Collins’ Crypt: What’s The Point Of Xeroxing A Scary Movie?
Last week I defended the remake of The Wicker Man, and most of the response was, as expected, of the "You're crazy" variety (Robin Hardy's response was perhaps the harshest), same as it is for Black Xmas or any of the other less than well-received remakes I've gone to bat for over the years. In all of these cases, one of the things I admire about the remakes is that they are trying something radically different, because the last thing I want to see is the same goddamn movie again. Good or bad is always going to depend on someone's personal tastes, but when a remake is retelling the same story, beat for beat, I start to have that same knee-jerk reaction that folks do when they simply HEAR that one of their favorite films is going to be remade. Namely, I just wonder "Why?", and spend most of the time watching feeling bad for any creative types out there who might have actually had an interesting take for a remake of that particular film and will now likely never get to make it.
Of course, it's unlikely anyone besides the producers were coming up with ideas for a Cabin Fever remake just yet. Eli Roth's breakout film premiered at a festival in 2002 and saw wide release in 2003, meaning it's only 13-14 years old, and yet a remake is hitting Blu-ray after a brief theatrical run earlier in the year. It's possible some horror fans still have the same car they drove to see Roth's version, and thus it has to be the quickest turnaround from original to remake (not counting foreign translations, more on that later) since the introduction of sound, which resulted in several films being remade within only a few years of their originals. For example, Tod Browning remade his own silent film London After Midnight (1927) as Mark of the Vampire only eight years later, a "talkie" that was able to tell its elaborate story with the added bonus of the actors talking. There, the quick turnaround made a lot of sense - I doubt anyone was snarking about it the way we do now for remakes with three times as much distance between them.
But Browning also made a few changes to his story - that's not the case with Cabin Fever, as it used the exact same script and is thus 90-95% virtually identical, so I'm at a loss. Roth's film isn't particularly outdated (and the occasional modern touches, like Minecraft references, are cringe-worthy anyway), both movies are in English, and since Roth is on board as an executive producer, there doesn't seem to be any "doing it to keep the rights" tomfoolery afoot (besides, the last sequel is only two years old, so how limiting would those rights have to be?). They didn't even throw on some pointless 3D element. By using Roth (and Randy Pearlstein's) original script, they're certainly not finding a new take on the story of five friends going to an isolated cabin and being besieged by a flesh-eating virus, so who exactly is this film for? Certainly not fans of the original, as it's the same thing except with different actors, and if you downright hated the original I can't see how this one would change your mind. The only "benefit" I could see for some viewers is that this version is much straighter - besides the aforementioned throwaway modern references the only real difference to the script is that it's been stripped of Roth's frat-guy humor (so say goodbye to the "Cuz they're gay?" excuse for killing squirrels), and the gore, while still excessive, is played for scares instead of amusing squirminess (the "fingerbang misfire" scene, for example, is no longer as funny as it was to folks like me with a warped sense of humor - now it's just a gross moment).
So I guess if you kind of liked Cabin Fever but hated that the story of a flesh-eating virus killing horny morons wasn't being taken seriously, the remake will play like gangbusters to you. It's got all your favorite parts - "Pancakes", Deputy Winston (albeit now played by a woman for reasons they never bother to explain), the random sex between the hero and the OTHER girl - but now you won't get all that pesky "fun" in the way. They even cater a bit to fans of Roth's later work - the death of Gage Golightly's Karen (the character originally played by Jordan Ladd) is prolonged; her relatively quick mercy kill in the original is now drawn out when the first attempt doesn't work and the hero opts to immolate her instead. Yay? Unfortunately for the curious, the biggest difference is in the DVD/Blu-ray presentation: it could take the better part of a day to work through the multiple commentaries and bonus features on Roth's film, whereas the remake offers only a quick making of that spends precious little time on justifying its existence. The common defense of remakes is that they're not trying to replace the originals, but when it comes to updates like this I can't help but wonder if that's exactly what they're trying to do, because "newer = better" and there is nothing else of note about it. I mean, even your new iPhone model has a few features that justify throwing out the "old" one you bought last year. In what universe is "barely over a decade" considered long enough for a film to be too old?
The brief turnaround period was at least not a problem for Gus Van Sant's Psycho, which is otherwise probably the poster child for unnecessary remakes if there is such a thing. Remaking Hitchcock isn't something that happens often, but Van Sant wasn't even the first in 1998 - Andrew Davis had given audiences a Dial M For Murder update earlier that year with his minor hit A Perfect Murder. Hitch had even remade himself with The Man Who Knew Too Much, so while remaking Psycho sounded like a bad idea, it wasn't like Van Sant was committing an original sin - I actually was curious and optimistic about it when I first heard of it... until I heard how he planned to go about his "update". For those who are thankfully unaware, Van Sant used the same script employed by his predecessor, and (unlike Cabin Fever's new director Travis Z) even went shot by shot in his attempt to recreate Hitchcock's classic, albeit in color. Again, there are minor differences; in addition to modernizing things like the cost of a car and the amount of money Marion stole, he trimmed some of the psychiatrist's rambling exposition in the final scene (that's possibly his one improvement on the original) and confusingly added surreal images to the murder scenes. Oh, and this Norman masturbates when he looks through the peephole. Thanks, Gus.
The masturbation bit has become synonymous with trashing the movie; it's akin to the bees for Wicker Man or "Love Hurts" for Rob Zombie's Halloween. But I think the real reason that moment stood out was because the film was otherwise so slavish to the original (to the extent that Van Sant even made sure his film had the exact same runtime, and on the DVD you can see at least one actor watching the original to make sure he was saying the lines the same way). It's not because "Norman shouldn't masturbate"; Bates Motel makes plenty of changes to the original incarnation of Norman Bates, and I don't think anything of it - because it's a completely new take on the mythos, using its iconography as checkpoints but otherwise going about it their own way. Van Sant did no such thing, recreating every single conversation line for line, so it's jarring to see anything he added to it or changed. Contrast this to Tom Savini's Night of the Living Dead remake, which is very similar for the first half and then pivots, making any further changes much less distracting. Or the My Bloody Valentine update, which sped through a remake of the original's storyline of a party in the mine and then told its otherwise new story (complete with a new answer for the whodunit mystery). In those cases, the new filmmakers were using our familiarity with the original stories against us in a sort of way, which to me is much more preferable than copying the earlier film down the punctuation in the screenplay.
Careful recreation of the screenplay makes a little more sense when it's the same filmmaker, however. In 2007, Michael Haneke decided to remake his ten-year-old classic Funny Games, almost completely shot-for-shot the same, even going so far as to use the same blueprints for the original house to recreate it for the update. But there's one key difference: his original film was in German, and this time it'd be in English, so the folks who hate to "read" their movies might give his polarizing film the look they previously wouldn't have considered. Dubbing isn't usually preferred by anyone, so he just took the basic idea of dubbing and took it to the next level - instead of using voice actors in a booth, he'd "dub" his original film with new actors on (technically) the same set. But his devotion to his original was a bit puzzling - in ten years he didn't think of anything different he could do? Was there nothing different he wanted to try out of curiosity?
Maybe he just wanted to stress that he got it right the first time. That's what Ole Bornedal was more or less doing with Nightwatch (1997), the American remake of Nattevageten, his Danish film from a mere three years earlier. He clearly wasn't out to try anything new; Ewan McGregor, who was starring in the role originally played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (!), even once said Bornedal would have him watch the scenes from the original and encourage him to do it the same way his predecessor did. Unfortunately (or not, depending on your tolerance for carbon copies), Bornedal made the grave error of making his film for the Weinsteins, so even though his remake (co-written by Steven Soderbergh, who'd go on to remake Ocean's 11 and Solaris, finding massive success with one and an F Cinemacore with the other) was intended to be pretty much the same movie except in English, the theatrical release of the film had some changes. None were for the better by anyone's estimation (except for Bob and Harvey, of course), but it was at least something off the beaten path.
However, Bornedal at least had the usual "Goddamn Weinsteins..." defense on his side, something that George Sluizer didn't get the benefit of when he remade his classic The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos) for FOX, five years after his Dutch original. This version has a far more upbeat ending, but unlike some films that have their endings changed as a result of test screenings, Fox apparently demanded a happier ending from the get-go, and Sluizer went along with it - I would like to think he was merely curious to see how the other ending would play out. After all, the film is pretty much exactly the same until the last ten minutes, so maybe he thought it'd be fun as an experiment to zig instead of zag at the last minute (instead of around the halfway point as Savini did with NOTLD), just to see if audiences would go for it. Alas, the remake was a giant dud and it seems the only people who ever saw it had seen the original with the darker (better) ending anyway, so whatever benefit the happier ending might have had for anyone, it wasn't enough to warrant all the booing he got from the original's fans.
The exception in this area seems to be Takashi Shimizu, who has made his film Ju-On (aka The Grudge) a whopping THREE times, with the law of diminishing returns not really applying. His 2002 remake of his original from 2000 was an improvement, and his 2004 American version may not have been as creatively satisfying, but certainly didn't hurt his career any by grossing a whopping 110m at the box office (it was Grudge's success that cemented the "Asian horror remake" trend that The Ring had started two years earlier - it's really its fault we got things like One Missed Call and Pulse). His 2006 American sequel was actually the SIXTH time he had directed a movie about Toshio the ghost, and maybe that film's relative failure was for the best - he's since mostly moved on, having no real involvement with the five or six Ju-On/Grudge films that have come along after he finally got it out of his system (he worked on a video game, however). The trend of quickly remaking foreign horror films for American audiences was a fad that permeated much of the '00s horror output, though very few of them seemed to find the critical or commercial success of The Grudge, and after a while the well dried up and the big studios were back to remaking their own properties again, for better or worse.
There might be others who have found similar success to Shimizu, but on average, it seemingly doesn't benefit anyone to remake their own film, or for another filmmaker to use the same script as his predecessor. The best genre remakes are the ones that go beyond a simple technological advance or setting when it comes to changes: The Thing, The Fly, The Blob, Dawn of the Dead... these have their own identity apart from their predecessors, which is why they've stood the test of time and continue to find new fans, where movies like Psycho '98 are punchlines at best. Time will tell if Cabin Fever (2016) manages to find its own fanbase and be hailed as a minor classic down the road (it'd be easy to point at its 0% score on Rotten Tomatoes as evidence that it certainly won't, but The Thing was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences at the time of its release, too), but by remaining so similar, it'll be a harder hill to climb. Those films I mentioned are the reason why I always give remakes the benefit of the doubt and as fair of a chance that I can give depending on its particulars (i.e. who is directing it, how long it had been since the original, etc.), but remakes like Cabin Fever and Psycho ultimately only help remind us of the strength of their originals. Which they'll never replace.