With this week’s Blu-ray release of the big-budget, really terrible ‘Clash of the Titans‘, we’ve got remakes on the mind here at The Bonus View. Along with sequels, this seems to be about all that Hollywood is interested in making these days. Unfortunately, most of them are pretty awful. However, every once in a while, a good one slips through. For this week’s Roundtable, we take a look at some of the best and some of the worst.
Here are our picks:
- Best: ‘The Fly‘ (1986) – David Cronenberg’s uncanny riff on 1958’s cheap-o horror favorite ‘The Fly’ remains one of the great sci-fi films of the 1980s. He took what was, in the original, a silly concept (a man and a fly get hybridized thanks to malfunctioning teleportation technology), and turned it into an epic metaphor about being sick and alone in Reagan’s era. Brilliantly, Cronenberg addressed the AIDS epidemic via a Hollywood shocker. Jeff Goldblum, in his most finely tuned (and twitchiest) performance, plays slightly mad scientist Seth Brundle, who falls in love with a young science reporter (Geena Davis), only to have his physical ailments impede their relationship. His deformities tested the boundaries of special effects make-up at the time (not exactly the giant fly head on a guy’s body like in the original), but Cronenberg made even the ickiest effects imbibed with human pathos. By the time Brundle has made his full transformation from man to monster, we don’t fear him as much as we feel for him. As Geena Davis famously says, “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
- Worst: ‘The Stepfather‘ (2009) – Horror movies seem like the most likely to get remade. Either their titles have left such an indelible impression on moviegoers that studios think it will be easy to just recycle and cash in on the name, or low budget horror movies seem to have more slippery rights that can easily pass from one entity to the next. Whatever the reason, for every good remake, like ‘The Fly’ (or Alexandre Aja’s underrated, politically charged ‘Hills Have Eyes’ redo), there is a bad remake, like last year’s toothless, humorless ‘Stepfather.’ The original film was a brilliant, cutting take on 1980s Americana written by genre novelist Donald Westlake. Meanwhile, the chief concern of the remake seems to have been how many bikinis Amber Heard could slip into during the course of the movie’s running time. It’s the kind of remake that makes you wonder if the filmmakers even saw the original movie.
- Best: ‘Ocean’s Eleven‘ (2001) – I’m not a fanatic about this series, I swear; but compared to the film that started it all, each of Steven Soderbergh’s three ‘Ocean’s’ movies, even ‘Twelve,’ is a cinematic full house! I knew nothing of the original ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (1960) before I started hearing rumors about a remake. At the time, Soderbergh had just come off a string of three homeruns: ‘Out of Sight,’ ‘The Limey,’ and ‘Erin Brockovich.’ In my mind, he could do no wrong. During my next trip home from college, I went down to the local video store and rented the Rat Pack original. Wow, was that movie ever boring! Starring members of the legendary crew – such as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Peter Lawford – the whole thing felt like a series of home movies featuring a hung-over bunch of lounge singers wandering around hotel suites, pouring drinks, cracking each other up, and mumbling rambling speeches. Which I guess it was! Spotlighting cuckoo dialogue like: “The way I figure it is like this, the eleven of us cats against this one city.” Dig me? Or this witty little number you’ll all want to record on your iPhones: “Hello, this is a recording, you’ve dialed the right number, now hang up and don’t do it again.” It’s all so smug and boring that it makes you want to drink. Maybe that’s the idea. Anyway, take the basic setup of the first film (a bunch of cool guys rob a casino), put it in the hands of a talented writer (Ted Griffin), bring in skilled actors and filmmakers, and up the ante (“11 men, 3 casinos, 150 million dollars, 1 chance to pull it off”), while actually making it all seem cool. You have what every remake should be, a movie that takes a good but botched or dated premise and does it up right, making everything and everyone involved seem unspeakably hip. Now we’re cookin’!. Hell, they even had enough leftover ingredients for one failed soufflé and a tasty dessert!
- Worst: ‘The Dukes of Hazzard‘ (2005) – I’ve never seen 1975’s ‘Moonrunners,’ but like most boys who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, I loved that film’s TV spin-off, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard.’ As a kid I never really thought about why Boss Hogg and Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane were always after the boys. I just waited for the General Lee to leap that week’s gulch and honk its signature horn as a dust trail streamed behind. I very occasionally noticed some sort of veiled allusion to moonshine running, but really, that whole element of the show and the original movie was quietly swept under the rug. It was simpler fare for a simple audience (me). When the Dukes went off the air in 1985, before the time of DVD TV collections, I really didn’t give the series more than a passing nostalgic thought for the better part of twenty years. Then came 2005’s horrendous ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ featuring the loathsome Johnny Knoxville as Luke Duke, Seann William Scott as Bo, Burt Reynolds as Boss Hogg, and the incredibly miscast M.C. Gainey as a truly terrifying Roscoe P. Coltrane. What is this shit?! About the only thing the movie has going for it are Willie Nelson’s performance as Uncle Jesse and Jessica Simpson’s ultra-toned turn as Daisy Duke. This is not a pleasant production! With a jackass in the passenger seat, a smirking asshole at the wheel, and the utterly untalented Jay Chandrasekhar directing, the whole thing feels like a hit-and-run. The victim is my childhood. This movie isn’t clever. It isn’t funny. It isn’t entertaining. It’s just mean and contemptible! The Rotten Tometoes rating for this mess is currently 13. That seems about 13 points too high, but at least it’s an unlucky number!
- Best: ‘Little Shop of Horrors‘ (1986) – This brilliantly funny musical starring Rick Moranis was based on a campy horror film made in 1960 that’s just downright painful to watch. There are jokes in the original – I’m assured of this fact by its supporters – but all I see when watching it is horrible awkwardness. Add to that Jack Nicholson in the role of the dental patient who’s into pain and you’ve got a recipe for awful. The 1986 remake takes all the elements from Roger Corman’s version and actually makes them enjoyable to watch. Moranis is awkward but funny, and the combination of Steve Martin and Bill Murray is a delight. The remake also gets rid of Seymour’s sick old mom, who was by far the most uncomfortable character to watch in the original. Go Frank Oz.
- Worst: ‘Guess Who‘ (2005) – Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn. This is the cast of ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,’ a well-crafted 1967 film that tackles the subject of interracial marriage. It was also Spencer Tracy’s last film. He died before it was released. Even if it’s not the best film ever, it ranks as an important one. Fast forward to 2005. Instead of the brilliant trio of the original, the loose remake ‘Guess Who’ stars Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher and the chick from Star Trek.’ That’s right, it’s a white guy dating a black girl this time. It’s a switcheroo! There’s no reverence for the source material here, but that wouldn’t be so bad if it wasn’t such an awful movie on top of that.
- Best: ‘The Manchurian Candidate‘ (2004) – This may seem like an odd choice, and may even be a controversial one. I don’t know that I’d even call Jonathan Demme’s version of ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ the “best” remake I’ve seen, necessarily. In fact, I don’t think that it’s a great movie, and certainly not better than the film it’s based on (which is actually great). What I really have to give Demme credit for, however, is completely exceeding my expectations. John Frankenheimer’s 1962 original is a classic, perhaps even a masterpiece. It’s also a picture very rooted in the time and politics of its day. It would seem impossible to remake. Yet Demme somehow manages to cleverly update the story with modern political topicality. The movie was timed to coincide with the 2004 Presidential election, and plays with very relevant fears about how our elections are rigged and our leaders are all in the pocket of big business interests. Despite the fact that the story’s ending had been part of the public consciousness for over 40 years already, the remake is a smart, exciting thriller in its own right. It’s a much better movie than it might have been, or even should have been. That deserves some recognition.
- Worst: ‘Psycho‘ (1998) – In stark contrast to the above, this is a textbook example of how not to remake a classic movie. Alfred Hitchcock’s original is simply not a film that should be remade, under any circumstances. It’s practically sacrosanct. I’ll cut director Gus Van Sant a small bit of slack, because I think what he tried to do actually had the makings of an interesting intellectual experiment. He tried to answer the question of what exactly makes a masterpiece a masterpiece. If you take a work of art widely regarded to be a masterpiece and copy it as closely as possible – to the point of literal shot-for-shot, cut-for-cut duplication – will the copy also be a masterpiece? Unfortunately, the answer he discovered was a resounding NO! Everything about the remake strikes a wrong note. It feels phony and contrived, and is just generally a terrible movie all around. You simply can’t capture lightning in a bottle twice. The spark of genius can’t be copied.
That’s certainly not the definitive list of best and worst remakes, but those are our picks. Tell us yours in the comments.