wholesale from 1959’s It! The Terror From Beyond Space with more than a dash of Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), while John Landis’ lycanthrope classic is heavily based on Universal’s The Wolf Man. Although it’s true neither of these modern classics are strictly remakes, both as close to their sources as either The Thing or The Fly, and arguably are in fact closer to being pure remakes than Carpenter and Cronenberg’s reimaginings.
But it’s also fair to say that for every successful horror remake there are many that crash and burn, dozens more if we count assorted rip-offs and cash-ins as unofficial remakes. However despite the number of horror remakes that are currently irritating genre fans, not to mention all those in years gone by, there are two important factors to remember before allowing the blood to reach boiling point and spewing black bile everywhere.
Firstly although the hit rate for horror remakes may be low, they must be appraised in the context of cinema as a whole. The key question here is not how many times a remake succeeds in bringing something worthy of the original to the table, but how original movies are any good in the first place. Let’s face it, the majority of movies in any genre that are currently screening aren’t destined to be hallowed as classics of their kind. Most are average, some entertaining but forgettable, and more than a few downright poor. When the percent of classic or quality films being produced from original material is so low, then we cannot expect remakes to perform any better.
Secondly, not matter how heavily hyped or how poor a remake turns out to be, it isn’t like they are coming round our houses to confiscate the original, and erasing all record of their existence in a Philip K Dick style exercise in reality editing. Though from the howls of outrage over the recent Friday 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street remakes you could be forgiven that was exactly what Platinum Dunes had done. Now while neither film would be gracing a top ten list of any stripe from yours truly, neither were they the cinematic abominations that many voices in fandom painted them as. (See here and here for my in-depth analyses of both these flicks).
Admittedly both had their flaws but equally they were far better than many of the sequels in either franchise. And I think that if we are honest, a lot of the ire comes from looking back with rose tinted specs; forgetting that both originals were low budget potboilers, and that while despite striking a chord at the time and becoming seminal films in the genre, neither were exactly masterpieces of cinematic craft. However despite their technical short comings, what Craven and Cunningham’s movies did have was originality back in the day and therefore the remakes are bound to seem inferior for older fans who know who Jason and Freddy are.
However that said, things grow somewhat murkier when dealing with remakes of films that are bona fide classics. Some films just seem to capture lightning in bottle and to any film fan it seems like outright foolishness to try and do it again. Recent horror remakes in category are, of course, Gus Van Sant’s Psycho (1998), Marcus Nispel’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Neil Labute’s The Wicker Man (2006), and Rob Zombie’s Halloween (2007).
Whereas the remakes of Friday 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street were optimistically anticipated in some quarters and generally hauled over the red hot coals of fandom for delivering disappointing results, the above quartet generated storms of fury from the outset. Simply the fact that some studio boneheads would have the hubris to try and remake classic movies that even those outside the horror world recognise as genuine masterpieces of cinema, seemed to many to be something akin to artistic vandalism.
However conceptual rage aside, although none can be counted as a qualified success, as it turns out though only one of these was actually a real stinker. Nispel and Zombie’s movies both have a degree of merit despite both taking a wrong headed approach to the subject matter, whereas Van Sant’s film seemed to more like a film school experiment that proved by copying Hitchcock shot for shot, there was more to more to directing genius than his camera setups. As for The Wicker Man debacle, suffice to say that if the most convincing thing in your film is Nic Cage’s hair piece then you are in a whole lot of trouble.
Of course, there is a fifth movie we could add to this category - Zack Synder’s 2004 remake of Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. Despite the usual outrage the announcement of this project spawned, when the movie came out it actually got a rather warm reception. Yes, it wasn’t a patch on the original but the horror world generally seemed to quite like it and roiling clouds of anger quickly evaporated. I’m not entirely sure why this was, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that virtually every zombie flick post 1978 being effectively an unofficial remake or sequel to Romero’s film whereas the other four movies are much more a-one-of-kind cinema experiences.
But as misguided as the remakes from Nispel, Van Sant and Zombie were, at least they appeared to have some reverence and understanding for the parent movies, whereas Labute’s film showed itself to be the product of cine-illiterate morons; I’m surprised they didn’t go the whole hog and call it The Wicker Dude...
But as utterly egregious as that beehive of nonsense was, I still have my cherished editions of the Robin Hardy original and I doubt there are many who would claim the remake is better. In fact, there is a certain amount of pleasure to be derived from the fact that the remake is so widely mocked; and rather than tarnishing the original film, Labute’s turkey seems to have enhanced its reputation.
And this is perhaps the point many of us forget – no matter the quality of a remake, at the end of the day it will bring younger film fans to the originals. In the realm of horror, it’s all too easy to assume that the next generation are only interested in torture porn and that they are never going to appreciate the history of weird cinema as we do. But this is blatantly false – the teen market, that the current horror remakes are aimed at, is the first generation that has grown up with the internet where there’s thousands of film sites to clue them in and it has never been easier to track down even the most obscure of old movies. And if the originals that the contemporary remakes are allegedly bastardising so badly are indeed as good as we think they are, the next generation will take them to their hearts in exactly the same way that horror fans of my generation embraced the movies of Universal, AIP, Hammer and Amicus that were made before our time.
* the exception being the Lon Chaney Snr version of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – even though it is a silent, black & white picture, it’s still the best translation of Gaston Leroux’s novel to the screen!
JIM MOON, 11th April 2011