Why Remakes Are Not Evil

Once I beheld a beautiful thing. Kirk Hammett (no, he was not the beautiful thing, involved though he was in the beauteous moment), during an interview, spoke up on the irony of heavy metal elitism. Metalheads, he said, were by definition part of a counterculture, so, therefore, they should be open minded, right? I mean, what with (in prior times) being members of what was (at once, anyway) a fringe culture, part of a group existing outside the close-minded mainstream. Yet, Hammett, pointed out, metalheads have a tendency toward elitism, granting artistic legitimacy to a narrow band of musicians.

I think horror culture has a tendency to follow similar trends. Often, prowling around Facebook or otherwise interacting with other horror fans, I encounter attitudes that generally shun mainstream horror. Maybe it’s not gory enough, too pussified, something. But mainstream horror is frequently derided by this horror hipster attitude.

I think gore is often, though not always, a major factor.

“Hollywood movies are too tame.”

Or, worse, the mainstream film in question is – GASP! – a remake. It can’t get much worse than that, can it? A bloody remake! How disgusting. Derivative, unoriginal, inferior …

But is that always a fair assessment? Of course not! Certainly, in many cases, maybe even most, the original is a better film, the remake being a knock-off streamlined to mainstream tastes in order to keep a franchise or copyright alive, or whatever.

(I’m not going into the art versus exploitation debate, at least not here, because it’s a bullshit debate. Art and money have always been partners.)

But if the bulk of mainstream horror is “meh” then one can also argue that probably the bulk of any genre is “meh”. It’s called average. Being average means being in the middle and being representative of the general tendency of the population in question, in this case, the sum of mainstream horror.

I think it’s only safe to say, however, that underground horror probably has a roughly similar statistical curve, with the bulk of the films huddling around the middle, just below or above par or right on the top of the curve at exact average. Then there’s a bunch of shit on the low end and way at the far other end we find the outliers, the truly great stuff.

Mainstream or otherwise, I think it’s always a case of a handful of greats, a giant chunk of average and a nice bedrock of utter shite. A good movie is a good movie, mainstream or not, gory or not – remake or not.

I have seen remakes I considered to be superior, as I have said. Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (not horror but legit evidence for my argument nevertheless) is a terrific improvement over the Gene Wilder-starring Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, which, while a good and goofy movie, hasn’t aged well, boasts grimace-inducing songwork (of course, I don’t tend to like musicals) and generally lacks the dark, menacing undercurrent that hovers just beneath the psychedelic frivolity cavorting on the surface of Burton’s Depp-anchored vision of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book.

If you want a horror example, take the fairly recent remake of Carrie. It’s the second remake, the first having been a mini-series that was probably closer to King’s book than the seminal Brian de Palma iteration that helped give King his fame, though the artistry (and budget) was a notch down from the first cinematic adaptation. Strict narrative faithfulness to source material is oft overrated, anyway. An adaptation is supposed to be another artist’s rendition, the filmmaker’s own vision inspired by the original work. That’s why, despite King’s poo-pooing of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, I think the latter’s vehicle for Jack Nicholson’s scenery-chewing is a superior horror film, one of the best, and every bit as good as King’s book, however much changed it may be.

(For you traditionalists, there are some remarkably faithful adaptations noteworthy for that fact: Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Terry Gilliam’s brilliant Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – I mean, really, who else could have done a faithful cinematic rendition of a nigh surrealist bit of writing such as that, journalism though it might have been.)

While Sissy Spacek’s performance in the original Carrie is damn near unbeatable and among the finest American cinema’s acting jobs and while de Palma’s film is smart, slick and stylish as hell, the newest version is, with the exception of Chloe Grace Moritz, overall superior to de Palma’s version all the way around. Not to knock Moritz, however. She’s a fine actress but she was miscast here; she doesn’t quite pull off the homely, mousey waif thing. Otherwise, good show. Just the wrong character. But if you had slipped a performance of Spacek’s caliber into that Moritz slot, the new Carrie would have been all around the version of Carrie to beat. You know, if somebody decided to do it yet again.

Even with the crazy mother’s death reverting to a mode of execution similar to that used in de Palma’s ending (in the book and mini-series Carrie makes Mommy’s heart stop), the latest Carrie comes out on top. Even Julianne Moore is far away a better nutty mother than Piper Laurie’s admittedly unforgettable high camp turn as the religious ranting matriarch.

So, as we march toward the release of remakes of The Exorcist and Poltergeist, cries of “sacrilege!” will echo throughout the horror community. And, sure, I’ll admit that with The Exorcist being a near-perfect film, a remake has a lot to reach for to justify the effort artistically, though turning on a new generation to a great story and perhaps through retro engineering pop culture inception, maybe they’ll even go back and check out William Friedkin’s chilling original. Poltergeist is another great horror classic, a fusion of the minds of Stephen Spielberg (whom I’m not typically inclined to adore) and Tobe Hooper, but given its material there is a lot of room for reinvention.

Speaking of Hooper, I’m sure there are tons of detractors of the Texas Chain Saw Massacre remake and its prequel. No Gunnar Hansen. No Tobe Hooper. The family members are different. Blah blah blah. But guess what? The remake and its equally effective sequel are both chock full of dread, a crushing atmosphere, dense hick gloom and doom, fierce violence (there is very little blood in the less Hollywood original, irony of ironies). Daunting sets drip with ominous mood, populated with the best in redneck sociopathy, leading me to observe that those latter day movies accomplished the same thing as Hooper’s original, with no decrease in quality.

Since I’m already pissing on the altar, I’ll take my blasphemy a step further. The Evil Dead remake is damn near as good as the original; I say “damn near” since I really like the practical effects of the original. But the remake keeps all the prime staples of the original but comes up with some nice new dynamics and context. Chaos (not the Jason Statham movie) is, despite filmmaker protestations, a remake of Wes Craven’s important and seminal but flawed Last House on the Left. Chaos is sleeker, more disturbing and nihilistic, much more evenly paced (quickly so, too) and lacks the uneven narrative structure of the original (particularly the Kountry Keystone Kops). It’s a better film all around and one of my favorite fright flicks.

And it brings up yet another point. There are occasions when people griping about a remake/reboot are completely unaware that their beloved “original” is itself a remake. Last House on the Left, for instance, is a horrorfied remake of none other than the classic Swedish arthouse flick The Virgin Spring from Ingmar Bergman!

It’s worth mentioning that Hooper and Sam Raimi were both involved as producers in the remakes of their classic films.

Being the second (or third or …) version of a thing doesn’t automatically guarantee inferior product, inferior art. Sometimes a new artist and fresh vision can re-establish a classic story in a new paradigm that lets shine aspects of a tale maybe the original overlooked or simply wasn’t focused on. Something classic, seen from a different angle, can be just as enlightening, or more so, than the source material.

Look. Yes. Sometimes, maybe most of the time, the original is “better.” After all, I’ll take the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman flicks before the Nolan/Bale trilogy.

Any day.


3 Comments on this post.

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  • Evan A. Baker
    17 February 2015 at 5:46 pm - Reply

    People always rush to say, “Sure, there are a FEW

  • Evan A. Baker
    17 February 2015 at 5:49 pm - Reply

    Whoops! Hit “enter” early!

    People always rush to say, “Sure, there are a FEW good remakes, but most of them suck,” totally missing that they’re just looking at Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of EVERYTHING is crap.

    The fact that most remakes are poor movies doesn’t signify that remakes are inherently bad, it signifies that good storytelling is a bit of a lightning in a bottle thing, and most of the time, you just aren’t going to catch it.

  • Josh Millican
    19 February 2015 at 1:13 am - Reply

    No one thinks it’s unusual at all for a person to see the same play performed by different troops, in different theaters, with different sets, directors, etc.–enjoying the variations in each production. Yet remaking a film is offensive! After 10-30 years, some films can really benefit from a creative reinvigoration, and there’s also something to be said about bringing older stories to newer fans who were too young to see them the first time.