January 01, 2008

Notes From A DVD Geek

by Jeremy Lassen

Happy New Year, movie fans. The new year is a good time to talk about new versions, and old versions of some classic movies. First up is Rob Zombie's interesting and earnest remake of John Carpenter's "Halloween". As Carpenter himself is a director who has "re-imagined" many movies to good effect, I was eager to see what could happen to the "Halloween" franchise, re-imagined by one of my favorite new directors.

First let me start out by qualifying what it is I like about Rob Zombie. Mr. Zombie seems to have a genuine love for, and understanding of, the genres and forms that he has worked in. "House of a Thousand Corpses," for example, was a much better "re-imagining" of Tobe Hooper's "Texas Chainsaw Massacre," then was the recent remake of "Saw," for example. In his sequel to "House," ("The Devil's Rejects"), Zombie turned in a completely different direction, paying tribute to the hyper-violent visions and cinematic outsider-ness of Sam Peckinpah.

In "Halloween," Zombie makes a conscious decision to base his movie around something that flies in the face of Carpenter's Halloween mythology. In Zombie's movie, monsters like Michael are made, not born. In Carpenter's original movie, the randomness of "the Shape's" evilness -- its manifestation in the young Michael Meyers -- is without hint, and without any direct causes. The terror of the slasher genre that Carpenter tied into was that of the randomness of violence, be it car crashes, or mass murderers like Texas's infamous Charles Whitman, or random street crime. Michael Meyers in the original "Halloween" movie represented all these modern manifestations of random violence.

In Zombie's "Halloween," much of the movie is spent detailing (often in excruciating detail) the life of young Michael Meyers. The power of Zombie's movie comes from recasting Meyers not as random evil, but as a natural reflection of the everyday monstrousness that we all participate in. Our society makes monsters every day, and we mostly don't notice, until they start killing people (a la Columbine, etc.)

Once Michael grows up and returns to Haddonfield, Zombie further explores this theme, while at the same time accurately recapturing the sparse, intense pacing of the original movie. Michael's baby sister has been adopted, and has had a life that is the polar opposite of young Michael. Her home life is stable and loving, she has a group of supportive friends, and while she isn't the most popular girl at school, she certainly isn't alienated from her peer group. She's a stable young woman, ready to face the world. Then Michael shows up, and by the last frame, she's been destroyed, and made just as much of a monster as Michael.

The attention to detail, singular vision, and this core theme of monsters that are made can be seen in the casting choices, and are manifested beautifully in a temporal match-cut that happens late in the movie. Visually, Michael's sister becomes the image of a young Michael Meyers, after she's been subjected to the brutality and monstrousness of her brother's murders. It was a striking moment towards the end of the film that really crystallized Zombie's intentions. I'm going into a lot of detail on this movie because chances are there isn't much about the basic story or premise of "Halloween" that you don't already know. What I want to get across is that this remake isn't your average remake. The intent, interest and level of sophistication that went into this project is remarkable, and definitely worth checking out.

John Carpenter's other influential horror movie that was recently remade, "The Fog," didn't fair nearly as well as Halloween. It is actually an interesting study, to look at how, without trying, the makers of the remake get everything wrong that was right in the original film, and address none of the original film's shortcomings.

Another film in the "stick with Carpenter's original" category is "Assault on Precinct 13". While the original film was a huge cult hit, it had numerous problems, and hasn't aged very well. It speaks volumes about the (in)competence of the folks who remade it that the original film still towers over the remake.

Speaking of towering, John Carpenter's "The Thing" towers above all other remakes, as a gold standard of what is possible. The film had groundbreaking and still impressive special effects, combined with a tight script and excellent pacing that keeps ratcheting up the tension. If you've never seen it, or if it's been years since you've seen it, do yourself a favor, and watch it again.

Returning to monumental failures masquerading as remakes, I give you the "Dawn of the Dead" remake. While the original movie had plenty of problems, the ONLY thing the remake had going for it was the 2 minute intro, which had nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Some people point to the "fast mover" zombies of the remake, but if I want fast moving zombies, I'll stick with "28 Days Later".

Speaking of "28 Days Later," which itself was an homage to "The Omega Man," Will Smith just inflicted a perfectly acceptable, and yet incredibly frustrating, version of the Richard Matheson novel, I AM LEGEND. The frustrating thing is that the first half of the movie is pretty good, and is filled with hints that it's going to remain true to the book.

And then, halfway through the movie, it swerves away from greatness, sticking to the hokey "Omega Man" ending, with a whole bunch of sentimentalism seemingly stolen from M. Night Shyamalan's "Signs". The last voice-over, a hackneyed attempt to justify the title (the meaning of which was totally jettisoned in this version) was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I hated this movie. Probably far more then it deserved to be hated, but there you go.

I mention this Will Smith version of "I Am Legend," not because it's available on DVD. Rather, the first adaptation of Matheson's I AM LEGEND is available, and well worth checking out, because it's incredibly successful in ways that neither the Smith nor Heston versions were. Vincent Price delivers a gob-smackingly hammy performance that just works, and the visual look and feel for this film clearly inspired a young George Romero. Be sure to check out "The Last Man On Earth," you won't be sorry.

Another insultingly bad remake was "The Haunting," which was supposedly based on Shirley Jackson's THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE, or based on the classic Robert Wise movie, "The Haunting of Hill House". It was really hard to tell, because it was so bad. Do yourself a favor, and stick with the beautifully tense Robert Wise version of this Shirley Jackson Novel.

"The Omen" remake really sucked. . . and most insultingly, they got rid of the original score from the original "Omen". "Bad call Ripley . . . bad call."

"The Fly" remake, directed by David Cronenberg, stands next to "The Thing" as one of the most successful remakes ever. This one also featured groundbreaking special effects, and an incredibly moving performance by a young Jeff Goldblum.

I think I've already mentioned how bad the remake of "The Hitcher" was, but it was so bad, it deserves to be mentioned again.

There's a whole host of really bad US remakes of Asian horror films. The sad thing is, some of the original Asian films were already bad knockoffs of "The Ring". Fourth generation crap is still crap. Too many and too bad to list individually. It's too depressing.

"The Amityville Horror" was remade . . . and it wasn't all that bad. It can be said to have been better then the original, but that's not saying much, considering the original movie was a stinker anyway.

"Willard" was a weird little film that was remade in 2003. The remake is also a weird little film, carried entirely by the weirdness of the King of Weird Actors, Crispin Glover.

The original Val Lewton movie "The Cat People" (directed by Robert Wise) was remade in the 80's, starring Nastassja Kinski. Kinski is all the remake had going for it, and it's not enough to be better then the original Jacques Tourneur masterpiece.

"The House on Haunted Hill" remake may not have been a great movie, but it was extremely fun. As the original film was never a great movie either, but rather a campy excuse to let Vincent Price be Vincent Price, I have to respect the postmoderness of having Geoffrey Rush do an incredible Vincent Price impersonation. Really cool visuals also helped the remake out.

The Remake of "13 Ghosts" relied too heavily on the visual techniques of "House on Haunted Hill," and had a weak script, and lacked the wonderfully wacky characters that "House on Haunted Hill" had, and so this Dark Castle remake is less successful, IMO.

Finally, proof that nobody is infallible, I have to say that The King of Remakes, John Carpenter kind of fell down a bit when he remade "Village of the Damned". I definitely prefer the original.

To end this piece a on total downer, I point you to a site that has cataloged the grossest of all the horror remakes out there, and gives a short list of upcoming remakes in the pipe. This sight is truly horrific: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/genres/chart/?id=horrorremake.htm>

Have fun at the movies, and beware of scary guys with sharp objects.

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