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April 16, 2007

(Re)Made in the USA

Amid a redux epidemic, a few helpful hints for making everything old new again

Be afraid? John Carpenter's classic Halloween has been remade and updated by Rob Zombie (Photo illustration: D. Fith)

The other day I was watching a trailer for Rob Zombie's remake of Halloween, and all I kept thinking was: "Here's a film that doesn't really need a re-do, but if they insist on updating the John Carpenter classic, there's no doubt this guy Zombie has the chops to do it. He's got the proper ironic attitude, his work on a film like The Devil's Rejects proves he can direct and he certainly loves his gore. So what the hell. Bring it on."

Which is more than I can say for most remakes, which are either completely unnecessary, directed by people with the wrong sensibility or vain attempts to update classic material. Consider the recent versions of The Manchurian Candidate and All the King's Men, which certainly didn't make anyone forget the originals. Or how about the announcement that there will be an English-language remake of that existential French creepathon Cache, to be directed by that noted master of suspense and ambiguity, Ron Howard.

The point here is that Hollywood, in its never-ending search for old material to plunder, will never get over the remake flu. It seems to be a congenital industry condition, so there's no point in railing against what is and what always will be. But given the number of truly wretched reduxes that seem to spew forth every year, maybe it's time we propose some guidelines for those who want to dip into the past and supposedly improve it. Hence, Beale's Tips For Remake Success:

1. First (and most obvious), don't try a shot-for-shot re-do of an utter masterpiece. Case in point: Gus Van Sant's Psycho -- so literal-minded, so miscast, so without style or reason for being. The corollary to this is to not ask the director who made the original film to helm the remake. Think of poor George Sluizer: He directs the critically praised and very goose-fleshy 1988 thriller The Vanishing. Then he goes Hollywood in 1993 and takes on an American version that turns out to be vastly inferior to the source material. Can you name one film he's done since?

2. Genre pictures -- especially horror -- and light comedies which can easily be transposed to other cultures seem to be prime remake material. They often have elements that can be updated or reworked, and are not so iconic that audiences will be thinking of the original while watching the re-do. Like Mostly Martha, the charming little German film about cooking and love, which has been remade as No Reservations, an American flick starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, opening in July. Like The Odd Couple, this is the kind of subject matter that could be adapted to any cultural setting. Or how about Dawn of the Dead, which was updated with style, as well as more firepower and a much higher body count, although admittedly less irony than the George Romero original. Not that this is always a guarantee of success; The recent version of Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 paled in comparison to the 1976 grindhouse classic.

3. Really, really think about what you want to remake. Is it necessary? Does the audience want to see it? And why are you doing it? A whole bunch of people thought a new version of the campy The Poseidon Adventure sounded like a great idea -- gee, just think what 35 years of visual effects advances can do for this story! -- but Poseidon sank (excuse me) without a trace. Announced remakes of Scanners, Escape From New York and Porky's strike me as being in the same vein; there is no reason to re-do these pictures (all successful in their own limited ways) except to take advantage of, respectively, new advances in gore effects, Gerard Butler's abs and to see how far the 'R' rating will go in terms of raunch and female nudity.

4. If you must take on a great film from the past, the best course is probably to re-think it, not remake it. Not that this always works, either: The 1984 film Against All Odds attempted to re-imagine the noir classic Out of the Past, but it didn't have anywhere near the original's style, sultriness or hard-boiled dialogue. But when Tinseltown decided to take on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai as The Magnificent Seven, every decision seemed to be the right one: Move the story to the American West; hire a terrific cast of established stars (Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach) and up-and-comers (Steve McQueen, James Coburn); bring in a top action director (John Sturges) and pay Elmer Bernstein to write the score. Voila! Box-office magic, critical respect and a film that's a classic in its own right. You can see the same forces at play with The Departed, which changed the locale and certain plot points of its source material, Infernal Affairs, but remained true to the original's tone and themes.

5. When in doubt, don't. Try to think of something original. I know this might be difficult, but do you really want thousands of bloggers coming out of screenings wondering, "Why the fuck did I just watch a remake of Bunny Lake Is Missing?" Please. Spare us.



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