Wednesday 28 April 2010

(Re)making Mistakes

Indeed, a music video may be visually stunning, but few have any narrative structure.  Is it reasonable to expect a director skilled in short bursts of non-linear eye candy to be able to interpret and visually recreate a feature-length script?  Or is it more a problem of the filmmakers not understanding the subject matter?  I ask because Platinum Dunes' A Nightmare on Elm Street remake is about to hit theatres, which I view as yet another misguided and lazy cash-grab.

In his article, 'Horror Will Eat Itself', Kim Newman reflects on a recent trend in horror: the remake.  He points out that horror has been "remade, sequelised and recycled" from the very beginning.  The Universal monsters, Dracula and Frankenstein in particular, as well as Night of the Living Dead, are proof of that.  The problem, however, is that remaking a movie "because its title has lingering name-recognition value...isn't the same as tackling a primal gothic myth".  Dracula, for instance, has been remade numerous times, but each film owes its genius to the original, whereas, to follow Newman, Let The Right One In, offers another take on the classic vampire.  A remake, he writes, "[confirms] a movie's place in some pantheon while suggesting we really don't need to look at it any more."

Type "Dracula" into IMDB and see what happens. 

Although I certainly don't respect the greed that dives the remake business, I can understand it.  But what I don't understand is how these films manage to miss the mark.  And I'm not talking about updated themes for modern audiences, wherein communism is replaced with home-grown terrorism.  I mean remakes that fail to capture the essence of the original.  Permit me to borrow once again from Newman who notes the remake of Dawn of the Dead was modernized through the use of fast-moving zombies, and Romero's original commentary on consumerism is downplayed "to the point of invisibility".  Indeed, there is much to be feared from a speedy zombie, but societal collapse from within is more terrifying in the long run.  Alas, Zack Snyder didn't seem to think so.

The heart of the problem, I think, is culture.  Friday the 13th, remade by Platinum Dunes in 2009 was one the most highly anticipated movies of the year. Preying upon the cult status of the F13 franchise, F13 '09 was meant to be part remake, part sequel, appealing to old and new fans alike.  An unabashed rip-off of Halloween, F13 was made to capitalize on audience blood lust.  The two are very different films, and though Cunningham owes much to Carpenter, the movies diverge on almost every point.  The thing about F13 is that is was a mystery--the killer's identity was shocking, unexpected, possibly idiotic, but still a surprise.  Jason only made his first appearance in the sequel, and it wasn't until part III that he donned the hockey mask.  Four years after the original premiered, Jason Voorhees was canonized.  Ironically the film that gave us the iconic Jason--masked and macheted--was titled Friday the 13: The Final Chapter.

Platinum Dunes' ambitious requel had 10 movies and 29 years of history to draw upon--much too much to cram into one film.  Accumulated over the years, the culture and fandom of F13 is far greater than the sum of its parts, and any remake of the original would necessarily have to transcend the source material and still remain faithful to the story; it's an near-impossible task, and the resulting film was a disjointed, unimaginative flop that failed to resonate with either the old guard or the new.  Part of my argument here is the franchise was simply too big to remake all over again: the story told over parts I and II changes drastically as the killer switches from mother to son, and then changes again in part VI from human to undead thing.  F13 '09 sought to cover all this ground, and in so doing, managed to shift the story's focus from victim to killer.

Muscling in on My Bloody Valentine's territory, the film could have premiered in March, which also had a Friday the 13th.

What the first slashers (perhaps subconsciously) figured out, and what many subsequent remakes have failed to grasp is these movies are about the victims.  Not a single entry in either the Halloween, Friday the 13th, or A Nightmare on Elm Street franchise (with the possible exception of Freddy Vs Jason, which is a duck of a different colour) feature their killer as the lead.  Indeed, over the years Michael, Jason, and Freddy developed star power, but the narratives always focused on the experiences of the victims.  As noted by Noel Carroll, the audience takes its cues from the positive human characters in the film; if the protagonist is afraid, so too are the people watching.  But, if the audience has no one to identify with, they won't invest emotionally in the proceedings and the film will cease to be frightening.  Recasting the monster as the lead does just that--it precludes the audience being afraid.

Cannibalizing genre staples, as Platinum Dunes seems intent on doing, is indeed putting an end to horror, or at least the slasher.  Movies about teens getting killed have given way to films about guys killing teens, and though it may well be disgusting, it's just not that scary.  So, as originals give way to remakes and audiences are increasingly alienated from the horror onscreen, are we indeed witnessing a genre in transition? 


Carroll, Noel
1984  The Nature of Horror. The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46(1), pp. 51-59.

Newman, Kim
2009  Horror Will Eat Itself. Sight and Sound 19(5), pp. 37-38.


Cortez The Killer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

You bring up an interesting point, one that has not been touched upon by any other rants or posts on the remake topic: the transition away from the victims being a focus to the actual killer. An interesting point that I now see. I believe the reason why they aren't successful is that because of this focus, they are trying to humanize the boogeyman and because of this effort, it dumbs down the overall film and makes the antagonist that much less fearsome. And as a result, you don't empathize with the characters and when they are killed, there is a relative lack of care.

Great post.

DM said...

You hit the nail right on the head. Humanizing the monster is counterproductive and is the main reason why I despise RZ's Halloween.

Andre said...

Ahh thank goodness. I just got done leaving a distressed and somewhat angry comment at someone who hoped that the Nightmare on Elm Street remake would also show us how Freddy came to be Freddy. I was so appalled.

BedazzledCrone said...

Great post! Fitting follow-up to TheAvod's Kreugerama. We fear the worst for the re-quel, se-quel. Wouldn't it be nice to be wrong. It's as if people have forgotten what makes us scared in the first place. The opening sequence of Halloween (still creeps me out whenever I watch it), the opening sequence of Scream (which I still can only watch through the cracks between my half-closed eyes and fingers)

DM said...

Andre, there's just no accounting for taste except in that person's case because they seem to be suffering from some kind of mental impairment.

BC, I could go on for ages about why horror's not scary anymore. I've read articles, lots of articles (okay, just the one, but it's really good).

the jaded viewer said...

OH the almighty dollar rules. Hollywood we must remember is a business and the dollars rolled in. The est budget was $27 mill and it easily surpassed that opening weekend.

My biggest gripe is Hollywood not taking chances on original screenplays and such. C'mon, somebody out there has some good ideas. Take a chance.

DM said...

The thing is, a lot of PD's films have a very short half-life and suffer a precipitous drop in attendance after opening weekend. Their movies have no lasting impact.

Agreed, more studios should be rolling the dice on original fare.