Remakes – a necessary evil?

I don’t know about you, but I am a little wary (and weary) of the current trend in Hollywood for remakes. Why do film studios feel the necessity of going through the vaults, just to dust off some of the oldies (which aren’t necessarily goodies, even when they were released the first time around) and then think,”Hey, we could remake this one – they’ll love it!!”. To me, it’s just another sign of how cynical the industry has become (if it ever was uncynical in the first place).

I could, perhaps, understand it if the studio execs were thinking along the lines of “This was hugely successful back then, so now let’s update it and bring the magic to a new generation”. However, even in that thinking there’s a major flaw – the reason they were highly successful back in the day wasn’t just because of the story and the actors/actresses involved, it was about chemistry. The magic you saw on the screen between the lead characters, and which brought the whole thing to life, was because there was an indefinable and intangible ‘something’ between them that sparked, electrifying their performances. Plus, there’s something to be said for both the millieu in which it was set and the era in which the film was produced. The word glamour, for instance, meant something different then and the stars of the 40s and 50s, for instance, had it in buckets. I’m not so sure about the so-called ‘stars’ of today, but that could just be the cynic in me.

Even in the niche world of horror cinema, remake-itis has broken out. Witness for example the recent remake of Nightmare on Elm Street, directed by Samuel Bayer. According to what I have read of Bayer, he cut his directorial teeth on toothpaste adverts for television. Judging from some of the reviews I have read of the new film, he has brought those slick, quick-cut, MTV-style skills to Freddy’s child-murdering exploits, and generally failed. For me, the reason why A Nightmare on Elm Street worked in the first place was because of its griminess and graininess, plus the special effects were produced mechanically, rather than in the Central Processing Unit of a computer. Even now, there’s something incredibly charming and endearing about the film just BECAUSE those effects are shaky and less-than-realistic.

The same could probably be applied to Clash of the Titans: I’ve seen the original with the Ray Harryhausen-animated stop-motion monsters and I loved it, even with the jerkiness and obviously unrealistic look of the creatures. Now, with the aid of digital effects, things look too realistic, I think, often to the detriment of the film. Okay, I do want it to look as if the hero is actually fighting whatever, but somehow, after seeing so many movies with incredibly lifelike CGI I get bored of the shininess factor. Plus, seeing as how digital has allowed more bang for the buck these days, their inclusion more often than not is there to cover up a distinct lack of story.

So, what prompted me to write this? It was the news that someone is remaking the first Hellraiser film, a favourite of mine (this may be old news to some, for which I crave your momentary indulgence =) ). I now have this distasteful vision of some slickly-produced and CGI-effects-laden monstrosity, completely removed from the sleazy, grimy and blood-soaked conception of the original – the very reasons why I absolutely adore the film in the first place. Pinhead is still one of recent cinema’s most iconic demonic(?) beings and even if Doug Bradley were to reprise his role, I would have to think carefully about whether to go and see it. I, and presumably more than a few others like me, happen to think that it doesn’t require remaking. It’s great enough as it is. It is, after all, about those Cenobite characters and their relationship to this world, and the dynamics involved in that interaction, that form the essential core of the film. The effects are, in some ways, secondary.

My feelings extend to the annoying habit of American studios ‘remaking’ foreign films when they were perfectly good in the first place. I’m specifically thinking about films like The Ringu cycle and Ju-On (The Grudge) – why did they deem it necessary? Part of the horror and shivers we experience come from the fact that the ideas, themes and background are not of our culture and that they’re alien (and I mean this in the positive sense). Because we don’t identify in quite the same way as, say, the Japanese do with the folkloric elements of The Ring, we are therefore positively disturbed all the more effectively. Plus, it has to be said, the Japanese do scary far better and on less money too.

I just think that it’s symptomatic of a dearth of imagination and originality in the mainstream of American cinema. Notice I said mainstream here – I am not talking about indie film-makers and their ilk. My impression, albeit somewhat superficial, is that much of the present output of Hollywood appears  to be geared towards remakes and rom-coms. That’s not to imply that there aren’t new and original films being made there – it’s just that right now very few of the ones I have noticed seem to be anything other than remakes and rom-coms. Yes, I’ve heard about The Last Exorcism, and I am sure that I will get to see it eventually, but that’s the only horror one I have heard about recently (but I am sure that my correspondents will let me know otherwise). I don’t know whether it’s the cynic in me, but it just seems to me that it’s easier for a film executive to handle the idea of a director remaking  a film from yesteryear than it is to listen to a new and original idea. Or, have we actually exhausted all the cinematic possibilities out there, and that we have arrived at the originality and fresh ideas? Heck, they’ve even remade I Spit in Your Grave, that quintessential example of the video nasty – who would have thought that possible twenty-five years ago?

10 Responses to “Remakes – a necessary evil?”

  1. Sefton Disney Says:

    Occasionally, I see a remake that I do think is valid for one reason or another – like “The Manchurian Candidate” which I thought updated the story in a very thoughtful way (and I love the original). And there are a few films I think could be re-made quite legitimately (such as John Frankenheimer’s “Seconds”). So I don’t dismiss re-makes completely out-of-hand. On the whole, though, they’re just there.

    I think one of the reasons re-makes are so prevalent in horror is that it’s such a cyclical genre – the core audience is essentially aged 16 to 30, so, after about 25 years, you mostly have a fresh audience.

    Also, I wonder if there are sometimes legal reasons for choosing to re-make a film. Pretty much every successful film these days comes with a (usually specious) plagiarism suit attached. If you have a script you want to make, but which is a bit too similar to an older film, it would make sense to buy the rights and “re-make” it, rather than make the original screenplay and chance being sued by the original screenwriter. I suspect it’s the reason a lot of novels are so loosely adapted for the screen – they weren’t originally adaptations, but somebody in the studio readers noticed a screen treatment was a little too similar to a current bestseller, so it was altered into an “adaptation”. Which, of course, has marketing benefits, as well.

    One thing you touch on that I wholeheartedly agree with is that too many film directors today learn their craft on commercials and music videos. They don’t learn to make films. As a result, visual texture becomes more important than good storytelling. One of the reasons I’ve come to appreciate the films of (for example) Walter Hill and John Carpenter so much is that I think they were pretty much the last of the old-school genre film-makers, who learned to make narrative films, rather than commercials.

  2. For every remake that actually works/improves on the original (Carpenter’s “The Thing”, Cronenberg’s “The Fly”) there are at least 100 that are absolute, utter shite. I think the problem now is that the films they’re recycling are still – to me, at least, in my very early 40s – fairly modern. There was nothing wrong with the original Elm Street (it was in colour for the kidz that dunt lyk that blackunwhyt shyte), so what’s wrong. They’re remaking Videodrome, as I blogged earlier, putting it on a grander scale (worldwide hallucinations – absolutely, but it’s not Videodrome, so why call it that?).

    I think, unless you bring something new, you should not be allowed to even sit in a meeting about remaking a film.

    And CGI? No, absolutely not, never. The problem is, even with ILM doing it, it sometimes looks fake. And if it’s not ILM and looks like it was done on a Speccy, then you can f*ck right off.

    Sorry, rant over…

    • I admit there are some good remakes (like the ones you’ve mentioned, especially The Thing), but for me it’s the number of films that seem to be getting remade at present – back then, with The Fly, Cape Fear, and a few others, it was maybe one or two a year. Now it seems to be one a month. That can’t be very healthy, especially considering the poor returns remakes usually bring in.

      I’d heard rumours that Videodrome was being remade… I really think that would be a mistake… I think there should be a moratorium on remaking anything less than 40 years-old…. if not longer…. can you imagine if something as iconic as Brief Encounter was being remade….?

  3. I tend to see remakes as the lazy option by the film studios. Presumably they’re under pressure to release products but don’t want the risk of the film being a total flop: a new idea is an unknown quantity, whereas older films have effectively been field tested. I haven’t researched the financial returns on remakes but the comment they have poor returns is interesting. Maybe it’s better to make *some* money rather than none at all?
    I can see the need for some remakes. Some films have an interesting core concept but are badly executed, either due to bad script, cast members, the director, or all of the above (Johnny Mnemonic springs to mind as a prime example). Or the original has dated horribly for various reasons (The Thing, The Fly, Nosferatu).
    I can also see some justification in remaking foreign films. I know quite few people who just will not watch anything with subtitles. This is a ready made market for harvesting all those great ideas from outside the English speaking world. What really annoys me about this rout is the temptation the film makers have to alter the story presumably to make it more palatable (e.g. The Vanishing). I’m currently waiting to see when Hollywood gets its claws into a remake of Old Boy because I can’t imagine that surviving unscathed. Somebody call Sylvester Stallone’s agent, that sounds like a winner…

    • Thanks, Greg, for your input… many of your points are very valid and I agree with some up to a point, but even so the appearance that suddenly there’s a fad for remaking everything seems to indicate a lack of adventure, imagination and foresight at the heart of the film industry… I am sure SOME of the remakes are more than worth their investment, but the vast majority just seem pointless… that’s just my humble opinion, of course… 🙂

      • Yep, I just read my post back and it does sound like I’m almost arguing to justify remakes.
        I actually don’t like remakes. Like I said, I think it’s lazy, and I agree totally with your point about a lack of adventure and imagination. Remakes are almost risk free, or at least risk reduced, which is why I think Hollywood seems to prefer them right now. It’s far easier for film companies to remake an old film or a foreign film with some proven interest than come up with something original and, heaven forbid, perhaps even a bit edgy or controversial. It feels like Hollywood is run by accountants rather than film makers.
        I like your moratorium suggestion. When I heard about the proposed remake of Videodrome, the first thought I had was “why?”. Same with Planet of the Apes and most of the remakes I hear about.
        I also remember seeing the poster for The Wicker Man on the side of a bus on my way into work one day. I hadn’t really read it, so I commented to a colleague about how pointless that was and wondered if they cast someone totally inappropriate in Edward Woodward’s role, like Nicholas Cage. As you say, Pointless.

  4. Sefton Disney Says:

    I didn’t know there was a re-make of “Videodrome” in the works… that really does seem completely pointless to me. I can’t see it working with modern technology; it’ll just become another VR thriller. The metaphors won’t work.

    The thing is, with the remakes that have been mentioned that did work – “The Thing”, “The Fly”, “Cape Fear” – they weren’t so much re-makes as complete reworkings of the ideas, which allowed Carpenter, Cronenberg and Scorsese to make the films their own. In effect, they became personal films again, rather than a shot-for-shot re-filming of Alfred Hitchcock or Wes Craven.

    Speaking of modern technology, I totally agree with what Mark says about CGI. I’ve noticed how well “classic” movie FX stand up, next to CGI, and I think it’s due partly to inherent limitations in CGI (the “shininess” and “perfection” people often note) and partly due to human perception. I think the reason old-fashioned stop-motion and theatrical effects work is because they still involve a real, three-dimensional object in front of a camera, and I think, somehow, for all the advanced programming, CGI still can’t replicate that, and viewers spot it. It’s just close enough to being real that it shows up as glaringly unreal (what videogame designers call “Unreality Valley”). It’s interesting how many modern directors are choosing to return to older, pre-CGI effects techniques, especially in the horror genre.

    • Well said, Sefton. Alison & I watched “Star Wars” (the original and proper one) in the 97 re-issue version and the new bits are quite obvious. The weird thing is, even when they do blend nicely (such as in the space battle), they look out of place because the camera moves are smoother than the models! As for the later ‘Star Wars’, I went to see them as a dutiful fanboy but the last bit of “Clones” and first bit of “Sith”, I thought they’d plugged the video game in by accident.

  5. Sefton Disney Says:

    CGI is definitely a useful tool, can achieve effects that are extremely hard to achieve any other way, and can help reduce movie budgets a great deal – but it’s only a tool, and like any tool has to be used correctly. And, even at its best, I still think it lacks “weight”, for want of a better word. It’s very hard to talk about this without sounding a little mystical – after all, a film is only a projected image, or pixels on a screen. How that pixel was generated at source shouldn’t, logically, make a difference to the viewer. But I think physical effects have that “weight”, CGI doesn’t and, somehow, your mind can spot the difference.

    Funnily enough, Peter Jackson said that when he was filming “The Lord Of The Rings” – one of the movies which I think does use CGI brilliantly – the creatures were deliberately rendered to look slightly “jerky”, like old stop-motion animation. Partly, this was a nod to Jackson’s heroes, like Ray Harryhausen, but I also wonder if it’s why the creatures in “LOTR” look so superior to most CGI beasties.

    I know that John Carpenter was extremely disappointed with CGI when he made “Escape From LA”, and so he consciously used all practical effects on his next movie – and I suspect that’s one of the reasons “Vampires” leaves “Blade” in the dust…

    Just before I logged on here, I read a review of a low-budget western, “6 Guns”. The reviewer mentioned that he really appreciated that the screen gunslingers were clearly firing real blanks, instead of post-production CGI gunfire. Like he says, that gives you real smoke, and real recoil, and real actor’s reactions, which looks far better onscreen. “Weight” again isn’t it?

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