Remake Hell in Movies

PrintE-mail Written by J.D. Gillam Wednesday, 04 May 2011

Remake Hell - by Jon Gillam

In this day and age of internet conjecture and rumour, it seems the smallest Chinese whisper can trigger an avalanche of information, both spurious and legitimate in equal measure. This is especially true in the world of movies.

It is a place where fanboys are quick to react to any news that they may stumble across whilst trawling the latest blogs or news websites. Their wrath is especially infamous, perhaps most venomous, when it comes to the subject of remaking past cinematic glories. Accusations are targeted at Hollywood, sometimes justifiably, that they are running out of ideas; that they are mining successes of years gone by in a bid to find a viable economic hit.  However, there is a bigger picture that needs to be reviewed here. One that tells another story.

What movie fans and film critics alike seem to under appreciate is the fact that the arts are very much a victim of their own accomplishments, but it is perhaps best highlighted within the film industry. By its very nature, the films that are financed and given a wide cinema release are part of a cyclical agenda that will always be in place for as long as mankind demands to be entertained.

We can go back as far as Roman times, when gladiators fought each other in arenas, cheered and spurred on by baying crowds demanding their fix of violence and blood-letting. Repetition must have been a major part of the fights, with the occasional change in weapons or tactics, and yet the audience would return time and time again to watch the carnage. Modern day sports show that fans will follow individuals or teams regardless of weather, form or finance. The arts cannot rely on that kind of extremist support, especially in financially de-constructive times. As a result, the proverbial elephant will return to the well again and again, knowing that there will be a successful outcome.

Let’s go back to the early years of cinema. Aside from the fact that audiences were amazed to be experiencing a new and exciting form of entertainment, the stories were all aeons old. Tales that had undoubtedly been told by campfires, over dinner tables, or even at bedtimes were being rehashed for a new generation.

Early filmmakers realised that, by adapting books, they could give an old story a new lease of life that could endear it to a new generation and allow those who perhaps would never had heard of it to enjoy it. The only limits to these fresh experiences were the budgets and skills available to those pioneering producers and directors.

It wasn’t long before the industry cottoned on to the notion of remakes. Horror films were the obvious choice for this because they were typically low budget and the early ideal of high concept. Universal had created a successful roster of monster movies with Dracula, Frankenstein and The Mummy, amongst others. The British studio, Hammer, remade versions of these with a fantastic level of success, financially and critically, and so an industry realisation was born. After all, why seek out fresh tales and take risks on new, unknown intellectual properties, when the tried and tested were sure to draw in the masses?

The idea of remakes, although they probably weren’t known as that back then, morphed into other product re-appraisals. The re-imagining.

Perhaps the easiest and best example of this is the case of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Originally released in 1956, there was a darker re-imagining with Donald Sutherland in 1978. Another re-imagining emerged in 1993, Abel Ferrera’s creation simply titled Body Snatchers. Then, The Invasion followed in 2007 with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman.  Obviously, there have been other, lower budget versions, but I felt it better to concentrate on the bigger studio editions to prove the point.

More recently, it seems Hollywood moguls have invented a new phrase to try and mask the idea that they are committing yet another remake to celluloid. The reboot. These remakes purport to take the original catalyst of an idea and put a new spin on it. Say what you will, a rose is still a rose!

Any remake is usually based on a film that has already been a hit, garnering a positive critical or monetary result for the original studio who decided to back it. Occasionally, a cult hit that didn’t set the box office alight is picked up and given a fresh coat of paint. The outcome can vary. Some are successful, others not so, but the impetus is clear. There is a bottom line that all studios must achieve to ensure that they don’t go out of business. If they can remake a movie that will make them money, it means that they can take risks on other, riskier properties.  So for the sake of selection at your local multiplex, remakes are a necessary evil. It doesn’t mean that you have to like them, or even watch them, but it does mean that a new generation can and will.

Perhaps this is the biggest argument on behalf of the remake. If you were able to see Psycho back when it was released in 1960, then you were probably shocked and frightened by the portrayal of violence and insanity on the screen in front of you. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to mention the frame for frame remake by Gus Van Sant in 1998, as that is not a good example to discuss for remakes. My point here is that by today’s standards, Psycho is a tame film. There is nothing in that film for the cinema going public of today to be shocked or surprised by.

Remakes are there to offer new generations a chance to see films recreated with new effects and a fresh slant on the story, to give an update that mirrors the hopes and fears of society at the time. Unfortunately for the majority of remakes, it appears that Hollywood would prefer to reheat the original plot and add copious amounts of CGI. Sometimes it works, but most of the time it doesn’t.

Examples of remakes that are considered to be good – and when I say good, I mean successful and loyal to the original material – are the afore-mentioned Body Snatchers films and the countless versions of Dracula, Frankenstein and Mummy films. The 1986 remake of The Fly, which incorporated the director David Cronenberg’s affection for body horror and starred Jeff Goldblum, was a fantastic update of the Vincent Price original and John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing dragged the 1951 original The Thing From Another World kicking and screaming into the late 20th century.

There are too many poor or pointless remakes that were seemingly made for financial reasons alone and so I won’t go into those here – the column would be twice, maybe three times the size!

But there are also some remakes that sit in neither camp. Ones that were made that did well, at least financially and offered something a little different. But those are very much down to personal opinion. So as to avoid a flame-war on my first column, I shall refrain from listing titles that I would consider to fit into that description.

Another issue that rears its head regarding remakes is the actors playing the roles. I expect that when Hammer originally announced their intentions to remake the Universal monster movies that the fanboys of the era were up in arms, proclaiming that no-one could replace the great Lon Chaney or Bela Lugosi. Fast forward to now and look back on those British horrors of the 1960s and tell me that you don’t automatically associate Dracula, Frankenstein or the other films in that Hammer bracket with actors like Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

The recent remake of Wes Craven’s seminal Nightmare On Elm Street had a similar furore surrounding it when it was announced that a different actor other than Robert Englund would be donning the iconic fedora, red and green sweater and bladed glove. Ironically, it seemed that Jackie Earl Haley’s portrayal as the child killing monster was the best thing about the whole film, but that’s not saying much. These issues are nothing that haven’t cropped up before and they’ll happen again in the future.

Now, the purpose of this column is to shine a light on the remakes that are proposed or even in development and to try and give a two sided opinion on them. I will try and get as much information together and deliver an educated argument about each production that is deemed big enough to demand inclusion. You may decide to agree or disagree with what I say, but opinion is always down to the individual. I’ll never set out to offend, but to propose debate and hopefully get you thinking twice about making a kneejerk reaction. After all, the proof is always in the pudding and you never know if you’ll enjoy that pudding unless you sample a bite!

Remakes are nothing new and they’re here to stay. Hopefully, I can give you a heads up on what’s on its way to your local multiplex and you can make your own mind up. Hell, maybe some of you will seek out the original to see what all the fuss is about!

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0 #1 Robin Pierce 2011-05-17 19:22
J.d. You knocked it out of the ballpark, my friend.

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