One of the most infamous remakes of all time is Gus Van Sant’s pointless shot-by-shot interpretation of Psycho, which was released to a horde of “why did they bother?” admonishments and an almost complete lack of interest from the general public. Putting aside the relative merits of the film’s technical aspects, the update is generally regarded as a badly failed experiment and, perhaps even worse, an empty exercise on the part of a filmmaker too wrapped up in his own indulgences.
The eleven remakes on the following list, by contrast, are those that veered in the exact opposite direction, completely (or near-completely) doing away with the original blueprints and putting a fresh spin on their inspirations. Whether the final products proved good or bad, all nevertheless presented themselves as bold (and occasionally cynical) reinterpretations – i.e. “unmakes” – of films from a bygone era.
See inside for the full list.
While the majority of horror remakes more or less do their best to hold true to the spirit of the original film, every once in awhile one comes down the pike that attempts – for better or worse – to do something entirely different. In the following list I’ve highlighted ten eleven of the most conspicuous examples of these “unmakes”, with both a description of the changes and my commentary on how they stack up to the original. Before we begin, though, I should note that to qualify for the list the films must actually have been pegged as “remakes”, as opposed to movies based off the same source material without using the original cinematic adaptation(s) for inspiration. An example of this would be Coppola’s version of Dracula, which was never billed as a remake of the Lee or Lugosi films but rather a direct interpretation of the novel.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way…
Paul Schrader’s remake of the understated 1942 Jacques Tourneur classic took the basic premise of the original and updated it into a highly-visual and overtly erotic work. Doing away with the mere suggestiveness of the Lewton-produced film by inserting an ample helping of nude bodies and bloody mayhem, Schrader and his writers also changed up the back-story by suggesting (in a vividly shot, red-hued prologue) that the cat people resulted from some ancient ritual in which adolescent girls were offered up to leopards as sexual partners.
While the remake directly references a couple of scenes from the original movie – particularly the famous “swimming pool” bit – overall it’s a far more lurid piece of work that takes the subtext of the ’42 version and runs wild with it. Perhaps the biggest change in the plot was the addition of a long-lost older brother for Irena, a slinky character also prone to transforming into a large cat who suggests that the only way to fulfill their sexual desires is to mate with each other. While the reasoning behind this – that a cat person will inadvertently kill any normal human they attempt to have sex with – was a vital component of the original’s plot, Schrader was clearly intent on spinning this conundrum in a more sensational direction – a description that can easily be applied to the film as a whole.
Never one to shy away from stomach-churning visuals, David Cronenberg fully utilized recent advances in special effects technology in service of updating 1958’s campy mini-classic The Fly. As a result, the film is far more gruesome than the original (a change that can also be chalked up to less-stringent censorship standards regarding on-screen gore), venturing into full-on body horror territory by featuring a gradual “man-to-fly” transformation as opposed to the instant transposition of human and insect body parts in the Kurt Neumann version (“Help me! Help meeee!”).
What also set the ’86 film way apart from its inspiration (aside from its obvious structural differences) was that, by dramatizing Brundle’s slow and horrific physical decay, it opened itself up to a horde of speculative thematic interpretations, including the (false) assertion that it was intended it as an allegory for the degenerative effects of the AIDS virus (still more or less a death sentence at the time of the film’s release). In any case, Cronenberg (always a filmmaker with much on his mind) was able to skirt the camp pitfalls of the original by wedding his more cerebral sensibilities to an astoundingly well-crafted creature feature narrative. Not to mention that by putting the focus on the film’s tortured central love story it managed to achieve a tragic, almost Shakespearean resonance that the original lacked.
Whereas John Carpenter’s original focused on the idea of Myers as a pale-masked manifestation of inexplicable evil, Zombie set out to cast the killer as a man irrevocably damaged by a tumultuous white-trash upbringing. As such, a good portion of the film is set during Myers’ childhood, taking us through the particular injustices (school bullies, abusive stepfather, whorish sister and stripper mother) that apparently brought him to the brink of murder and madness. It’s only about halfway through the film that we’re introduced to Laurie and doomed friends Annie and Linda, a huge structural change that left many fans hoping for a more straightforward remake scratching their heads.
In addition to its narrative differences, Zombie’s version also substituted Carpenter’s elegantly-staged sense of time and place with a more modern visual style, complete with rapid edits and a reliance on hand-held camera movements. And whereas the kills in the original were practically blood-free, the remake presented them in an exceedingly raw and brutal fashion, echoing Zombie’s more hammer-headed sensibilities. While I would challenge anyone to claim that the ’07 version is a better film (I personally loathed it), it was nevertheless a bold move for the rocker to so gleefully defy audience expectations.
Substituting all the subtle, sound effects-centric scares in the original for scenes of ridiculous CG mayhem, Jan de Bont’s remake of one of the greatest supernatural horror films ever made was basically the 1963 Robert Wise version on speed (get it? Speed?). Like that same year’s The Mummy (see below), it’s far less a horror movie than an overblown action/adventure piece, with its characters rushing breathlessly through a mansion constructed as a mutated version of the elegant estate featured in the original film. In the end, it’s essentially one big showcase for the visual effects team, hammering the audience over the head with excessively-rendered sequences of overt supernatural happenings while sapping the story of all the dread-laced paranoia that was an essential component of the original (not to mention the classic Shirley Jackson book on which both films were based).
Maybe the most significant difference between the two films is that while Wise took care to keep the psychological underpinnings of the novel intact, de Bont neglected that element by choosing to focus much more on justifying the film’s unnecessarily bloated $80 million budget with a series of whiz-bang action set pieces. Whereas the unearthly goings-on in the ’63 version seemed to echo and/or engender Eleanor’s slow descent into madness, the ’99 film sacrificed all subtlety by adding in a convoluted back-story that re-cast the home’s original owner Hugh Crain as a twisted child murderer. The threat bone-headedly externalized (thereby missing the entire point of the original story), the audience was then “treated” to a ludicrous climactic scene in which Eleanor heroically sacrifices herself to release the spirits of the murdered children from the house. An improvement? Perhaps if your name is Michael Bay.
Similar to Prom Night (see below), House of Wax utilizes the title of an older movie (in this case, the 1953 Vincent Price mini-classic) in the name of boosting its commercial prospects without actually bearing any resemblance to the original film. While the 1953 version (which itself was a relatively faithful reboot of the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum) also featured young people being stalked by a crazed museum curator, the plotting differed quite substantially, with the remake following a contemporary slasher template as opposed to peddling in the macabre horror/mystery conventions of the Price film. In addition, the 2005 version takes place in a spooky rural town seemingly lost to the sands of time, eschewing the NYC locale of the Andre de Toth-directed original.
Probably the most severe difference between the two films, outside the heightened gore quotient of the remake (though the ’53 version was actually quite gruesome for its day), is that while the first movie featured a typically aristocratic and subtly creepy central turn by Price in the antagonist role, the updated version’s killers are essentially of the “backwoods slasher” variety, given very little personality outside their obvious predilection for murdering hot young twenty-somethings. In short, it’s the very definition of an “in name only” reboot.
While I was planning on keeping this list to ten entries, and while I originally left off Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers based on my aforementioned non-“direct adaptation” rule, after doing a bit of research I discovered that this actually was billed as a remake of the 1956 film as opposed to a mere adaptation of the original novel. Given that, and considering just how incredibly different it is from the McCarthy-era original, I couldn’t possibly omit this ’70s sci-fi/horror classic from the list. For starters, the location was drastically changed from the pristine bubble of small-town California to “Me Decade”-era San Francisco, thereby substituting the clean-cut denizens of Santa Mira for a group of post-Watergate big city yuppies.
The ’78 version is also much more graphic in its visualization of “body snatcher” assimilation. Unlike in the 1956 film, the remake opens with the gooey aliens in pre-human form on their home planet, and in later scenes the gruesome effects of their duplication methods are depicted in queasy detail (including a disturbing effects shot depicting the accidental “grafting” of a man’s head onto the body of a dog). In addition, unlike the original these body snatchers don’t merely point and run when they find a human in their midst but emit a horrific, ear-piercing screech to alert their compatriots. Invasion ’78 is also, like its 1956 inspiration, a film distinctly of its time, supplanting the “Red Scare” paranoia of the original with satire incorporating themes specific to the touchy-feely, self-help-centric period of the late 1970s. Also more contemporary was the filmmakers’ decision to end on a grimmer note than the Don Siegel-directed incarnation (not to mention the novel), thereby fulfilling Siegel’s earlier intention (prior to studio interference) of concluding the story with a far more pessimistic denouement.
While there had previously been several attempts to remake The Mummy more in the spirit of the 1932 original (separately by directors Clive Barker, George A. Romero and Joe Dante), at the end of the day Stephen Sommers won the job by pitching it as a big-budget event film in the spirit of Indiana Jones. As such, while the basic premise remained the same (archeological expedition inadvertently awakens the ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep from his tomb), The Mummy 1999 is a completely different beast – less a horror film than a high-flying adventure movie, with Brendan Fraser standing in for Harrison Ford as the wise-cracking hero.
In place of the spooky atmospherics of the Boris Karloff version, the remake featured a plethora of high-octane action sequences enhanced with boatloads of CGI scarabs and mummies, not to mention that silly giant sandstorm (there’s the “money shot” for the trailer!) And whereas the original Karl Freund-directed version, with its expressionistic lighting and doom-laden ambience, took its story completely seriously, Sommers inserted a “wink-wink” screwball sensibility that kept the enhanced stakes (typical of its big-budget Hollywood roots, Imhotep was now of course determined to take over the entire world as opposed to cursing a few unlucky archeologists) from feeling too weighty. Can’t upset the kiddies now, can we?
The makers of Prom Night can scream “re-imagining” all they want, but at the end of the day this film bears no resemblance whatsoever to the original movie, in possibly the most extreme case of a studio shamelessly ripping off a title for nothing other than financial gain. Look, anyone with even a semblance of taste knows the original Jamie Lee Curtis version is a terrible film, but at least it had that nifty disco-floor beheading. This Nelson McCormick-directed remake couldn’t even be bothered to acknowledge that when people are stabbed to death, actual blood comes out of their bodies.
Needless to say, Prom Night 2008 tells a completely different story from the 1980 original and actually functions more as a thriller than an actual horror movie. The Jamie Lee Curtis version is about a group of teens who are hunted down by a figure connected to the accidental death of a grade-school classmate; the Brittany Snow remake is about a girl being stalked by an obsessive ex-high school teacher. The original is a mystery where we don’t find out the killer’s identity until the very end; the remake has its painfully boring antagonist front and center from more or less the very beginning. While the updated version is admittedly a better-crafted film on a purely technical level, all the slickness in the world can’t compensate for the fact that Screen Gems is guilty of pimping out a nostalgic ’80s title without even attempting to stay marginally true to the plot or spirit of its “inspiration”.
A professed fan of the Hawks/Nyby original, director John Carpenter relocated the setting of his remake to Antarctica from the North Pole and recast the story as an altogether more grim, paranoia-laced work of existentialist dread. The heroic soldiers and crafty scientists (not to mention the tacked-on romantic sub-plot) of the original were swapped out for a blue collar-esque crew of ostensibly “ordinary” men, ill-prepared to deal with the horrific alien threat that has infiltrated their camp. It was also a more faithful adaptation of the original John W. Campbell short story Who Goes There? on which both films were based, staying true to Campbell’s conception of the creature as a parasitic, shape-shifting monster able to assume the guise of its victims.
And therein lays perhaps the biggest difference between the two versions. Hawks and Nyby re-conceptualized the thawed-out alien life form from the original story as an “intellectual carrot”, a humanoid form of plant-life that reproduced by spreading its seedlings. Carpenter, on the other hand, stayed true to Campbell’s notion of the creature and, utilizing the awe-inspiring practical effects work of Rob Bottin, brought it to skin-crawling life on screen. This altogether more terrifying and formidable fabrication of the threat – expertly realized in several breathtaking sequences of visual wizardry – resulted in a remake now generally recognized as one of the greatest sci-fi/horror films ever made.
The splatterific 1978 film Toolbox Murders received an updating in 2004 with none other than Tobe Hooper at the helm, though outside the title the films share very little in common. While both, of course, feature murder by all manner of handyman implements – nail gun, drills, hammers, et al – the remake’s killer is (SPOILER ALERT!) revealed as a hideously deformed man with supernatural abilities – quite a significant change from the deranged, seemingly-ordinary building super of the original. Not to mention (SPOILER ALERT #2!), the remake’s antagonist literally lives inside a walled-up portion of the building where the murders are committed, an element not at all present in the Dennis Donnelly-directed ’78 film.
And therein lays one of the most meaningful changes in the update – the location itself. As opposed to the squat and faceless Motel 6-style apartment building featured in the original, Hooper wisely chose to shoot his remake in Los Angeles’ famed Ambassador Hotel, the site of Robert Kennedy’s assassination that was sadly demolished shortly after the movie’s completion. While on paper it may sound like a seemingly arbitrary change, when you consider the third-act reveal (the aforementioned walled-off portion of the structure) it’s actually essential to the story. Not only that, but Hooper casts the building – with its once-ornate interior now neglected and fallen into disrepair – as a character in and of itself, a change that succeeds in infusing the film with a creepy atmosphere that the original version lacked. Not to say that either film is very good, only that their differences are great enough to merit inclusion on this list.
Doing essentially the opposite of Rob Zombie’s Halloween, the 2006 When a Stranger Calls remake ditches the last 75 minutes of the original by stretching the justly famous first act into feature length. In many ways it was a welcome move considering the first sequence is really the only part of the 1979 film worth watching, but then you have to remember that Screen Gems is also notorious for taking old titles and watering them down to PG-13 fluff in order to attract teenage girls. In other words, it’s slicker but also less nasty, taking the deep uneasiness of the Carol Kane prologue from the original, completely doing away with it, and inserting a bunch of overwrought musical cues and jump scares in its place. And then making it way longer.
Other changes from the original are the switch from an ordinary home in the suburbs to a giant house on a lake (bigger is better, right Hollywood?), in addition to adding in more potential victims (the maid, the slutty ex-best friend) while (SPOILER ALERT!) holding true to its PG-13 rating by keeping the little kiddies alive to the end. It also alludes to the fact that the antagonist is a serial murderer who slaughtered another babysitter and two children earlier that same evening. Some of these changes could have been effective were the entire film not shot through with the bland, assembly-line sensibility of other recent “tween”-oriented “horror” flicks. My advice? Save yourself some time and watch the first 20 minutes of the ’79 version…and then call it a night.
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