Yesterday as I was leaving the theater, having just watched the remake of “Last House on the Left,” I saw a poster for a film called “House,” and I was relieved to see that it wasn’t a remake of the 1986 film with William Katt and George Wendt but actually a new story. In these days of remake-a-mania, it came as something of a surprise. Is it at last an indication that we’re starting to move on? Horror remakes as a rule have a pretty low batting average of success or of bringing something new to the table. Remember the TV remakes of “Salem’s Lot,” “Carrie” and “The Shining”? Yecchh. Each of the original films grows in stature with every passing year and remain just as enjoyable as when they were first released, but the remakes are just execrable.
An important thing to remember is that many of the originals serve as valuable time capsules for the sociopolitical environments that existed when they were released and inspired their creation. This is an element that cannot be updated or looked back on with fond nostalgia. Romero’s original “Night of the Living Dead,” for example, was a raw, uncompromising attack on the Vietnam war, racism and an ineffective government. Tom Savini’s 1990 remake wisely skirted these issues and concentrated on presenting a nihilistic depiction of civilization being consumed by itself.
The original “Last House on the Left” was made when America was being truly torn apart by the political and cultural environment. In 1972, when the film was released, the country was still bogged down in the war in Vietnam and the Summer of Love had soured into a bitter, jaded, drug-induced nightmare. The “free spirits” depicted here were morally bankrupt drifters out for far more extreme kicks than wearing flowers in their hair.
The nightmare begins when their world merges with that of the two young female protagonists who are out for an evening of fun in the city. What follows is an uncompromising descent into torture, rape, murder and revenge. Certainly, the film is rough in spots and has some inappropriate scenes of comic relief, but it succeeds mightily in its intent — to show the destruction of youth and innocence. A key scene arrives when the killers, having gotten their “kicks,” come to the realization that they can’t take back what they’ve done, just as the audience is experiencing the same dreadful sensation. It’s a film you can’t wash off after you’ve seen it.
The remake, in contrast, takes essentially the same story, but it has nothing on its mind but setting up sadistic setpieces. It’s merely a stalk and kill operation, completely predictable throughout its entire 109 minutes (which is far longer than the original). It’s adequately made, but it’s just not necessary.
The worst remake so far this year ( a depressing thought) is “Friday the 13th.” Granted, the original is by no means an untouchable masterpiece, but it was good cheesy fun to watch at the drive-in. The remake, on the other hand, runs on at an interminable length and is technically a re-do of one of the sequels, since the adult Jason doesn’t appear in the series until “Part II.” At least the original had Betsy Palmer’s hilarious scenery-chewing performance as Mrs. Voorhees, a very young Kevin Bacon getting a spear through the throat and hilarious 1980s clothing and hairstyles. The remake limply offers up the usual cast of equal opportunity douchebags and kittenish bimbos consuming mass quantities of drugs and alcohol until it’s time for them to be bumped off.
Instead of a malformed, murderous spectre, Jason has been transformed into a somewhat intelligent, resourceful (but mortal) backwoods survivalist/murderer. It makes his motivation for killing even more unclear. And speaking of killings, the film doesn’t even get that right. In these days of “torture porn” and movies so graphically violent it’s amazing they get “R” ratings (i.e., the lousy, overpraised “Hostel” series), the filmmakers are amazingly conservative when it comes to bloodletting. Director Marcus Nispel is no stranger to remakes — he helmed the new “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” a few years back, and it wasn’t too bad, but this one sinks straight to the bottom of Camp Crystal Lake.
Zack Snyder’s 2004 “Dawn of the Dead” was a worthwhile remake, but it was really a “revisualization” of the original. Again, unable to pick up on the blistering satire of 1970s consumerism that drove the first film, it concentrated instead on intense action and violence — and succeeded very well. “My Bloody Valentine 3D” was such a hoot to watch in the RealD process I can’t compare it to the original, but I suspect in 2D it would be fairly routine. I didn’t bother with the 3D remake of “Night of the Living Dead” because it gave me the stinker vibe right out of the gate.
What is allegedly coming down the pipeline is truly worrisome. “Suspiria“? “Rosemary’s Baby”? Again, the original “Baby” is such a perfect time capsule of 1960s Manhattan any kind of remake is ridiculous. Hey, guys — remember “The Omen” remake? Gus Van Sant’s ungodly “Psycho”? And how could you possibly remake “Suspiria“? Argento can’t even do it. Last year’s highly anticipated conclusion to the “Three Mothers” trilogy, “Mother of Tears,” was absurd in the extreme.
What worries me most about remake-a-mania is that the new generation of horror lovers won’t even be aware that the originals exist and will accept the remakes as the only versions available. They’re missing out on some valuable cultural history — and some fun scares, too!