GitRant – When Remakes Work

Remakes. What a load of unimaginative, lazy, cash-in shite eh? You’ve all seen them, they never work, they’re always awful and they usually (thankfully) sink without trace and leave the legacy of their far superior inspirations intact. Take a quick Google at how many sacred cows are going to be slaughtered over the next few years. Go on, I`ll wait.

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Yes, the Never Ending Story is up there. As is The Birds. And, er, Drop Dead Fred.

Wait, Drop Dead Fred?

I think that one will work. Stick with me and I`ll explain why. Because this article is about WHEN REMAKES GO RIGHT.

But first, lets set some parameters. What exactly IS a remake? Studios know the word has achieved pejorative status, so you`ll often see words like “reboot” or “re-imagining” thrown about instead. The line has become fuzzy. So here`s my definition, for what it`s worth. Here`s what I feel does NOT constitute a remake:

  • An adaptation of other media, which takes only characters and situation but not a specific plot – i.e. most comic book movies. So no Karl Urban Dredd, Josh Trank Fantastic Four or Amazing Spider-Man.
  • Movies which take inspiration or plot elements from obscure pre-existing movies (usually foreign), but not the title or characters. Bye bye Reservoir Dogs, 12 Monkeys et al.
  • Prequels or spin-offs disguised as remakes. See The Thing (2011), Abrams Star Trek etc.
  • Are usually, but not exclusively, pretty good movies.

So what does that leave us with? Here`s what I think constitutes a true remake. Bear in mind that the non-remakes from before may meet one or two of these standards too:

  • Shares a name with the original, no subtitle (except when this clashes with 3, above). See Robocop, Halloween, etc.
  • Follows the basic start and endpoint of the original. The Omen, Let The Right One In etc.
  • Plays on Audience knowledge – a familiar theme might play, a famous line might be spoken, or subverted, or an actor from the original may appear in a cameo. See Poltergeist, Friday the 13th, The Ring etc.
  • Is a crap movie. 80% of the time. Too many to list.

But WAIT. Yeah, We’ve all seen a crap remake or two. But what about the other 20%?

What do good remakes do that makes them work?

Here`s five remakes that kick serious hiney.

  • Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978)
  • The Thing (1982)
  • The Blob (1988)
  • Ocean`s 11 (2001)
  • The Fly (1986)

Hmm. I know what you`re thinking. Most of them are horror remakes. So horror remakes work, right? Well, Nightmare On Elm Street, Friday The 13th, Halloween, The Omen, Poltergeist and The Ring beg to differ (not the American version of the Grudge though, I quite like that one). So it`s not the genre. What about the time period? Most of these remakes span a decade from the late 70s to the early 80s, perhaps there was something in the air then? More on that later.

Lets look at the source material for those remake movies. One “reds-under-the-bed”  McCarthy era paranoia piece, a Frankenstein rip-off based on a pulpy SF short story to which it bares little resemblance, a b-movie starring Steve McQueen before he was Steve McQueen, a vanity project for Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack which tanked on release, and a techno-fear Vincent Price vehicle. Not an eye-catching pedigree is it?

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What I’m trying to say is that that the original movies these remakes were based on were at best, cult classics (which means a small group of people liked them a lot and nobody else gave a shit), and at worst, outright crap.

There are great ideas in these originals – ideas which the surrounding movie doesn’t quite live up to. So here`s what happened. John Carpenter, David Cronenburg and all the other future directors go and see these movies as impressionable sproglets and their imaginations fire up. Images lodge in their young brains. Images which stay with them as they forge their careers as genre directors. Technology and cinematography progresses. They get to a point where nostalgia and progress combine in their minds and they get the idea into their heads to make these movies the way they “should” have been. Being young, creative and ambitious, they invest everything in giving their version of their childhood memories the treatment it deserves. So, 30 years after their B-movie heyday, these oft-forgotten cult classics are given some 80s spit and polish and unleashed on an unsuspecting world. And they`re frigging superb – mold-breaking, stuffed with new ideas, effects and social commentary that perhaps wouldn’t have flown in the era in which they were originally produced (these directors grew up in the 60s after all). The passion for the material shines through in every frame, whether it’s the paranoia of ten men trapped with an invisible alien in the Antarctic or the Kafka-esque transformation of man to monster. None of these movies (bar Ocean`s 11) were multi-million A-pictures. Some of them even tanked on release. But time and VHS rentals have accorded them their status.

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So what`s different about today’s remakes? Well, it barely needs saying but it’s all about the money. From Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho right up to the upcoming Ghostbusters, if it ain’t a household name, it ain’t getting remade, and herein lies the failure. Studios think (often rightly so), that by sticking a familiar name on a movie, they guarantee a certain audience. Integrity and artistry goes out of the window. Serve us up a half-baked two hours of reheated shite with a name we like on the front and the bills get paid. Never mind that ALL these movies are forgotten about within two years of their release, it doesn’t matter if it keeps the studio afloat. And that is why it won’t stop. In our lifetimes we’ll have awful remakes of everything you can think of. Casablanca, Singing In The Rain, Ben Fucking Hur, you name it.

But the route to a truly good remake is to find something obscure. Something that slipped under the radar. Something that most people thought was terrible. That`s why, in my opinion, Drop Dead Fred might be a shoe in. They can hardly make it any worse…

But only if the lessons of the past are learnt. For example, it`s an interesting coincidence that there`s an AIDS metaphor in at least three of those good remakes listed earlier. Body Snatchers, The Thing and The Fly all have body horror elements and the “fear of the flesh” which typified the 80s AIDS scare. So there you go, there`s the formula. When you remake Jaws, or Jurassic Park, or Citizen FUCKING Kane, make it a big fat AIDS metaphor. Come on, Drop Dead Fred is Elizabeth’s subconscious knowledge that her unprotected liaison with Mickey Buntz gave her more than she bargained for? The NOTHING is a relentless and incurable blight forcing Bastien to come to terms with his abuse at the hands of the creepy bookshop owner? I mean, this shit writes itself…

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