Rewound (October Horror #5)

[The month of October is prime season for horror movies, and the author has been examining the sub-genres of horror films. This is the final installment of that series … in much the same way that “Final Destination” was the final film in that franchise.]

A few days ago I saw “Fright Night” (2011), which is a remake of the 1985 classic. This one didn’t have Roddy McDowell in it and it wasn’t a spoof of vampire and horror movies like the first one was, but it did still have a share of humor and, let’s admit it, much better production values and acting. It also had David Tennant in the Roddy McDowell role. As a Doctor Who junkie, I’m obligated to like anything with David Tennant in it.

“Fright Night” is one of the rare horror remakes that actually turned out as good or better than the original. There are a few like that. “Dawn of the Dead” (2004) doesn’t do the social commentary quite as well as the 1978 original, but it’s still a good zombie yarn and it looks pretty. Well, except for the zombies, of course. “Piranha” (2010) is another one. It goes for over-the-top nudity and gore and plays up the spoofiness, giving it a distinct advantage over the 1978 “Jaws” rip-off. And I’m also very hopeful about the new “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” (2011). The 1970s original scared me as a kid; I’m hoping that the remake manages to do the same to me as an adult.

There’s also “The Fly” (1986), which was a remake of a 1958 horror (in the bad way; not the, y’know, good way), and the 1982 Kurt Russell “The Thing,” that bested the good-but-dated 1951 “Thing from Another World” version.

There are also a number of foreign-language-to-English-horror-movie remakes that should be included in any list of successful re-dos: “The Ring” (2002), “Let Me In” (2010), and even “The Grudge” (2004) all take the difficult-to-approach foreign versions and make them accessible to a broader American audience, although I’ll argue that “Let the Right One In”, the 2008 Swedish progenitor of the English-language “Let Me In” is the better movie. It’s worth reading the subtitles so that you can appreciate the Scandinavian imagery.

But there are so many bad remakes that the good ones are eclipsed. Although the 1984 “Nightmare on Elm Street” lost something over the years as we moviegoers came to expect slicker and slicker production values, the new version failed to capture the menace and the sheer creepiness of the original. When, in the Robert Englund version, Nancy looks up from her desk to see her dead friend at the door of the classroom, encased in that opaque body bag, it’s just … scary. The remake, even with its shot-by-shot scene swipe, doesn’t manage to replicate that nightmare-inducing imagery.

Tom Welling in the remake of the beautiful, menacing, atmospherically-drenched 1978 John Carpenter-directed “The Fog”? Puhleeese. Sorry about any breakout hopes you might have had, Mr. Welling, but stay in Smallville.

There’s also a new “Thing” out. I’ve heard it’s terrible. There’s also maybe possibly going to be an “Evil Dead” (1981) re-do. No thanks. Give me Bruce Campbell overacting in the original any day over a non-campy version.

Then there’s the 2007 Rob Zombie “Halloween” remakes and its sequels. Not bad in and of themselves, they would make fine splatter-slasher movies if only they weren’t “Halloween” flicks. The 1978 original (I’m sensing a trend here — 1978 appears to have been a fine year for horror) had its share of bloodiness — as one of the original slasher movies (along with “Friday the 13th” (1980), itself remade in 2007 for the new age of teeny-boppers, but at least offering an explanation for how Jason can be everywhere at once. Spoiler: tunnels under Camp Crystal Lake), “Halloween” was derided at the time for its violence, but Rob Zombie eschews menacing atmosphere for slash after slash after slash. Feel free to like that sort of thing.

Speaking of movies that Jared Padalecki (of TV’s excellent “Supernatural” series) stars in, other than the “Friday the 13th” remake, he was also in the “House of Wax” (1953/2005) do-over along with Paris Hilton. So that tells you all you need to know about how good that was. His “Supernatural” co-star, Jensen Ackles, was in his own remake: 2009’s cover of the 1981 “My Bloody Valentine.”

Oh, and let’s not forget Stephen King’s 1997 mini-series remake of the absolutely terrifying “The Shining.” King has said that he always hated the 1980 Stanley Kubrick version. Sometimes Stephen King is wrong, really, really wrong.

I’m not opposed to remakes. A friend of mine (here’s his blog) once argued that film actors shouldn’t be denied the opportunity to play beloved characters from previously filmed movies any more than stage actors are, or any more than musicians are when they cover a previously recorded song. I don’t disagree. Still, there is a permanence about films that isn’t replicated in stage productions, or even musical compositions. Stage plays are expected to change (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) from night to night, show to show. Plus, stage plays are ephemeral: they remain only in the memory, and the only way to for anyone to see them again or for the first time is to go see a new production of them (unless they’re filmed, of course, but at that point they become something else). We expect those actors to be replaced by new ones; we expect new directors to come up with new interpretations of the materials. Songs are this way too, to an extent, explaining the popularity of the concert, of the stage performance. Films, on the other hand, come with a sense of immutability. If there’s a very good version already, then one is forced to wonder why we should try for another one. Sure, there’s a chance that the remake will be just as good (or better) and will add to the collective creative excellence of the cinematic world. There’s an even better chance that it will fall short, and in doing so, possibly lower the value of the original, associating a taint to the original that wasn’t there before (sequels can cause this result even more often than remakes. Can you say “Highlander II”?).

All in all, unless you’re calling a do-over on a previously horrible movie (“The Hills Have Eyes,” most Hammer films), then maybe it should be left well enough alone.

But if David Tennant wants to do any more remakes? Hey, I’m all for it.

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