SITA: A Healthy Fistful Of Decent Remakes

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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

SITA: A Healthy Fistful Of Decent Remakes

The Princess Bride is a 1973 fantasy romance novel written by William Goldman.  The book combines elements of comedy, adventure, fantasy, romantic love, romance, true love, and fairy tale.  It is presented as an abridgment of The Princess Bride by S. Morgenstern (though no such book exists), and Goldman's "commentary" asides are constant throughout.  It was originally published in the United States by Harcourt Brace, while in the United Kingdom it was later published by Bloomsbury.

The Princess Bride is presented as Goldman's abridgment of an older version by "S. Morgenstern", which was originally a satire of the excesses of European royalty.  The book, in fact, is entirely Goldman's work.  Morgenstern and the "original version" are fictional and used as a literary device.  The story Goldman tells goes something like; when he was a young boy his Grandfather read to him from this book and when he became a Grandfather he wanted to do the same for his Grandson.  After hunting down an original edition of “The Princess Bride” Goldman realized his Grandfather had edited down or sometimes omitted some of the details from the book, for example his Grandfather completely skipped the chapter that featured twenty-three pages describing Princess Buttercup packing a trunk.  Goldman then edited down the entire book, removed the long winded and boring parts and published it as “The Good Parts Version.”  If any of this had been true it would be an example of how a remake can surpass the original.  I’m not saying any of my cited movies surpass their original, although a couple do, but this is a list of remakes that I find to be at the very least pretty good films in their own right.  I will attempt to put into words why I think these handful of films work as opposed to most remakes that are just abysmal.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)

Dr. Miles Bennell returns his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially skeptical, especially when the alleged doppelgangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim's lives, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and determines to find out what is causing this phenomenon. This film can be seen as a paranoid 1950s warning against those Damn Commies or, conversely, as a metaphor for the tyranny of McCarthyism (or the totalitarian system of Your Choice) and has a prologue and epilogue that was forced upon Siegel by the studio to lighten the tone.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

The first remake of the paranoid infiltration classic moves the setting for the invasion from a small town to the city of San Francisco and starts as Matthew Bennell notices that several of his friends are complaining that their close relatives are in some way different.  When questioned later they themselves seem changed as they deny everything or make lame excuses.  As the invaders increase in number they become more open and Bennell, who has by now witnessed an attempted "replacement" realizes that he and his friends must escape or suffer the same fate. But who can he trust to help him and who has already been snatched?

As the description on the original says, whether it be Communism or McCarthy-ism the base fear is about attacks on individuality and becoming just a drone in the faceless hive.  Without the “Red Scare” the remake does a fine job of transposing that particular aspect onto the fear that those around us are not who they say they are and maybe you aren’t either.  The fear of loss of individuality seems to be primal so even though they films are made twenty years apart that aspect still works.

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Scientist at an Arctic research station discover a spacecraft buried in the ice. Upon closer examination, they discover the frozen pilot. All hell breaks loose when they take him back to their station and he is accidentally thawed out!

The Thing (1982)

An American scientific expedition to the frozen wastes of the Antarctic is interrupted by a group of seemingly mad Norwegians pursuing and shooting a dog. The helicopter pursuing the dog explodes, eventually leaving no explanation for the chase. During the night, the dog mutates and attacks other dogs in the cage and members of the team that investigate. The team soon realizes that an alien life-form with the ability to take over other bodies is on the loose and they don't know who may already have been taken over.

Having just recently read “Who Goes There” by John Campbell I was surprised how much each of these films recreated what was written but in different ways.  The original got the number of people at the installation correct but the remake had more of the feel of the novel.  Basically there was no way for the original to pull off the special effects required to stay faithful to the book, so we get a non-shapeshifting sentient carrot but it works in the context of the film.  It was something completely alien to the humans that found it.  The remake could do the shapeshifting and we get a paranoia fueled story of those around you may not be who you think they are.  And Lovecraft inspired monstrosities as a bonus.

The Fly (1958)

After her husband Andre Delambre is crushed to death in a mechanical press, his wife recounts to his brother Francois Delambre and police Inspector Charas the events of the previous few months.  They were very much in love and with their little boy, a very happy family.  Andre was experimenting with teleportation - transporting objects from one point to another by breaking the object down to the atomic level and then reassembling it in a receiver a distance away.  The system had some glitches - it seemed to work with inanimate object but his cat disappeared when he tried teleporting it.  He thinks he's solved all of the problems with his invention and decides to try and teleport himself.  When a fly enters the teleportation device with him, disaster strikes.

The Fly (1986)

Seth Brundle, a brilliant but eccentric scientist attempts to woo investigative journalist Veronica Quaife by offering her a scoop on his latest research in the field of matter transportation, which against all the expectations of the scientific establishment have proved successful.  Up to a point.  Brundle thinks he has ironed out the last problem when he successfully transports a living creature, but when he attempts to teleport himself a fly enters one of the transmission booths, and Brundle finds he is a changed man.  This Science-Gone-Mad film is the source of the quotable quote "Be afraid. Be very afraid."

I also recently finished reading “The Fly” by George Langelaan and holy crap the original film is a prefect adaptation of that short story.  Only thing I noticed missing is in the short story after Mrs. Delambre discovers what has happened to her husband she asks why he doesn’t just transport himself and not activate the receiver and he explains via writing that if someone figures out how his equipment works they could someday rematerialize him because he would still be out there somewhere.  A point that becomes important when during his final attempt to separate himself from the fly he rematerializes with part of the cat that never materialized early in the story.  At this point it no longer mattered if he found the fly with the white head since there was no way to separate the cat from the whole.  Not only would this have been expensive to create on screen but would have pushed the family friendly sci-fi horror film over into the hopeless despair category.  The remake although at points gory, it is Cronenberg film, actually make more scientific sense to me.  It wouldn’t be a simple body part swap, it would be an integration of the two into a single entity with the DNA replication mechanism providing the descent into terror.  In the short story Dr. Delambre makes reference to the buzzing in his head getting louder as time passes as the fly brain starts becoming more dominant and Goldblum’s mannerisms convey that same thing in the remake.  Even if this wasn’t a remake it stands as a good film and a very good updating the story films.

13 Ghosts (1960)

Reclusive Dr. Zorba has died and left his eerie mansion to his penniless nephew Cyrus Zorba and his family.  Along with the house, the Zorba family has also inherited the occultist's collection of 12 ghosts, who can only be seen through Zorba's special goggles.  The family members, their lives at risk upon the discovery that Dr. Zorba's fortune lies hidden somewhere in the house, receive aid from unexpected quarters as the threat to their lives is revealed.

Thir13en Ghosts (2001)

Arthur and his two children, Kathy and Bobby, inherit his Uncle Cyrus's estate: a glass house that serves as a prison to 12 ghosts.  When the family, accompanied by Bobby's Nanny and an attorney, enter the house they find themselves trapped inside an evil machine "designed by the devil and powered by the dead" to open the Eye of Hell.  Aided by Dennis, a ghost hunter, and his rival Kalina, a ghost rights activist out to set the ghosts free, the group must do what they can to get out of the house alive.

Holy crap the original scared me!  Holy crap the remake scared me too!  William Castle did the original and it is kind of hokey at times with the “Look through the red cellophane to see the ghosts and the blue if you’re too frightened.”  The update made this story into a true horror film, the ghosts had appearances that reflected what they were and how they died, the threat of opening a portal to hell and the fact that the living people in the house are trapped and in jeopardy until the machine has completed it run.  The ghosts are disturbing to look upon but there is also a psychological feeling of dread that permeates the scenes in the house.

The Amityville Horror (1979)

Based on the reportedly true story of George Lutz and his wife, Kathleen, who move into their Long Island dream house with their children.  But the Lutz's lives turn into a hellish nightmare as the legacy of a murder committed on the premises gradually affects the family. Even the priest they call in, Father Delaney, cannot exorcise the demonic presence from the home.

The Amityville Horror (2005)

George and Kathy Lutz and their three children move into a house that was the site of a horrific murder a year before.  They decide to keep the house and try to keep the horror in the past.  This is until, George starts to behave weirdly and their daughter, Chelsea starts to see people. What now follows is 28 days of sheer terror for the family.

I find these films to be equal, I like them both and have no real complains about the remake.  It is kind of heavy handed at time but it fits the mood of the film.  In all honesty I think this is the best role Ryan Reynolds has ever had.  His portrayal of the slow descent into madness of George Lutz is some of the best serious acting I have ever seen him do.  Having only seen him play lovable goofballs before this I was surprised by his ability to do dramatic characters.

The Fog (1980)

The Centenary of the small seaside town, Antonio Bay, is approaching. While the townsfolk prepare to celebrate, the victims of a heinous crime that the town's founding fathers committed rise from the sea to claim retribution.  Under cover of the fog, they carry out their vicious attacks, searching for what is rightly theirs.

The Fog (2005)

Trapped within an eerie mist, the residents of Antonio Bay have become the unwitting victims of a horrifying vengeance.  One hundred years ago, a ship carrying lepers was purposely lured onto the rocky coastline and sunk, drowning all aboard.  Now they're back, long-dead mariners who have waited a century for their revenge.

Simply, I think it is a good remake.  Trade tricking pirates to hit the rocks with betraying an agreement with people who need a home.  I find the backstory in the remake to be more compelling with the secret of how the town was really founded.  Both are really good but I may like the remake slightly better.

[Rec] (2007)

"REC" turns on a young TV reporter and her cameraman who cover the night shift at the local fire station.  Receiving a call from an old lady trapped in her house, they reach her building to hear horrifying screams -- which begin a long nightmare and a uniquely dramatic TV report.

Quarantine (2008)

Television reporter Angela Vidal and her cameraman are assigned to spend the night shift with a Los Angeles Fire Station.  After a routine 911 call takes them to a small apartment building, they find police officers already on the scene in response to blood curdling screams coming from one of the apartment units.  They soon learn that a woman living in the building has been infected by something unknown. After a few of the residents are viciously attacked, they try to escape with the news crew in tow, only to find that the CDC has quarantined the building.  Phones, internet, televisions and cell phone access have been cut-off, and officials are not relaying information to those locked inside.

I first saw [REC] before it was remade so I may be a little biased.  The original film is excellent and may be the start of my exploration of foreign horror films, yeah I had seen Argento’s work before this but this film had me searching IMDB by country of origin.  This is going to be difficult to explain.  Quarantine is not a shot for shot remake but more like it was recreated from the original scripts for an English speaking audience.  Essentially they are the same film with different audio tracks but you can tell they were directed by different people.  I don’t mean that in a bad way, there just are subtle differences in the production style that indicate that each Director put their own spin on the film.  Basically, Quarantine is excellent by association but also because it is a slightly imperfect copy of [REC].   I just got all trippy didn’t I?

The Last House on the Left (1972)

Often compared to Ingmar Bergman's stark medieval rape drama The Virgin Spring (1960), Last House on the Left follows a group of teenage girls heading into the city when they hook up with a gang of drug-addled ne'er-do-wells and are brutally murdered.  The killers find their way to the home of one of their victim's parents, where both father and mother exact a horrible revenge.  Like Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre two years later, Last House on the Left was an unrelievedly dark vision of contemporary horror that inspired many future films which copied its effects without achieving its visceral impact.

The Last House on the Left (2009)

During a family vacation, teenagers Mari and Paige are viciously set about by a gang led by recent prison escapee Krug.  When bad weather forces Krug’s car to career off the road, the gang, unbeknownst to them, seek refuge in the vacation home of Mari’s parents.  When the parents realize what their new lodgers have done, they begin to enact bloody retribution.

Let the hate mail begin.  If you saw the original in 1972 you would have been struck by it’s graphic violence, if you saw the original in 2008 you also would have been struck by it’s graphic violence.  It is forty years old and the level of violence in it is still bordering on offensive.  I am not criticizing, it is a film about what it would take to make you into a monster and just how far you would go once that happens with the possibility that you could never come back, but think about that, a movie made in 1972 is so graphic it can make a desensitized twenty-first century filmgoer turn their gaze away.  The horror is not what Krug and his gang did but what they made two average middle-aged parents do.  It is all about revenge and how powerful a parent’s wraith can be, the remake captured that and somehow managed to be as graphically violent but not be as brutal and stark.  Now that actually has nothing to do with why I prefer the remake over the original.  During every hyper-violent scene in the original, Wes Craven for some reason used the most inappropriate music.  There is a rape and murder depicted on screen and he uses the most upbeat folk music as a music bed.  A room is being painted in human blood and the music is way too happy and shiny if you know what I mean.

The Crazies (1973)

A biological weapon gone awry is only the start of problems in the little town of Evan's City, Pennsylvania.  Bouts of insanity in the populace are leading to murder and rioting, until the US Army turns up - and things really start going to hell.

The Crazies (2010)

As a toxin begins to turn the residents of Ogden Marsh, Iowa into violent psychopaths, sheriff David Dutton tries to make sense of the situation while he, his wife, and two other unaffected townspeople band together in a fight for survival.

Well look at that, a George Romero film that doesn’t include the words “of the Living Dead”.  Romero did in fact make films that had nothing to do with zombies but most of them didn’t do too well.  In this particular case maybe because it is terrible.  The original is disjointed and feels like even Romero didn’t know where the plot was going.  Now the remake on the other hand has a coherent plot that starts at point A and travels to point B without odd side trips that muddy up the main story and without scenes that are just thrown in to make the quota of disturbing imagery needed in a horror film.  Maybe the remake does have some cliché moments but it at least doesn’t feel like the story was assembled in the editing room.

Let the Right One In (2008)

Oskar, a bullied 12-year old, dreams of revenge.  He falls in love with Eli, a peculiar girl.  She can't stand the sun or food and to come into a room she needs to be invited.  Eli gives Oskar the strength to hit back but when he realizes that Eli needs to drink other people's blood to live he's faced with a choice.  How much can love forgive?  Set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg in 1982.

Let Me In (2010)

In Los Alamos, New Mexico, the twelve year-old Owen is a lonely and outcast boy bullied in school by Kenny and two other classmates; at home, Owen dreams of avenging himself against the trio of bullies.  He befriends his twelve-year-old next door neighbor, Abby, who only appears during the night in the playground of their building.  Meanwhile, Abby's father is a wanted serial-killer who drains the blood of his victims to supply Abby, who is actually an ancient vampire. Abby advises Owen to fight Kenny; however, soon he discovers that she is a vampire, and he feels fear and love for the girl.  Meanwhile a police officer is investigating the murder cases, believing that it is a satanic cult.

Every now and then I get asked to recommend a horror movie and depending on whether they mind subtitles or not I recommend one of these films.  Other than language and the order a few scenes happen these films are also essentially the same.  Maybe it’s the quality of film equipment in Sweden or maybe something in the format conversion from what they use in Europe to our NTSC but I think the original is a bit more moody and fitting for a vampire movie but I may just be mistaken with all the snow on screen.

Fright Night (1985)

For young Charlie Brewster, nothing could be better than an old horror movie late at night.  Two men move in next door, and for Charlie with his horror movie experience, there can be no doubt that their strange behavior is explained by the fact that they are a vampire and his undead day guardian.  The only one who can help him hunt them down is a washed-up actor, Peter Vincent, who hosts Charlie's favorite TV show, Fright Night.  Vincent doesn't really believe that vampires exist, but does it for the money.

Fright Night (2011)

A suburban Las Vegas teenager realizes that his new neighbor is a charismatic vampire in this remake of the 1985 horror comedy hit.  After years of climbing to reach the top of the social ladder, high school senior Charley Brewster finally rules the roost.  Just as Charley ditches his best pal, "Evil" Ed, and starts dating the most popular girl in their class, however, a handsome new face appears in the neighborhood.  It belongs to Charley's new neighbor Jerry, an outwardly amiable guy with a quick smile and a sharp wit.  But when Ed vanishes without a trace and Charley sees a side of Jerry that everyone else seems to miss, the nouveau popular teen becomes convinced that the nice-guy act is a cover for something truly sinister.  Unable to convince his mother that Jerry is a genuine bloodsucker, Charley turns to Las Vegas magician Peter Vincent to help exterminate the demon before he drinks the entire neighborhood dry.

What can I say, I like Chris Sarandon and Roddy McDowall but Colin Farrell and David Tennant are just kick-ass as far as I’m concerned.  Let’s face it, the original isn’t a masterpiece but for a remake it is pretty good, not great but very entertaining.

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