Remakes – don’t we all hate them. For good reason too: at this moment the movie world seems obsessed with flogging that dead horse called nostalgia, usually just leaving a bitter taste in our mouths. But not all remakes were disasters – some equalled and sometimes even surpassed the original.
It’s fairly well publicised that Quentin Tarantino’s hit was based on an earlier film. He does enjoy lifting and highlighting old masterpieces. Still, the new version has little resemblance to the original, showing that nothing is so sacred that you shouldn’t follow your instincts and do what you want. Many people remaking classics can stand to learn this from Django Unchained: don’t get tied down over sacred cows.
Before Heat director Michael Mann made a TV movie called L.A. Takedown, which he saw as a dry run for a feature film. That obviously became Heat, the Pacino/De Niro/Kilmer juggernaut. The original is actually quite similar to Heat, in so much that what differs is all the talking and pondering by De Niro and Pacino. Okay, Heat is also a lot slicker. But key action scenes, such as the bank robbery shootout and armored car heist, are straight from the original.
Maybe this one wasn’t superior, so to speak. It is hard to watch the original John Wayne film in context, but suffice to say it gathered a lot of awards in its day. Still, that was made when Westerns still had popularity. The Coen Bros interpretation of the book hooked audiences at a time when the genre was (and still is) being treated as an oddity. Not only that, but this film entered at third, rose to one, dropped down to second and then rose to one again on the box office – that’s not something you see often.
There are two ways to approach a remake: either do your own thing or follow the original as closely as possible. Alexandre Aja, who was handpicked by Wes Craven for the remake of his 1977 landmark horror, chose the latter: his version of Hills is a note-for-note copy of the original, but tweaked in the right places. There are subtle shifts, but overall this 2006 version was a sharp and smart update of what made the original so terrifying.
John Carpenter took a 1951 sci-fi horror about a plant-like alien and made it into something much more terrifying. In actual fact The Thing was not a remake of the film The Thing From Another World, but closer to the original sci-fi story called Who Goes There? Certainly, the time was right for that kind of thing – films had become a lot grittier and special effects were basking in a post-Alien world. But what held it all together, ironically, was the intense suspicion the cast start treating each other with.
After Night of the Living Dead, John Romero and John Russo parted ways: Romero directed more Dead films and Russo opted for Living Dead productions. Romero’s films stepped into darker territory, his best being Dawn Of The Dead. In 2004 Zack Snyder would make his name directing the remake – still taking it to the mall location, but changing just about everything else. Though it didn’t create fast-moving rabid zombies (28 Days Later beat it by two years), Dawn Of The Dead still cemented zombies as the new ‘it’ monster and, with the exception of the freaky zombie/helicopter incident of the 1978 film, was the superior movie.
Including Rob Zombie’s Halloween will be controversial – many people didn’t like it. That said, many people don’t like Zombie’s movies in general. And we certainly don’t want to suggest John Carpenter’s original was inferior. But over the decades the genre has become blunt and no longer shocked audiences as they did in the early 80s. You watched to see the body count and who would die first. Yet with the 2007 remake, audiences really felt uneasy as the victims were dispatched in brutal fashion. It also does the unthinkable – delivers an origin story that is not contrived, pointless or too long.
Often movie fans hold up James Bond for most films in a series, but Zatoichi has 30 – six more than 007 (and one shy of actual record holder Carry On). The famous fictional 18th century blind swordsman has been a staple in Japanese cinema for decades and also enjoyed a long television series. It even reached the west: in 1990 one of those films was remade in the guise of Blind Fury. But the 2003 film, directed by and starring the legendary Takeshi Kitano, is held as the best presentation about the masseuse with a love for gambling and a penchant in severing limbs.
This is not really a remake, but comes very close. In 12 Monkeys we find Bruce Willis as a time-travelling future convict who slowly goes insane as he tries to stare a totally crazy Brad Pitt in the eyes. Director Terry Gilliam found his original inspiration in La Jetée, a 1962 French short film about a prisoner who travels through time. It’s not quite the same, but even Gilliam has said the film was a blueprint for his masterpiece. One similar theme is how the time traveler keeps trying to recall a time-altering scene he witnessed as a boy in an airport. But crazy Brad was Gilliam’s genius.
Prior to Rick Moranis getting a green thumb for carnivorous plants, The Little Shop Of Horrors was a popular broadway play. That in turn was based on a lesser-known non-musical horror movie from 1960, directed by B-movie god Roger Corman. It was demented and way ahead of its time, but took years to get noticed. You can even catch Jack Nicholson in an early role as the masochistic patient to the sadist dentist (played by Bill Murray in the remake). Frank Oz’s version is the better film, unless you really hate musicals, but the original worth digging up.
Last Updated: February 20, 2014
February 20, 2014 at 13:48
Man I loved Zatoichi so damn much. Great list here James, nice one! Though you missed Judge Dread 😉