Hollywood is remake-happy these days. Remakes are hardly a new concept. They've been around since the Golden Age, and some of the biggest movies of all time have been remakes. The Charlon Heston version of Ben-Hur was a remake, and Cecil B. DeMille's cheesy disasterpiece The Ten Commandments was a remake of a version he himself had made in the silent days. Remakes, like shit, happen.
There is nothing innately wrong with remakes simply because they are remakes, either. One of my all-time favorites, and one of the best modern horror films, is John Carpenter's 1982 The Thing. (But then Carpenter went on in 1995 to do a perfectly dreadful remake of his own, Village of the Damned.)
There is an easy and obvious test to be conducted, that can help the hapless viewer determine whether or not a remake is worth seeing. And Carpenter's Thing aces the test. It's simply this: Determine whether or not the remake in question was put together by a filmmaker who passionately loved the original material and felt there was something legitimate to be done artistically in developing a new version, or whether the whole thing is a purely commercial exercise cynically slapped together by a studio desperate for some easy box office green.
Carpenter just happens to be a plum example of the trend, because in 2005 we've had no fewer than two remakes of old movies of his. I've seen neither the new version of Assault on Precinct 13 or The Fog, and don't plan to. In the case of the latter, it's that every reliable source I've heard has confirmed every initial fear I had: that it doesn't simply suck, it creates a cinematic black hole in the theater, a singularity from which not even light can escape. As far as Assault is concerned (the original version of which, interestingly, was Carpenter's own exercise in a modern-day remake of the western Rio Bravo), I do understand the filmmakers attempted a new angle on the story. But if you ask me, replacing the menacing, faceless street gangs outside (inspired by Night of the Living Dead) with the cliché of corrupt cops is a yawn-inducer. Much as I like both Ethan Hawke and especially Laurence Fishburne, I just can't work up any interest in the movie.
And that's because I think both of those movies fit the latter of the two determining factors I outlined above. These were commercial exercises, not creative ones. Yes, I know. Hollywood is all about the money. But when I hear that a remake of Halloween is in development — the original, sacrosanct, impossible-to-improve-upon, often-imitated-but-never-duplicated Halloween — suddenly, suicide bombers seem like reasonable guys. (That was a joke, all you Patriot Act types.)
A remake of Halloween ought to be enough to make any horror fan's blood boil. That it is being thrown together by the Weinsteins, who were responsible for the last handful of appalling sequels and whose shameless prioritizing of their own bank accounts over the success of the movies they were supposed to be distributing is given a full accounting here, is, I suspect, no surprise. But what depresses me is that they're going to make the damn thing, and the sheep will flock to theaters to see it the way they did The Fog this weekend. (Though that was only to the tune of $12 million, it must be said.) Hollywood moguls can treat their audiences with contempt by releasing Product (and that's all it is) like this, and, even though the numbers are dwindling, enough people will go see the Product that in their minds, the entire exercise is justified.
Ah, but there are those dwindling numbers, aren't there? And a lot of that is what I think accounts for the current outbreak of remakes. After all, if it seems like we've been getting more of them in the last few years than is usual, I think the plummeting box office that has had the industry in a panic could very well account for why we're seeing so many studios going the "easy money" route.
But can any of these remakes really generate the massive, $100-million-plus B.O. receipts every studio wants? They can, if the remake in question really makes a stab at reinventing the material for a new audience, and does so in a way both respectful to the source and to creating something sorta fresh at the same time. Not being an Adam Sandler disciple, I avoided The Longest Yard, and critics predictably savaged it, but it did find a receptive audience. The same cannot be said for the aforementioned Assault and Fog, or others we've had this year like The Amityville Horror. Whatever the moguls seem to think about the safety of pursuing remake projects, for the most part audiences seem to want to see new movies, like March of the Penguins and The Wedding Crashers.
In a subsequent post I'll talk about some remakes I've liked and why I thought they worked well. But when it's so obvious that the love of money rather than the love of movies is motivating a remake project, I just vote with my dollar and don't go. And, if the relatively weak #1 of The Fog is any indication (compare this to the $40 million opening of another remake, The Grudge, a year ago), audiences are doing more of that too. There are too many promising writers, and too many good unproduced scripts out there, to waste time on remakes. But what can you do against the machine? Well, fight harder to get your movie made, that's all. Then, if you're really lucky, 20 years some now some sleazy producers will be remaking your low-budget labor of love as a slick piece of assembly line hackery. You'll really know you've made movie history then!