Why Defend Movie Remakes?

A Notorious Business Model or Just Another Form of Repeated Storytelling?

“Another remake of Carrie? Oh God, why did they have to destroy that one too!?”


Still Taken from Original Carrie, 1976(Photo Source: http://www.complex.com/)

This is typically the reaction over the last 15 years towards another movie classic getting its new Hollywood version – usually an inferior one and more often than not, an insultingly bad one.  To tell the truth, the new version of Carrie, directed by Kimberly Pierce, isn’t that bad at all.  It could have been way worse if you consider Hitcher or The Wickerman.  But, besides the opening birth scene, it really didn’t offer anything different than the cult novel by Stephen King and its uncompromising 1976 movie version.

Brian De Palma’s famous ending where Carrie’s hand emerges from the grave to grab Sue does not exist in the book.  The remake embraces that concept by serving it to the audience in a very predictable manner.  And it certainly does not manage to be as shocking or original in any of the ontological scenes that are in the novel and which De Palma’s version captured so well.  Among them is Carrie’s first period which somehow ended up being such an iconic cinematic moment. This scene appears in the beginning of the movie and is followed by intense humiliation which sets a certain tone to this story about a bullied and abused teenager with paranormal abilities.  In De Palma’s version this scene hits you on the head and in Pierce’s version it is only there because it was written in the book.  It is presented with no emotional impact.  Done solely in autopilot mode, without trying to be any better than the original, the new Carrie does not have any real reason to exist.

When one wonders where this flood of bad remakes is coming from, it seems that the main reason is the same one that makes sequels – the urge for a guaranteed profit, due to the original film’s success. That urge, by itself, is not that bad or unreasonable: film studios and producers are trying to get recognizable products that will make their business profitable and maintainable.   The easiest way to get to a recognizable product is if they base them on the scavenging and corrupting of already-famous titles.  But how, from such a formula that often tends to produce failed products, is there sometimes even an endless series of such products?

Well this is done by emphasizing the easy in an environment where taking risks is not encouraged.  If you are advertising yourself under titles like “Planet of the Apes”, “Straw Dogs”, “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, or “Halloween”, the profit is guaranteed, helped by the fact that in the first week of it’s showing fans of the original will go to see it out of pure curiosity (“let’s see how bad this version is”).  You can see in the example of the new Carrie that it does pay off.  The profit was 2.5 times more than the initial investment.   

The same thing can be said for the new Halloween. An essentially completely failed remake of Carpenter’s masterpiece grossed much more than the original and all of its sequels combined.  And what did Rob Zombie actually do to deserve such success?  He added in the first half an hour of the movie an explanation as to why Michael Myers is so evil and totally demystified him making this indestructible ultimate boogie man into just a psychopath with a sad family story.  The rest of the movie is basically just a comprehensive fast forwarding and copying of the scenes from the original movie.  This only proves that as a creator of a remake, you do not have to put in much effort.  All you need is a well-known title and there really is no rule that says that your product has to be as artistically ambitious, meaningful, unique, and relevant for its current time as the original was.  It doesn’t even have to be fulfilling the basic requirements of a decent movie: to be well-written, well-directed, edited, and decently acted.

Psycho - Remakes
Photo Source: http://whyiadore.wordpress.com/

The rule of this kind of business model that gave remakes a notoriously bad reputation and made them into a synonym for the worst trends of modern-day Hollywood, does not mean that remaking should be judged by the principles of collective guilt. It’s not the principle that’s wrong – that’s as old as humanity – it’s the bad storyteller.  All the stories were already told, passed on from generation to generation, more or less altered, and we fell in love with them depending on the storyteller’s ability to tell us the well-known story in a new and interesting way.  The same goes for movie stories.  Just because of failures like the remakes of “The Fog”, “The Wicker Man”, “Roller Ball”, “A Clash of Titans”, “Conan the Barbarian”, “Psycho”, “The Hitcher”, or the above-mentioned “Planet of the Apes”, we should not forget the high quality examples of retold stories like the ones we will discuss.

What follows is not a list of the greatest remakes of all time because making one might not be realistic.  What we will offer, simply, is five examples of remakes that are not necessarily memorable because they are remakes or because they are of the same quality (or maybe even better than the originals) but because they are masterpieces of film art in their own right.