The Onslaught of Remakes

Yes, we know–Hollywood is out of ideas. We hear that every time a new remake (or sequel, adaptation, or reboot) is announced. The thing is, movies have been remade since the beginning of the film industry. Back in the early years of motion pictures, films had a very short shelf life, which was its theatrical run. After it left the theater, the movie was stashed in someone’s attic with no though of it ever surfacing again. Until television came along, that is, and starting playing old movies. But in general, if a story (usually based on a book) was worthy to be told, filmmakers wanted to tell it again a decade or two later for a new audience.

The problem today is that everyone has access to libraries of older movies on home video or through streaming services, so a movie that was released 20 or 30 years ago can still be relevant now. Why do we need a remake when we still have easy access to the original that we cherished?

For a remake to be truly successful, it has to hit at least a few of these benchmarks:

  1. The original is so outdated as to not be enjoyable by current audiences, so the remake must be done in a way that modern viewers can relate to it.
  2. The original had a good concept, but was not executed well and a remake could improve upon it.
  3. New technology and filmmaking techniques will bring a fresh perspective to the story.
  4. A different point of view, theme, or plot device gives this story a purpose that sets it apart from the original.
  5. The original’s storyline isn’t still active with sequels that a remake would end.
  6. A remake would not be overshadowed by the original.
  7. An updated adaptation is closer to its source material than a previous version.

A good portion of remakes nowadays are horror films and for good reason–they’re cheap, the originals often were low budget and not very well made, and they have name recognition even if the actual movies have been forgotten by the masses. Of course there have been other remakes as well, some of which have been inexplicable (were people clamoring to see a new version of Arthur?). But the trend also exists to remake films that came out a generation ago–the time current filmmakers were kids so they remember with nostalgia certain movies that they want to emulate, literally. Some of those movies are considered classic and untouchable by some.

In recent years, we have seen remakes of Halloween, Robocop, Carrie, Evil Dead, and Poltergeist to name a few. Each one has been met with initial scorn from fans, though occasionally one will strike a chord with audiences.

One of the most successful remakes is John Carpenter’s The Thing. On the surface, it was the same story as Howard Hawks’s The Thing From Another World–a team of scientists at an arctic outpost discover ancient wreckage of a space ship that still contains life, which then terrorizes the humans. The original was in black and white, and while having decent production value of the time, Carpenter’s version made use of modern makeup and puppetry effects to create wholly original and jaw-dropping effects. This advancement in prosthetics allowed the filmmakers to go back to the original short story and put on film what the author intended. The characters were also updated to reflect an ’80s attitude rather than stiff, bland types as portrayed in the ’50s. Also, a happy ending was replaced with an ambiguous one that indicated that there was no good outcome. While people could still enjoy the original for what it was, Carpenter’s film was exciting, suspenseful, terrifying, and thrilling–and stood on its own.

Another ’50s horror film was redone to great acclaim was Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The original was set in a small town where plant-based aliens reproduced people down to the smallest detail except leaving them devoid of personality. It was set in a small town and was a comment on the Red Scare. When Phillip Kaufman remade it in 1978, he kept the basic premise and structure as its predecessor (which followed the source book closely), but changed the setting to San Fransisco and made it a comment about that generation losing their own identities. The updated locale and theme differentiated itself from the previous iteration, and the fact that it was well-made helped make it a classic in its own right. The same cannot be said for 1993’s Body Snatchers or 2007’s The Invasion, both of which cribbed plot points without doing anything memorable.

More recently, Sam Raimi produced a remake of his own first film, Evil Dead (dropping the “The” from the original’s title). The new version had a similar setting (a cabin in the woods) and setup (a group of young people find a recording and the Book of the Dead that summons the eponymous spirits); however, the characters are completely different and the story unfolds in unexpected ways. The remake has familiar images, such as a possessed girl locked in a cellar peeking through the trap door in the floor–but whereas in the original this was the lead character’s girlfriend, in the new version it was the lead character herself. In fact, the change of protagonists was a necessity because no one could possibly follow in Bruce Campbell’s footsteps–it was best to start with a clean slate. By making the lead a young woman with a drug problem whose friends are trying to help her get clean, this new film offers a brand new story and flawed character to root for in multiple ways. This was still very much an Evil Dead film, but one that could be enjoyed on its own merits while still owing a lot to what came before.

Contrast that with the recent Carrie (the third time this story has been told). Brian De Palma’s film was nominated for two Oscars, for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. Based on the book by Stephen King, it had to make several alterations to the story for production reasons and costs. The recent version promised to restore those elements, thereby being more faithful to the book, but also add the concept of internet bullying. The problem is that the filmmakers seemed to have no idea what real life internet bullying was like–or what teenage life in general was like. It was hard enough in 1976 to believe that a teenage girl had no idea what a period was or why it happened, but in the 2010s it’s extremely far-fetched especially when the film features a scene where Carrie is shown how to do a Google search. A current high school student would have spent her entire school life exposed to computers and learning technology, even if she had none at home so the idea that she would never have searched sex ed–even if her mother prevented her from learning it at school (which the movie never addresses)–is ludicrous. The social media aspect just seems to be thrown in without truly grasping how real kids use it. As for the missing elements from the novel, they don’t really add anything to the movie, which essentially reuses the screenplay for the original (Larry Cohen, the initial screenwriter is even given credit). While the movie is not terrible, it is essentially a retread of something that was done much better and seems more suited to exist in the ’70s.

Similarly, the remade Robocop pales in comparison to the original, which was an over-the-top, violence-ridden satire on society, the media, and corporate takeover of governmental responsibility. The new one covers similar ground plot-wise, but removes most of the satire and violence, so it’s a watered-down retelling of the same story that is quickly forgettable. While the remake was not a bad movie (and a fun performance by Michael Keaton), nothing about the original, except for perhaps the cheesy stop-motion animation, calls out for it to be done again–and it certainly was not done any better. The remake was pointless, and the Paul Verhoven film is still a classic that cannot be forgotten.

Which brings us to one of the most unnecessary of recent remakes–Poltergeist. Tobe Hooper’s film stands as a milestone to ’80s films, Spielbergian tropes, and terrifying horror without being overly gory or sensational. It is witty, warm, suspenseful, scary, and filled with memorable characters and iconic images. The remake (ironically produced by Sam Raimi) took all the elements, jumbled them up, and spat them out in a rushed plot that barely made it to 90 minutes of screen time. The original still holds up today for multiple reasons, and the only thing the new version did to warrant its existence was to change the protagonist from the mother to the son, who is now afraid of the house (with good reason) and is overcome with guilt for leaving his little sister behind to be kidnapped by the evil ghost, so he [SPOILERS] must save the day. Oh, and they also flew a drone into the spirit world, which makes as much sense as why digital devices have analogue distortions. Despite the filmmakers saying in promotional material that this film features a different family, it is exactly the same with the exception being that the father is unemployed rather than being a Realtor (yet inexplicably can purchase a house). This film needed to shake up the premise, to do something unexpected and exciting for it to justify its existence, but instead seemed like a high school production of a Broadway musical.

People complained, perhaps rightfully so, that Rob Zombie’s retooling of Halloween was too different than John Carpenter’s masterpiece, but at least he tried to do something different by showing the backstory for Michael Meyers. Of course, that film had many problems, including trying to cram too much into one story, but the intent behind it was valid. It brought a new dimension to a character that had been onscreen in far too many sequels and tried to re-establish its mythology. While it won’t outshine the original, it still made enough of a mark to be memorable in its own right.

Remakes don’t need to be pointless and they don’t need to be devoid of creativity or simply be cash grabs. If the filmmakers took the time to understand what made the original work in the era they were made and understand how that story can be translated into a modern retelling that elevates the material to something substantial, audiences would not be so cynical towards remakes.

Or, of course, they could just tell original stories.