When it comes to movies, “remake” is kind of a dirty word. It smacks of yet another Hollywood cash-in on some hit foreign flick, usually because the English-speaking movie-going audience is perceived as being too dumb to read words and watch pictures at the same time. Sadly, that perception is broadly true. So, lazy Tinseltown executives repeatedly latch on to great films then recast them, rewrite them (don’t make the ending too ‘difficult’) and re-release them. The only strange thing is that they keep doing it when the end results tend to be not only artistically bankrupt but financially as well.
Examples? Well, how about Spike Lee’s recent box office bomb, Oldboy? Then there’s the J-horror bandwagon: US-produced versions of The Ring and The Grudge. Or the execrable remake of stylish Swedish vampire tale, Let The Right One In. Maybe the one exception (that proves the rule) was the Daniel Craig version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo; enough budget and writing and acting talent for a decent movie.
They even do it to their own. Remember Tim Burton’s “re-imagining” of Planet of the Apes? It may have had a redeeming moment or two (wasn’t Helena Bonham Carter a sexy monkey?) but Mark Wahlberg in the Charlton Heston role? Tim, I love your work, man but this was your nadir.
But. But, but, but… Like any trash, do it to excess and it begins to become art. One remake is iffy, but two or more? Well, now you have a new genre in the making. When the same story has been told thrice, the three films – taken as a whole – somehow transcend the remake label and begin to offer a broader vision of the story, timeless and multi-faceted, a potentially ongoing and continuous process or reinvention.
A good example of cinematic triplets culminated in 2007’s I Am Legend with Will Smith alone in vampire-ridden New York, a good film but about a million miles from Richard Matheson’s source novel. It was previously filmed in the 70s as The Omega Man starring Charlton Heston, and before that, Vincent Price did an intense black and white version in 1964 called The Last Man on Earth. Watch all three back to back on the same day and you’ll see what I mean – you get to see the same story from three different angles and suddenly, it’s fascinating (even Heston, who’s basically spent his whole career trying to keep that rifle in his cold, dead hands).
Then there’s the quadruplet set that begins in ancient Japan with Kurosawa’s classic Yojimbo, the story of a lone warrior between two warring factions, playing each end against the middle. Sound familiar? You know it does, because Clint shot to fame doing the same thing in southern Spain for 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. Thirty years later, Bruce Willis garnered much less attention for a Prohibition-era remake, Last Man Standing. Finally (really, is this sort of thing ever truly over?) we return to Japan in 2007 just in time for director Takashi Miike to tell the same story – albeit in his trademark crazed fashion – in Sukiyaki Western Django.
If more genuinely is, well, more… how about the granddaddy of all remake chains. Dracula? Leave to one side the franchise instalments of the Dracula Rides Again and Son of Dracula’s Nephew variety, and the comedy versions; even sticking to adaptions of Bram Stoker’s original novel, we still have the Count played by Max Schreck, Bela Lugosi, Carlos Villarías, Christopher Lee, Klaus Kinski, Frank Langella, Gary Oldman – now that’s an evening’s viewing right there.
The only remaining question is, what about Godzilla? The 1998 remake of the ’54 Japanese original was everything that is bad about remakes – thin plot, clunky acting, over-reliance on a well-known brand – but… does the latest American ‘reboot’ (hah – now there’s a word!) elevate them collectively to triplet status?