Quite a while back, yours truly went on a mini-rant to tell Hollywood that it was officially enough with the remakes. After all, the particularly recent proliferation of constant re-workings and re-imaginings in the movie business is enough to drive one mad. This is especially true when any efforts to produce original and worthwhile films are eschewed in favor of this practice, which is what often seems to be the case. However, my desperate and futile pleas went obviously and unsurprisingly unheeded, as specifically evidenced by the news of upcoming releases such as Straw Dogs and Red Dawn, which really caused me to bristle. This got me to thinking: Are there any remakes that are indeed better than the original?
Surely there are remakes that are good, but could any of them truly be superior? So, I decided to do a little “research” (and by research, I really mean that I sat around on my couch drinking beer and watching TV) to try to come up with a few. Not shockingly, it was an incredibly tough task to even find five that could possibly be considered an improvement over their predecessors, but I managed to find a handful that I think could have an argument made for them. Now, let me be perfectly clear and forthright: I’M NOT GOING TO WIN ANY FRIENDS WITH THIS LIST… In fact, I may even lose a few. My choices are incredibly controversial, and I’ve already prepared myself for all the vitriolic comments attacking my character, integrity, knowledge, relative youth, and whatever else folks deem “appropriate.” That’s because sparking debate is (kind of) what these postulations are all about… and I’m a big boy, so I can handle it. However, I do want to point out that in no way do I think the following originals are bad movies. All of them are deserved classics and the case could possibly be made for them that the later films would have never been possible without them. But, these exercises are fun nevertheless, so here we go:
Cape Fear (1962) vs. Cape Fear (1991) – OK, so admittedly, Martin Scorsese is probably my favorite filmmaker, so even if his version of Cape Fear was of inferior quality, I would be hard-pressed to concede. Regardless, I do feel that Scorsese gave his actors more to do, and the changes he made along with Wesley Strick’s script adjustments helped to create an overall better atmosphere. Specifically, making one of antagonist Max Cady’s victims someone who was close to protagonist Sam Bowden and expanding Cady’s relationship with Bowden’s daughter made for more engaging and tense viewing. Furthermore, while Robert Mitchum’s portrayal of Cady in the original is good (though, I’m learning that I’m not that huge a fan) and considered to be one of the best screen villains, I felt Robert De Niro’s take was a bit more menacing. A lot of Mitchum’s shenanigans were all movie allusions and subtleties, which is fine, but that only really works if there’s a huge payoff.
I’m not saying the original’s ending was bad, but it could be considered a bit of a cop-out (though, that could be debated forever). However, if folks wanted to call the performances of Mitchum and De Niro as well as those from Gregory Peck (who I like, but was a bit stiff in this) and Nick Nolte as the Sam Bowden character a tie, I wouldn’t argue too much. However, no one can say that Jessica Lange as the wife and Juliette Lewis as the daughter aren’t better than Polly Bergen and Lori Martin, respectively. First of all, they had more to work with, but they’re just simply better actresses (Lewis snagged an Oscar nomination). Additionally, the fact that De Niro’s character was sent to jail as a result of a misdeed on the part of Nolte as opposed to Peck simply bearing witness to one of Mitchum’s crimes, and that the Bowden family of the remake was experiencing familial drama as opposed to the picture-perfect, Leave It to Beaver unit in the original, only served to add even more tension to the film.
The Fly (1958) vs. The Fly (1986) – Alright, to put it simply, as awesome as the original version is even to this day, looking at it with fresh present-day eyes, it comes off as a bit silly. Yes, 1958 was certainly a more primitive era for filmmaking, and even taking that into consideration, the film was still ahead of its time, but people can’t deny that the Academy Award-winning special-effects (courtesy of Chris Walas) of director David Cronenberg’s 1986 updating didn’t make for a more enjoyable take. The monster transformation at the end is one of the greatest in film history. I can’t help but wonder if producers initially brought the whole project in under budget, and then just decided to throw the rest of the money into the metamorphosis of the finale.
Furthermore, Jeff Goldblum’s Brundlefly is a tour-de-force performance, possibly as good as any in horror or sci-fi, and Cronenberg’s decision to keep the character as an intelligent being for as long as possible was pure genius, as opposed to David Hedison’s character in the original that suddenly transformed into a monster and was rendered almost useless, therefore sending his family on a ridiculous chase for a real fly in their house for a good portion of the film. The choice to make the creature in the updated version more of a hybrid between man and insect instead of an actual “fly” was also brilliant. That the ’86 film also shifted from the immediate concern of the monster after Goldblum discovers what has happened to him to focus on his struggles as he begins to lose his humanity and engage in a dramatic personal battle with his girlfriend (Geena Davis)—ultimately making the movie a metaphor for disease and aging—is also tremendous. The original, while definitely creative, can’t quite muster the strength of the newer effort.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1956) vs. Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) – Yes, the first Invasion of the Body Snatchers with Kevin McCarthy is a bona fide super classic that set the bar for sci-fi and horror in the ‘50s against which all other films of its kind should be measured. It’s suspenseful, original and McCarthy is absolutely fantastic in it, along with most of his supporting cast. However, the ’78 adaptation with Donald Sutherland is simply a better film for several reasons, two of which are fairly obvious. The big one is the stupendous special-effects from Russel Hessey and Dell Rheaume. While the slimy, oozing alien pods that hatched emotionless replicas of humans in the original were plenty creepy, they can’t match the more modern technology of the ’78 version that artfully used what seemed to be time-lapse photography and other tricks to create colorful and grotesque plantlike pods and human/alien monstrosities.
Also, as great as the ’56 film is, the ending is decidedly… NOT GOOD. It’s abrupt, a little too convenient, and doesn’t really offer a concrete and satisfying resolution (at least, for me). In fact, I’ve noticed that many movies made in the ‘50s didn’t really know how to end well. I’ll again blame this on the dreaded Production Code, but that’s a rant for another time. Anyway, the ending of the newer film is much more shocking, resolute, and seemingly appropriate for a true horror/sci-fi classic. But here’s the great aspect of the ’78 IOTBS that maybe some people don’t appreciate: The paranoia starts right away! From the first shot of Brooke Adams picking the flower and the camera pans right to follow a school teacher who turns and glares at her, and then the camera briefly settles on a wide angle shot of a priest (it’s Robert Duvall, btw) swinging on a swing set and staring off intently. Right away, everyone knows something’s up, as opposed to the original that takes a while to get rolling, and it isn’t even that long of a film.
Scarface (1932) vs. Scarface (1983) – This one is actually a really close call because Howard Hawks’ Scarface most likely has to be the greatest gangster film of its era, and even now, almost 80 years later, it still holds up very well, while Brian DePalma’s updating has always been a polarizing effort among critics and movie buffs, alike. One even has to give special credit to the Hawks version since it did have a timely social relevance and the filmmakers were persistently bold and steadfast in their shooting of a film inspired and loosely based on crime lord Al Capone (who was obviously still alive at the time). However, as amazing of an effort as the ’32 release is—with incredible performances from Paul Muni in the lead, along with George Raft and Boris Karloff, among others—I can’t escape the feeling that Scarface was a movie meant for the ‘80s.
The ’83 adaptation that shifts to the Tony Montana character portrayed by Al Pacino (in a bravura performance, I don’t care how many people have a problem with the accent or his use of the F-word) is a film that (whether folks like it or not) defined a generation. From the use of drugs (altered from the booze running of the first film), violence, clothes, and music, right down to changing the setting to Miami (as opposed to Chicago) and the cataclysmic finale, the movie is the perfect time capsule for the ‘80s. I’m not sure the same could be said for the ’32 version, though, in fairness, I wasn’t there. Performances are strong across the board. The film has a stark, gritty (even in the glitzy scenes) feel to it. It also feels “real” and it has become as deeply ingrained in our culture as any film of the modern era, regardless of genre. So therefore, say hello to my little friend, the slightly superior, cult classic ’83 Scarface.
The Thing (1951) vs. The Thing (1982) – Here’s where I might really make some heads steam. The original film is a favorite among many. I also don’t feel great about calling another Howard Hawks effort inferior since he was a true master, but that’s the way things go sometimes. Anyway, the ’51 version is another fantastic and INCREDIBLY suspenseful film, with again, tremendous performances. In fact, I would even go so far as to give the acting in the original version the nod over the remake. The script is also very tight and enthralling. But sadly, what slightly derails this masterpiece for its time is… yep, James Arness as “The Thing.” Sure, I get it. It was 1951, and there weren’t effects like we had today, and to the movie’s credit, Arness is unrecognizable in the make-up as the monster. Unfortunately, in the end, all it really turns out to be is a man with a large head running around trying to scare people.
People might write me off as a “young whippersnapper” who doesn’t appreciate atmosphere, but the marvelous monster effects (primarily from Rob Bottin) in director John Carpenter’s ’82 release were a groundbreaking game changer that completely strengthened what The Thing was supposed to be. Some oblivious critics even tried to claim that the updated effects were the downfall of the film, citing that drama was sacrificed in favor of them. I couldn’t disagree more. I just think many people at the time simply weren’t ready for such astonishing production. After all, Carpenter’s adaptation was actually more faithful to the novella “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell, Jr., where the monster can perfectly mimic any life form… pretty chilling stuff. The choice to eliminate any female presence from the story—therefore eliminating a love interest—completely streamlined the film, and combined with the decision to keep the alien an unknown entity (as opposed to the original where it’s revealed relatively early that it’s an advanced form of plant life) made for plenty of drama. Furthermore, the choice to have the film set in Antarctica at an outpost so far from other human life without hope of rescue, as opposed to Alaska made for a more isolated atmosphere (not that parts of Alaska aren’t desolate, but it does border a populated country) and the nihilistic ending was way more fitting and appropriate. As for the upcoming prequel starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead… meh, we’ll see.
OK, so let’s hear it… Thoughts? Have a favorite remake that didn’t make my list? Let us know.