Friday, July 24, 2009

Horror Remakes: A Necessary Evil?

Hollywood, as everyone is well aware, is on a major remake kick right now. Everything from Footloose to Fame is being remade, and it seems that originality is being ignored by and large. Of course, this is nothing new in the world of film. The celluloid world has always gone through periods where producers have looked to the hits of the past to bring in new audiences. The thought seems to be that, if it was a success once, then it will be again.

No genre is this more prevelant than in that of horror films. Most early films in the genre were adaptations of gothic novels, penny dreadfuls, or folklore. Within a short time, the silent films were remade as "talkies", with these black & white entries eventually giving way to colored reinvisionings. In recent times, the horror films of the 70's and 80's have been dredged up, with classics like Halloween, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Omen, Friday the 13th and The Amityville Horror all getting the updated treatments. Naturally, many horror fans find these films to be akin to blasphemy, as the originals are viewed as near-perfect in their ability to produce sheer terror. While I can understand this reaction, I present an alternate viewpoint: horror remakes as a necessary evil to keep these stories alive.

Back when Hammer films began their revamps of the classic Universal horror films, many afficianados of terror balked at the idea of someone other than Bela Legosi donning Dracula's cape. By the time Hammer's films hit the market, the characters of Frankenstein's Monster and Dracula had long been absorbed into the collective consciousness of pop culture. Children the world over dressed as these characters for Halloween, and they were parodied in cartoons and novelty songs. Pictures of the monsters appeared on magazine covers and all sorts of varied media. This type of over-exposure led to the characters becoming mainstays of day-to-day life, rendering them completely tame. They no longer had the impact they once did on audiences, because they had lost their ability to scare. How terrifying can a creature be that appears on your cereal bowl? Since books like Frankenstein and Dracula were in the public domain, Hammer had no problem with using these stories for new films, so long as they didn't copy the Universal films outright. In doing so, they actually made films that were highly watchable, as they deviated enough to keep viewers interested. In short, they made the characters scary again. The villians didn't appear exactly as they had originally been depicted in the Universal movies, and the stories took new, surprising turns. Today, Christopher Lee's portrayal of Dracula is regarded by many to be just as iconic as that of Legosi.

Many people of my generation can recall cowering in the dark at sleep-overs to the sight of Freddy Krueger killing teens in their dreams. We can remember staying up late to watch Jason hack up horny campers, or see Michael Myers stalk babysitters. We grew up watching these films, and they scared the crap out of us! As time went on, these characters started to lose their edge. We grew accustomed to seeing kids in goalie masks or striped sweaters on Halloween, and we'd seen too many fat guys with chainsaws at the local haunted house to find Leatherface even slightly threatening. For the generations coming after us, these characters were funny (if they were even aware of them). Freddy and Jason were lampooned on The Simpsons and Family Guy, and the films themselves became self-parodying (you know when they start having these villians killing folks in outer-space they have run out of ideas). These monsters wound up following in the footsteps of their Universal predescessors by becoming pale imitations of what they had once been.

The only way for a series that is so long in the tooth to truly survive is for it to get the remake treatment. The characters themselves need to be given a fresh start, without the bogged down continuity that seems to come with numerous sequels. Now, I will admit that the majority of the time, Hollywood screws the pooch with this. You usually wind up with one of two types of remakes. Flicks like the redux of The Amityville Horror which lose the essential elements of the original in the attempt to try to make their own mark on the original story. On the other hand, you have films like Gus Van Zandt's take on Hitcock's masterpiece Psycho, an almost frame-by-frame copy of the original. Sure, the young people who go to the movies to see this film have probably never watched the classic version, but for those that have....Booooooooooring!

Occassionally, Hollywood gets it right. Some filmmakers find a way to balance being true to the source material, while also creating an engaging story that has some originality. John Carpenter's The Thing is probably the best example of a remake done right. Carpenter took the concept from 1951's The Thing From Another World, and crafted an engaging, terrifying classic of the genre. The plots are the same, but the story itself is updated in a way that still keeps the viewer guessing, regardless of how many times he or she has seen the original. David Cronenberg took a similar approach when he remade the 1958 b-movie, The Fly, taking the same basic premise and turning it into a disturbing, creepy masterpiece. I often read or hear horror fans declare that "all remakes suck", but I have to point to these films as a refutation of such a theory.

Quality issues aside, these remakes serve another purpose entirely, and that is to introduce new generations to these characters and stories. Many young people are reluctant to seek out older films, particularly if they belong to a franchise that has dozens of sequels. To them, the effects are bad, the stories cheesy and the characters comical. Much of this stems from the aforementioned fact that these characters have been in the pop culture conciousness for so long. It is difficult to find anything even remotely frightening about a character that you've seen thousands of times over the years, begging for candy on your doorstep. The characters have become iconic in their own right, but the downside is that this creates familiarity. The familiar is rarely frightening.

Remakes give the filmmakers the chance to build the story again from the ground up, putting a fresh face on an old story. Sadly, many don't take advantage of this to the full extent that they could, often just delivering a half-baked rehash of what had gone before. Still, the ultimate goal is fulfilled to deliver a new generation their own version of a classic story, Some will argue that the new generation should get their OWN classic stories, but it rarely works this way. In fact, almost all stories are variations on those previously told at one point or another. Whether it be something like Star Wars, telling the classic myths in a sci-fi setting, or Halloween, updating the legend of the boogeyman, all stories have some sort of tie to those that have been previously told. Going back to the days when humans gathered by a fire in a cave, listening to the old storyteller weave his tales, stories would be absorbed into the listener's mind to be later told again. Naturally, those tales would be altered somewhat with each telling, growing in scope and details. Film is a modern medium for that same process, the only difference being that the original tale is preserved for future viewing as well. The "new" stories being told may seem original, but they really aren't. They ultimately re-examine previously established archetypes. The originality comes in with the manner in which they go about telling the same old tale.

By no means am I trying to say that filmmakers shouldn't strive for originality. In fact, I'd like to see some true, new horror boogeymen to arise in modern culture. Still, the ones that have been established, and risen to the ranks of iconic status, are worthy of being pulled down from the shelf and dusted off from time to time (and, maybe, given a fresh coat of paint as well). Let's face it, when was the last time Freddy Krueger was anything even remotely resembling scary? Part 3? In the original, he was a dark, demonic character hiding in your dreams. By the time you get to the last few movies of the series he was a wise-cracking, comedic figure...a sort of Horror Henny Youngman. With A Nightmare on Elm St. currently being remade, many fans are up-in-arms at a new actor taking on the role from Robert Englund. Naturally, Englund is responsible for much of what made the character so iconic to begin with, but therein also lies the problem. His take on the character is the ONLY one, so therefore it is the defining take. Not much new or interesting can be done with the character, UNLESS you bring in a new actor to look at the character from a different angle. Jackie Earle Haley, of Watchman fame, has been cast in the role, and it is said that his take hearkens back to Englund's portrayal in the original, but with an even darker tone. It remains to be seen if this will be successful in returning Mr. Krueger to his previous status of a truly terrifying villian, but it looks like Haley is on the right track.

I'd love to see a slow-down on the remake front, or at least see some films that could benefit from having updated special-effects get the remake treatment. Alas, the remake is a necessary evil for the survival of big screen boogeymen. Without the remake, these characters would fade into obscurity. Part of why Dracula remains such a well-known screen villian is due to the fact that he has appeared in more films than any other character. While the majority of these are quite bad, the ones that DO manage to bring something interesting to the story cause him to be re-invigorated for new audiences. The same holds true for all of the Hollywood horror icons. They need the remake like a vampire needs blood!