[9 September 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Though every generation likes to think that they’ve discovered Hollywood’s dirty little secret, the truth is that remakes have been around forever. Back in the silent days, storylines would be revisited time and time again, and once sound reinvigorated the artform, notorious non-talkies were recreated for a sonically sensitive viewership. All throughout the Golden Era, previous hits were reconfigured for new stars and directors, and musicals were made over to keep the Depression/War weary audiences entertained. Though they didn’t call themselves by the now notorious name, the ‘50s and ‘60s were flooded with genre efforts that basically repeated the same narrative ideas and themes ad nauseum, and the ‘70s saw deconstructionist directors take on their Tinsel Town favorites as an experiment in homage/hubris.
Yet over the last few years, the remake has raised its profile significantly, thanks in no small part to the decision by filmmakers to take on well known and beloved projects from the past. When Gus Van Zant decided to soil the reputation of Alfred Hitchcock by creating a shot for shot revamp of his seminal Psycho, buzzers started going off in film fans heads. If such an important movie masterwork could be given such a pathetic post-modern push, what was next? The answer came at the cost of such genre classics as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. While one can debate the validity and viability of these recent retoolings, the words of the late, great Gene Siskel still reverberate – why remake good movies when there are perfectly bad films out there that could use a redux.
In honor of such cinematic wisdom, SE&L presents a few suggestions for lamentable works that could really use an artistic overhaul. With the exception of one genuine gem, the movies discussed here all had promise – at least, when they were originally conceived. But somewhere along the line, their ability to translate said potential into actual motion picture polish went askew. Now, they have a chance for aesthetic redemption – that is, as long as the right combination of creativity and consideration is utilized. If not, God help us all. Let’s begin the discussion with one of the biggest eggs ever laid by a major movie name:
Howard the Duck
Fans of the original source material were excited when it was announced that George Lucas and his production company were taking on the fowl from another planet, given the filmmaker’s still active Star Wars cred. Even when it was discovered that Willard Huyuck would handle the writing/directing chores, there was still optimism. This was the man responsible for helping script American Graffiti and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. With the standard pre-production security that accompanied ‘fantasy’ films of the era, no one knew what the title character would look like, but with a creative staff like the one at ILM, it promised to be something really special. It turned out to be a little person in a kid’s party outfit. Gone was the gaunt, cigar chomping anti-hero of dozens of cynical comics. In its place was an obvious costume that constantly reminded the viewer they were watching some guy in a suit. Add in the other misguided elements – the bumbling Tim Robbins’ character, Howard’s asexual attraction to co-star Lea Thompson – and you’ve got an abysmal cinematic mess.
In 2007, all of this can be changed. First and foremost, CGI has come such a long way that fully realized characters like Gollum (or any number of Star Wars prequels props) can be rendered in life like, interactive expertise. Howard’s original grating gumshoe qualities can be reinstated, and this new animated version can blend seamlessly into the live action without sticking out like a dwarf in duck duds. Even better, the comic book movie has been reinvented and is now revered by Hollywood, which understands the wealth of goodwill and greenbacks they can earn by giving the fanbase what it wants. All someone has to do is convince Uncle George that this project would be worth his sagging genre reputation (one assumes he still holds the rights) and find the right industry obsessive (Kevin Smith, perhaps) to give this quirky quacker the cinematic respect he deserves. Oh, and one more thing – NO Thomas Dolby electro-pop soundtrack, please!
The Ghost and Mr. Chicken
When Don Knotts walked away from his role as Deputy Barney Fife on the solid ‘60s hit The Andy Griffith Show, he did so with an armload of Emmys, and a huge amount of performer popularity, on his side. Universal, long hoping to tap into that formidable fame windfall, put the actor into a series of specially designed projects, many crafted by the Griffith show’s staff writers. Who better to guide Knotts’ big screen persona than the men who developed it for the boob tube. After the combination cartoon/live action comedy The Incredible Mr. Limpet, the actor next appeared in this wonderful little gem. Using a horror theme (Knotts is a typesetter who investigates a local haunted house, hoping to become a real life reporter) and his personal pliability with physical goofiness, the filmmakers found the right balance between humor and heart. The result is an enduring classic that stands up well, even today. It showcases Knotts’ deft timing, and offers a perfect subject showcase for his shaky shenanigans.
So why remake it? Well, two reasons, actually. It’s a fantastic storyline – a little contrived and clichéd at times, but still effective as a quaint, quirky character study. It would be easy to see someone like Steve Buscemi, or a younger Jeff Goldblum, playing the part of nerdy nebbish Luther Heggs. Both are individuals who can infuse their performances with enough peculiarities and pathos to elevate the material. Secondly, special effects have grown so in the last 40 years that the haunted house element of the narrative can really be explored. The notion of a small town tainted by a towering estate with an evil past has a delightfully discordant ring to it, and done properly, the contrast between comedy and creeps can be winningly maintained – similar to the way the divergent emotions were equalized in Edward Scissorhands. In fact, if Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are looking for another project to participate in, this would be right up their alley.
The Sentinel (1977)
In 1975, two books dominated the genre fiction landscape. One was Stephen King’s vampires in a small town tome ‘Salem’s Lot. The other was Jeffrey Konvitz’s The Sentinel. Centering on a New York supermodel and her brownstone apartment (that just so happens to be poised precariously over the actual gates of Hell), it was a nasty little gem, a pure page turner with gore and gratuity in abundance. Naturally, fans who favored flocking to the Cineplex to get their spine tingled couldn’t wait for an adaptation. Sadly, what arrived in 1977 was a toothless, watered down version of what Konvitz created – and oddly enough, he was responsible for the inept, uninvolving screenplay. Part of the problem with the big screen translation was the terrible casting. Christina Raines defined blandness as the helpless heroine, and director Michael Winner (a Brit, hot off the success of Death Wish) decided to pepper the rest of the roles with old school Hollywood heavies like Martin Balsam, John Carradine, Jose Ferrer, Ava Gardner, and Burgess Meredith, among many others. This gave the narrative a lame Love Boat feel. Winner himself was also an issue. He kept the blatant terrors of the novel tented in a veil of ambiguity and subtlety, in direct contradiction to what readers wanted.
With the current trend toward turning every fright flick made in the last 30 years into a pre-tween remake, it’s astounding no one has thought of revisiting this material. In the right hands, you could easily have a menacing mesh of Dario Argento’s Inferno and William Freidkin’s The Exorcist. The book is bursting with sensational scare setpieces, and with the newfound F/X tech, they can be accurately recreated in all their blood drenching glory. Even better, Tinsel Town could easily find a filmmaker more in sync with Konvitz’s sense of splatter. Imagine this property helmed by Sam Raimi, Neil Marshall, or Nacho Cerda – filmmakers who understand the visceral appeal and ambient awfulness in a little arterial spray. And then there is the ending. Since we learn that the title entity stands guard over the entrance, keeping the demons and the damned from roaming the Earth, just visualize the last act spectacle once the doors to Satan’s sin palace swing wide. It’s enough to make true macabre mavens giddy.
With the towering success of Michael Bay’s Transformers (a hit despite the prominent display of his much maligned name on the marquee), the time seems ripe to remake this Stuart Gordon sci-fi epic. Granted, the premise is a tad perfunctory: there’s no more war. Country/conglomerates now wage battle as part of a spectator sport where the title ‘athletes’ operate skyscraper sized automatons in rock ‘em, sock ‘em beat downs to the death. But thanks to the undercurrent of espionage (someone is sabotaging the machines to favor one ‘side’ over the other) and the overpowering possibilities of the visuals, we have something that CGI could make truly magnificent. This is not to say that Gordon’s movie is bad. In fact, it’s very good. It’s just hampered by a lack of financing (the production company actually went bankrupts during filming) and limited stop motion animation effects. Add in the lack of true star power – the cast is recognizable, but definitely relegated to the lower tiers of celebrity – and a basic b-movie feel, and you’ve got a project ripe for rediscovery.
In fact, Bay may be the perfect person to head up the remake. He has a tendency to inflate everything he does with an elephantine sense of importance, and he’s comfortable carving insular universes out of recognizable reality. Unlike The Island, which tried for future shock and wound up delivering flaccid schlock, Bay could really explore the dynamics of a planet gone playground, a world were a no holds barred rumble between giant machines determines the fate of nations. One can easily see the old Soviet iconography and new American jingoism being incorporated into the mix, and with the right set of actors – why does the name Nicholas Cage immediately come to mind? – this could be both monumental and meaningful. Indeed, Robot Jox is one of the few off title properties that carries a lot of inherent commentary possibilities. This means Bay could make something important for once, whether he realizes it or not.
The Incredible Melting Man
When Rick Baker was still an unknown scrub, drinking in the discerning genius of movie make-up guru Dick Smith, he was asked to participate in this peculiar project, a mid ‘70s update of a standard ‘50s sci-fi shocker. His mandate – create the title character in all its goo glop glory. And he did just that, much to the joy of slimy sluice fans everywhere. Too bad the film surrounding the slowly disintegrating astronaut was so lame. Filled with unintentional humor, oddball tangents, and a lack of other onscreen grue (while the man’s melting could be shown, his grizzly murders could not) the results are as ridiculous as they are repugnant. After a few play dates in the still standing passion pits and last remaining urban grindhouses, the film went on to obscurity, disdain, and in some outsider environs, considered cult status. It eventually achieved a newfound, if noxious, appreciation as part of a classic installment of the TV phenom Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Still, it’s a wonderful idea, and if handled by the appropriate genre guide, we could have a new installment of the one time fashionable “double dare” entertainment. For a little background context – back at the beginning of the ‘80s, when the VCR made make-up and physical effects the scare sets cause celeb, movies were made that tested the mantle of the average moviegoer with their over the top, exploitative gore. Examples included Lucio Fulci’s Zombi and City of the Living Dead/Gates of Hell, as well as John Carpenter’s version of The Thing. Their reputation as notorious, noxious examples of excess had fans challenging each other, putting their love of all things red and revolting to the true eye gouging, skull drilling, head-bursting test. In the considered hands of someone like Eli Roth, or Rob Zombie (two filmmakers who get the groove of outrageous offal), we could have a new puke paradigm on our hands.
Clive Barker wanted it to be “the Star Wars” of horror films. After successfully bringing his brilliant Hellraiser to the silver screen, he eyed his “monsters among us” novella Cabal as his next project. It was to be big and brash, the culmination of his reality based repugnance (ala the beloved Books of Blood) and love of all things fanciful and foul. Using up his entire cache of industry interest and filmmaking favors (remember, this was only his second full length feature behind the lens), he envisioned an epic terror tale dealing with psychopathic serial killers, hidden underworlds, and misunderstood menace. He even got body horror icon David Cronenberg to step before the camera as one of this main leads. Production was problematic, with cost overruns and budget concerns cranking down the creativity. Similarly, scope had to be scaled back and many of the more important moments in the film (the descent into the bowels of Midian, with all its accompanying creatures) had to be trimmed or merely tossed away. When it was all over, the studio hated what they saw, and buried the film via a short spring release.
Except for the lack of support, Barker no longer faces the massive monetary concerns that held the original Nightbreed back. CGI and other effects are relatively inexpensive, and can be mastered by any one of several outside the industry artists. Even better, DVD has made incomplete movies like this a much more saleable commodity. If Barker could just get his hands on the missing film reels, restructure the storyline, and fix it all up with some computer generated jazziness, he might have something. Even better, he could just give up the notion of revamping the film himself, and let someone else tackle the actual literary source. Cabal is one of the author’s best works, and in the hands of someone equally in tune with what Barker was after – say, Peter Jackson? – the possibility exists for the epic the author always hoped for. Of course, as the prequels proved, the Star Wars comparison can be restrictive at best. Perhaps reconfiguring it as “the Lord of the Rings of the macabre” would be a good place to restart.