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06 March, 2010

From the Alan Smithee School of Directing: How NOT to Remake a Movie!

As Hollywood rushes to pump out remake after soulless remake, many of them genre films, those of us who are of sufficient age to remember a time when one could still find an original thought in Tinseltown become more and more disillusioned with Modern Horror Films. As the major studios spew forth an endless stream of crap-tastic remakes, one is tempted to dismiss them all as worthless, unimaginative attempts to cash in on the much-loved (and much better) originals. The truth is somewhat different, however. While that description certainly applies to many, if not most, remakes currently floating down the pipe, there is such a thing as a good remake. Often, the difference comes down to the choices the director makes.

There are, generally speaking, two ways to remake a movie. The first, and by far the most common, is simply to reshoot the original. Same script, same characters, same dialogue. The more unimaginative the filmmaker the closer the remake will be to the original—and the less likely it will be anywhere near as good a movie. The ‘best’, or more correctly the most apt, example of this is Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece PSYCHO.

In 1960, Alfred Hitchcock redefined horror, driving a nail into the coffin of the Sci-Fi Horrors of the 1950’s with a superbly drawn tale of a woman who steals from her employer and flees town, only to cross paths with an oedipal peeping tom in an out of the way motel. The viewer’s initial impression that this was simply another suspenseful crime melodrama from the master of such films was destroyed in a shocking flurry of jump cuts and extreme close-ups, a montage that lasted less than a minute, yet changed horror cinema forever. So effectively did Hitchcock's camera work and direction evoke an emotional response from the audience that many people, forgetting that scene like every other frame of the movie was monochrome, swear they remember, in vivid detail, the red blood running down the drain in the shower.

In 1998, director Gus Van Sant remade PSYCHO, in itself a poor decision. Some movies could possibly be considered fair game for a redo; some, in fact, are in dire need of someone to tell the story properly. But when a movie is generally described as a “masterpiece,” it should be safe to assume that no one is going to improve upon it with a remake—particularly when that “masterpiece” has long been accepted as the defining film from a master filmmaker. While my personal opinion is that REAR WINDOW is a better example of Hitchcock’s mastery of the narrative, as well as his technical brilliance, PSYCHO by far had the greater impact on cinematic history. To propose a remake of any Hitchcock film is audacious, to say the least. To remake his most famous film is the very height of arrogance.
Still, if Van Sant had attempted to inject any imagination or originality into his version it might have been a better film. It could scarcely have been worse. If remaking PSYCHO was arrogance personified, attempting to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock by making a shot-by-shot remake is downright insulting, both to the fans of that original film and those who see the remake.

From the opening sequence, which introduces us to Marion Crane and Sam Loomis, played unsatisfyingly by Anne Heche and Viggo Mortensen respectively, to the final shot of Marion’s car being pulled from the swamp, the only things Van Sant bothered to change are the actors and the film in the cameras. This time, of course, the blood is red, and instead of the suggestion of female nudity, you get the real thing. You also get Vince Vaughn instead of Anthony Perkins, Julianne Moore instead of Vera Miles, and William H. Macy in place of Martin Balsam. On the whole, it’s a very inequitable trade.

But is it possible to produce a remake that not only pleases new viewers, but also avoids offending fans of the original film? Yes, it is, and what’s more, it might even improve upon that film. Such was the case with the 1999 remake of the 1959 William Castle film HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL.

The original film is a fine example of Castle’s trademark style—not a great film, but an enjoyable one nonetheless. Castle made a career proving that, whatever a film’s inherent flaws, if you promote it properly, and give the moviegoer what they want, then it can be a success. The proper term is a “popcorn picture”—not high art, just highly entertaining. The story concerns a millionaire (Vincent Price in one of his best roles) who invites five strangers to spend the night in a haunted house in order to earn $10,000—a payday each is in desperate need of. The only stipulation is that each must stay the entire night, and of course, survive the ghosts.

In the late 1990’s Dark Castle Films began remaking some of the genre’s most popular films from the ‘50’s, ‘60’s, and ‘70’s—13 GHOSTS, GHOST SHIP, HOUSE OF WAX, and of course, HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, which was the company’s first production. Directed by William Malone, HOUSE… illustrates the right way to remake a movie.

First, and most importantly, is the choice of subject. While the original HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL is a very enjoyable movie, it is by no means a “masterpiece,” so beloved by fans as to be immune to future tampering. And while the plot was interesting enough in 1959, modern audiences find it a little too reminiscent of “Scooby-Doo.” The remake’s producers wisely scrapped most of the plot, retaining only the bare premise of a rich man inviting strangers to spend the night in a haunted house, in anticipation of great reward.

The new script, by Don Beebe, brings the plot into the modern day by starting out in the 1930’s, at the Vannacutt Asylum for the Criminally Insane. Dr. Richard Vannacutt, (a brief but memorable performance by Jeffery Combs) the director of the asylum, amuses himself by performing bizarre surgical experiments on the inmates, filming himself in the process. One night, the lunatics rebel, killing the entire staff and causing a fire that kills everyone else locked within the asylum’s walls. We learn the history of the location through the device of a newsreel within a television broadcast, one that inspires Evelyn Price, (Famke Janssen) the disinterested wife of wealthy amusement park designer Stephen Price (Geoffrey Rush, in a superb emulation of Vincent Price) to hold her birthday party in the ruins of the old asylum, dubbed by locals as the, “house on Haunted Hill.”

Where the original plot had Vincent Price’s character faking the ghosts in the house in an effort to conceal his plans to murder his unfaithful wife, the remake, though keeping those elements of the plot, injects a massive dose of the supernatural into the story. The result is an example of a successful blending of both old and new into a much more effective film. Critics of the remake have pointed out the overreliance on special effects and the fact that the ending was weak, due in part to those overused effects. While those are valid criticisms, they don’t detract from one’s overall enjoyment of the movie.

So it is possible to remake a film, even a classic such as HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, and do it in a way that pleases fans, both old and young. But in order to do that, directors should remember two things.
First, the choice of film to remake is of paramount importance. No one can improve upon perfection, no matter how determined or well intentioned the effort. If one chooses to remake John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN, or George Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, or even Hitchcock’s PSYCHO, that director is setting him or herself up for failure. Even if they manage to produce a tremendously good film, it will always pale in comparison to the original. At best, it will be the second-best version of that story. At the worst, it will be regarded as an affront to those who revere the original.

The second item of consideration is originality. That may seem like an oxymoron when referring to a remake, but it’s vital that a filmmaker know which elements to retain from the original plot and which to discard. As Van Sant illustrated so vividly with his version of PSYCHO, there is no point in simply recasting and reshooting the original film—it betrays an obvious lack of either inspiration or imagination to do so. Those remakes which have been successful—the aforementioned HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL, last year’s MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D, this year’s THE WOLFMAN—have wisely let the original supply the former and used the latter to write the script.

As a Horror fan, I may abhor the explosion in the number of films that are in various stages of being remade, but it’s hard to ignore them when they flood theaters and video store shelves. As a reviewer, I can only review what’s being offered to the viewing public, and simply because a film is a remake doesn’t mean that it must necessarily be a poorly-done movie—it just seems that that’s often the case.

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