With all this talk about remakes in various stages of production, from rumored to released, I’ve received a couple of suggestions that I do a list of needless remakes. But because (to sort-of quote Robert Stack in Airplane!) “That’s just what they’re expecting me to do,” I decided to flip it around and do a list of great remakes. Because let’s face it, none of us want these movies to turn out bad — we’d all rather they be good. When I hear of a remake in the works, such as 2008’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, when I’m finished rolling my eyes there is a gullible part of me that thinks “wait a minute, Keanu Reeves is an interesting casting choice and the themes of the original are still relevant today — this might work!” But then the movie gets released and the reviews are so universally awful, I decide to skip it. That’s typically what happens, but there is always a twinge of hope that the remake will be good.
So what constitutes a great remake? I’d define it as a movie that takes the original premise, makes it its own and in no way tarnishes the memory of the original. Here are ten films that I feel do exactly that. I know it’s sacrilege to say, but some of these I think are even better movies than their inspirations.
The Thing (1982). From the very opening, with the desolate shots of the Antarctic and the Norwegian helicopter pilot trying desperately to kill a dog running in the snow, we can tell we’re in for a different ride than the 1951 Howard Hawks original The Thing from Another World. Director John Carpenter and screenwriter Bill Lancaster take the story in a more psychological direction — as the men become infected by the “thing” they show no outward signs and the paranoia grows as they begin to point fingers at each other. The good old early 80’s makeup effects by Rob Bottin still hold up beautifully, especially that defibrillator gag. The great cast includes Kurt Russell, Richard Dysart, Wilfred “I’m all better now” Brimley and Donald “I’d rather not spend the rest of this winter tied to this fucking couch” Moffat. By the way, John Carpenter has had good luck remaking Howard Hawks’ films — if his 1976 Assault on Precinct 13 had “officially” been a remake of Hawks’ 1959 Rio Bravo, I would have included it on this list. (Now if only people would have luck remaking Carpenter’s own films!)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Philip Kaufman and writer W.D. Richter’s retelling of the Body Snatchers story has one of the coolest cameos ever, which is also a nice nod to Don Siegel’s 1956 original. About 30 minutes in, actor Kevin McCarthy (the star of the original) appears running through the streets, screaming “They’re here already! You’re next!” — the very same lines that conclude the original sci-fi classic. The Kaufman version jacks the creepiness factor to about 11, especially during some early scenes depicting the first people who have been duplicated. A priest on a swing set comes to mind, played by Robert Duvall with an emotionless stare. Kaufman approaches the story with a cinÃ©ma vÃ©ritÃ© style (the kind of thing filmmakers did so well in the 70’s), which only adds to the believability of it all — and thus the creepiness.
The Fly (1986). “Something went wrong, Seth, when you went through.” Indeed. Director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Charles Edward Pogue focus more on character than horror, but thankfully they don’t skimp on the gross stuff either — presented for the most part with a good balance of humor. When inventor Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) tests his new teleporter for the first time, a housefly accidentally gets in the chamber with him. Molecules of both human and fly get broken down and re-assembled in the second telepod chamber. But in this version, the transformation from man to fly is a gradual one — not just a quickie head transplant like in the 1958 original. At first, everything appears okay until his girlfriend (Geena Davis) notices that Seth is changing and eventually convinces him that something is wrong. Chris Walas’ makeup effects are terrific but the truly amazing thing to watch here is Jeff Goldblum’s acting as he gradually begins to take on housefly characteristics. The transformation is emotional and inevitable — and thus all the more tragic.
Scarface (1983). It’s an update of classic story about a guy named Tony’s rise in fall in the world of crime. Director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone turn prohibition-era Chicago and booze into 1980’s Miami and cocaine. The film succeeds on just about every level, from the iconic performance by Al Pacino to the beautiful way De Palma photographs his violence. That’s right, I said “beautiful” — even though the first time I saw it, I might have closed my eyes once or twice. For me, this is right up there with The Godfather and Goodfellas as a great American gangster film.
Heaven Can Wait (1978). Warren Beatty’s delightful retelling of Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) was itself remade in 2001 as Down to Earth starring Chris Rock (not on this list, but a pretty funny movie nonetheless). Joe Pendleton (Beatty) dies in an accident — but it turns out he wasn’t actually supposed to die. Instead an angel (Buck Henry, who co-directed with Beatty) took Pendleton’s soul right before the accident occurred because he didn’t want him to suffer. Since it wasn’t his time to go, now they have to find another body to put him in. Beatty and Henry (and co-writer Elaine May) take the premise and run with it. This fun comedy, which is also a sweet love story, earned 9 Oscar nominations including Best Picture.
The Birdcage (1996). Mike Nichols’ retelling of the Oscar-nominated 1978 Italian comedy La Cage aux Folles is one of those movies that seems to get funnier upon repeated viewings. Robin Williams of all things plays the straight man (and by “straight” I mean the serious half of a comic duo), allowing the talented Nathan Lane to steal the show. Also on hand is Diane Wiest and Gene Hackman doing a great comic turn as a conservative senator. And of course Hank Azaria is unforgettable as Agador Spartacus, a flamboyant housekeeper who can’t seem to walk in shoes without falling over. This style of comedy, based on deception, is generally not my bag (in which everything would have worked out just fine if everyone had told the truth at the beginning of the movie). But when it’s as funny as The Birdcage, I just go with it.
Cape Fear (1991). I distinctly remember saying out loud “what’s the point?” when I heard a Cape Fear remake was on the way. “Scorsese’s doing it” was all I needed to know. No need to bicker about which version is better — both movies are great. Martin Scorsese ratchets up the intensity, which is to be expected. I suppose one could argue it’s a little too over-the-top, especially compared to the subtlety of the 1962 original. But Scorsese adds his share of psychological stuff too, such as the utterly disturbing scene between Robert De Niro and Juliette Lewis. It’s a simple revenge tale really: Max Cady gets out of prison and stalks the family of the lawyer whom he feels was responsible for putting him away. In the original, it’s an attorney who testified against Cady, but the remake brilliantly switches it to Cady’s defense attorney (Nick Nolte) who made the decision to bury some information that might have helped his client. Also really cool is Bernard Herrmann’s score for the original film, which is adapted by Elmer Bernstein for the new version (with bits of Herrmann’s rejected Torn Curtain score thrown in for good measure) and it works just as well in this version as it did in 1962. The two stars of the original, Robert Mitchum and Gregory Peck, have small roles — each on the opposite sides of their original characters. Martin Balsam also cameos.
Scent of a Woman (1992). “Whoo-ah!” Director Martin Brest’s remake of Profumo di Donna (1974) carries yet another memorable Al Pacino performance — his only Oscar to date. Chris O’Donnell is the kid who is hired to look after Pacino’s bitter Lt. Col. Frank Slade and Philip Seymour Hoffman is on hand in an early role as a prep school asshole. Pacino’s tirade at the end (“this is such a crock of SHIT”) is pretty spectacular stuff.
Always (1989). Steven Spielberg’s underrated remake of A Guy Named Joe (1943) is a funny, moving love story. The original tells the story of a daring fighter pilot who dies in action and comes back as a guardian angel for another pilot, only to watch the new guy fall in love with his girl. In this version, World War II fighter pilots are cleverly updated to the brave folk who use airplanes to extinguish forest fires. Richard Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter are terrific together — the scene where Dreyfuss’ ghost desperately tries to communicate how he felt about her is devastating (Hunter is particularly great in that scene as she reacts to a voice that she may or may not hear in her mind). Besides, how cool is it to see Audrey Hepburn come out of retirement to do one more role?
The Maltese Falcon (1941). Okay, I will admit that before I did research for this column, I had no clue that John Huston’s classic film was in fact a remake. But it is. A previous adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade novel was made by in 1931 and a second one (loosely based on the material) was made in 1936 as a Bette Davis vehicle called Satan Met a Lady. If this still doesn’t prove my point that some remakes can succeed, I have no idea what will. So there.