Sunday, October 28, 2007

Halloween Spotlight: 6 Fascinating Horror Remakes

Nowadays, it seems like every other horror movie that gets released is a remake of a classic, or sometimes not-so-classic, title. From a business standpoint, this makes sense, since by latching on to a proven commercial property the studios can make money on name recognition alone, without having to come up with a new premise. Heck, most horror movies are variations (read: ripoffs) of older movies anyway, and at least the remakes are up-front about it. Most of these movies are junk, but some end up being pretty good, if only as entertainment. In this group I would include 2004's Dawn of the Dead, 2005's remake of Dark Water (still my favorite J-horror remake), and even Rob Zombie's updating of the Halloween legend, which spent as much time following Michael Myers as it did running from him.

But occasionally, a classic horror title will get remade for reasons beyond financial gain. These movies tend to be the work of filmmakers who are inspired by the original films but have their own ideas for interesting directions for the original storylines. Below, in chronological order, I've listed six movies that fall into this category, along with video related to each of the films (original trailers, unless otherwise noted). Some of these movies are better than others- at least one of the titles I've listed should prove to be highly controversial- but they all have more on their minds than simply bringing back the old genre warhorses for a new generation of ticket buyers.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Jack Finney's serial "The Body Snatchers" has been officially adapted for the screen four times now, setting aside countless knockoffs. Of the official versions, only Philip Kaufman's 1978 remake can stand toe to toe with the Don Siegel original. What attracts directors to the story is the potency of the story's central metaphor- the idea of "pod people" can stand in for practically any kind of conformity, and prevailing forms of conformity change with the times. Kaufman's masterstroke was to use the pod people to stand in for the creeping, inexorable death of sixties idealism during the seventies, replaced by a rise in Me Decade values (not for nothing is the film set in San Francisco, the epicenter of the West Coast counterculture). One of the creepiest aspects of the film is how easily most people give in to the aliens. "It's painless," says Brooke Adams, right after she's turned into one of them. More than a simple horror movie, Kaufman has made a film about the death knell of the sixties, as more and more people had resigned themselves to a more pragmatic future.

(Note: this isn't a trailer, but rather a scene I think sums up this movie's awesomeness)

Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

F.W. Murnau's seminal version of Nosferatu was notorious for being a ripoff of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, designed to get around paying for the rights to the book. But although the cost of the rights had plummeted in the intervening years, I find it interesting that Werner Herzog decided to take his inspiration from Murnau rather than Stoker. Whatever his reasons, this decision freed Herzog from having to live up to the Dracula iconography that came before in favor of a more personalized adaptation of vampire lore. Nosferatu boasts the best cast of any Herzog film, headlined by Isabelle Adjani at her most beautiful, a young Bruno Ganz, and Herzog regular Klaus Kinski as a rat-like Count. Most of all, Nosferatu is one of the few vampire movies that doesn't shy away from the role of the plague in the vampire legend, evoking a small infested town with so much smoke and so many rats that you can practically smell the stench of death. It's perhaps the bleakest of all vampire movies, with even Dracula himself subsevient to the plague- even after he finally meets his end, the plague just keeps on spreading.

The Thing (1982)

Christian Nyby and Howard Hawks had previously brought John W. Campbell's story "Who Goes There?" to the big screen in 1951. But while John Carpenter was a fan of the original film, he nonetheless decided to helm this big-budget remake, with tremendously entertaining results. Like much of Carpenter's work, The Thing owes a great deal to Rio Bravo in its portrayal of hard-working men stuck in a lonely outpost who end up battling a formidable opponent. However, while the cast is made up of over a dozen engaging character actors (from super-cool Kurt Russell in a giant sombrero to Wilford Brimley in a rare villainous role), the real stars of the film are the unforgettably gory special effects, designed primarily by a then-23-year-old Rob Bottin. Many effects date as the years pass, but the sight of a man's head propelling itself across the floor of its own free will is as effectively icky- and wicked awesome- as it was back in 1982. The Thing is perhaps the best example of better special effects actually improving an old story- and as a result, it actually outshines the original movie.

(Note: this was practically all I could find from this)

Cat People (1982)

Paul Schrader's remake of the Jacques Tourneur classic can't hold a candle to the original incarnation in the horror department, but it's a fascinating piece of work in its own right. Rather than going for scares, Schrader delves into the psychosexual ramifications of the story (one tagline proclaimed it "an erotic fantasy for the animal in us all") as the heroine Irena finds herself grappling with her darker sexual urges. Of course, her troubles are more pronounced than most in this regard- sex literally brings out the beast in her, as she turns into a jungle cat and must kill before she regains her human form. It's Sex Panther: The Movie! Schrader doesn't shy away from the ridiculousness of his premise, but he also takes the thematic issues seriously, and as a result the film works better than it has any right to. This becomes apparent during the final scene, in which Irena sacrifices her own freedom so that she can be near the man she loves forever- a scene that's almost unbearably sad in context. Cat People is lurid and overblown and a little goofy, and I kind of love it. Plus there's a young Nastassja Kinski at her ripest, so it's got that going for it.

The Fly (1986)

Much like The Thing, David Cronenberg's The Fly is one of those rare cases in which a remake actually exceeds the original, in this case because the film is as much a relationship drama as it as a horror movie. To begin with, Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis play honest-to-goodness characters, and Cronenberg takes the time to let their characters get to know each other- and for the audience to get to know them- before he unleashes the scares. Consequently, we grow to like them, both alone and together, and so there's a real sense of tragedy when things go very wrong. Cronenberg has said that the film was inspired in part by the death of his own father, who had faced a long and painful battle with cancer, and it feels like the most personal film he's ever made. In addition, the film also works magnificently as an AIDS-era parable, in which the implusive, ill-considered decisions we make have far-reaching and sometimes deadly consequences. But most of all, The Fly is a cracking sci-fi thriller, boasting suitably gruesome makeup design as Goldblum's not-so-mad scientist gradually disintegrates until almost none of his human self remains. It just hits a lot harder than most films like this, because we actually care about him as a character, rather than simply marveling at the cleverness of the effects.

Psycho (1998)

All of the movies I've listed above, in addition to being interesting as remakes, also work remarkably well in and of themselves. The same cannot be said for Gus Van Sant's version of Alfred Hitchcock's benchmark of horror. But then, maybe that's the point. In choosing to take on a "shot-for-shot" remake of one of the most famous, acclaimed, and widely-studied films of all time, Van Sant in many ways has made the most basic of all horror-movie remakes. By mimicking Hitchcock's film as much as he can, he invites us to ponder the ways the two films are different- the ways we're affected by black and white vs. color, the more sexually-explicit imagery, the differing styles of the actors in the same roles, and so on. It's more thought-provoking than it gets credit for being, not least as an experiment in what a studio will let a director get away with after he's become bankable. In the end, Psycho '98 doesn't stand very well on its own two feet, but it's an intriguing bit of cinematic criticism, as Van Sant invites us to consider what it was that made the original Psycho such a singular achievement.


Bemis said...

I like to see Paul Schrader's Cat People getting some love; after Mishima, I think it's his best movie. That iMovie-created tribute is pretty sweet, too - it's almost like a late-night preview for the movie done by a small network affiliate in the late 1980's.

Jason_alley2 said...

Totally agreed on "The Thing" and "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers", and I also basically enjoyed the "Psycho" remake, even though I've never felt a need to watch it again (unlike those other 2, which I've watched countless times).

I actually haven't seen either of those version of "Cat People" or "Nosferatu", but I will.

Some other remakes I like off the top of my head: Abel Ferrara's '94 "Body Snatchers", Tom Savini's way underrated "Night Of The Living Dead" remake, "House On Haunted Hill" (a guilty pleasure but a pleasure nontheless), "The Omega Man", "The Hills Have Eyes", and most of all, 1988's "The Blob".