Sunday, October 12, 2008

Horrorfest ’08 Report #1: Déjà boo!

Horror is probably the most frequently remade genre in film. Lately, Hollywood has gone through a period of heavy horror remakes. We’ve seen reimaginings of slasher movies (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”, “Halloween”), alien invasion flicks (“War of the Worlds”, “The Invasion”), zombie pictures (“Day of the Dead”), creature features (“King Kong”) and Japanese ghosts stories (the list is nearly endless).

One of the reasons horror is so frequently remade for the big screen is that people come for the genre, not the stars. This allows the studios to make horror movies cheaply. If they use a story that has already been tried and successful, that is something else that can entice an audience without much effort put in by the studio to sell it.

Over the past eight years of Horrorfest I have delighted in the privilege and suffered through the pain of a great number of horror remakes and a good deal of their original versions. This year I wanted to make a point of looking at two of 2008’s remakes and their originals back to back. I took a look at two unusual remakes and their original versions. “Prom Night” is unusual because the original is far from a classic. The German movie “Funny Games” is just an unusual one to repackage for American audiences, and the way they went about that was even more unusual.

I suppose it isn’t a stretch to think someone felt “Prom Night” needed to be remade. It is a fairly basic slasher premise, which works as well with modern audiences as it would have 27 years ago. Perhaps they felt they could improve upon it. That wouldn’t have taken much, since the original seemed primarily to be trying to capitalize upon Jamie Lee Curtis’s reign as the original Scream Queen.

Curtis was in the middle of a slew of slasher films at the time “Prom Night” was released, starting with the original “Halloween” and including “The Fog”, “Terror Train” and “Halloween II”. It’s really a toss up as to which is worse, “Prom Night” or “Terror Train”. I’m sure a remake of “Terror Train” is right around the corner.

The original “Prom Night” starts out promisingly with some interesting storytelling techniques. There is this interesting motif established where the audience is allowed inside the thoughts of several of the characters, but as the movie gets into the slasher patterns this motif is dropped. The slasher sequences aren’t the most original or even particularly well done. Plus Leslie Nielson starts as a driving force in the movie and eventually just disappears from the plot. But the movie does a good job of keeping up some of the 70’s cinema horror points that have since become taboo—most notably the idea that evil is born out of children.

The remake, which really had some great potential to improve upon its predecessor, drops all of the positive aspects of the original film and falls into far too many of the pitfalls of modern horror movies. Instead of capitalizing on the cruelty of children, the new “Prom Night” only keeps the prom night part of the premise. In fact everything happens on prom night at a prom that takes place off campus in a luxury hotel, so there aren’t even all those clicks and clashes of high school life for the filmmakers to fall back on. Yes, there is a rivalry going on for prom queen, but without showing these characters interacting within their everyday environment, the filmmakers really miss out on an opportunity to explore any deep hatred shared within high school rivalries.

And instead of linking the killer with these rivalries, we are given a lame set up of a former teacher who stalked one of his students to the point of killing her entire family. Now, she’s going to prom and the killer has escaped. Knowing who the killer is and what his motivations are from the beginning allows much of the tension to escape from the script, which never provides a good reason for him kill anybody. He should have just abducted her. Perhaps the filmmakers should have actually watched the original “Prom Night” and tried to improve upon the themes of that movie, rather than just reading a synopsis from which they only seemed to gather that a bunch of teenagers are stalked by a killer on prom night.

“Funny Games” is another beast altogether. The original 1997 German film depicts a happy family that is visited by two young men at their vacation home and is tortured by the men over the course of one night. The 2008 American remake depicts a happy family that is visited by two young men at their vacation home and is tortured by the men over the course of one night. Now there’s some déjà vu for you.

The new film is a shot for shot, breath for breath, dramatic pause for dramatic pause remake of the original by that film’s same director Michael Haneke in his American debut. How did this happen today? A movie from another culture gets remade in America and it isn’t changed to match America’s taste for prepackaged, homogenized, predictable and pleasing patterns?

And the key to that last question is “pleasing.” This movie will not please audiences in any sense. It is disturbing and brutal. Even though it is a brilliant film—in both versions—few will enjoy it. And perhaps the most disturbing part of the remake is that after ten years, Haneke’s outlook on the world is so bleak he chose not to change a thing.

Watching these two versions—which only differ in their cast, settings and a couple of lines here and there to establish the story as taking place in America or Germany—I was reminded of the only other shot for shot remake I ever seen, Gus Van Sant’s 1998 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. Both of these remakes, in essence, still contain the same power of their originals, but critics embraced neither. I honestly don’t get it. They were remade with the same mastery of craft of their originals, with minor differences caused by new acting interpretations. The color cinematography did hurt Van Sant’s “Psycho”, but not enough to condemn it. And in “Funny Games” Naomi Watts is far too glamorous to retain the profundity of the crime committed against Susanne Lothar’s mother in the original because desire might play some part in the men’s acts against Watts. So there is reason for some of the greatness of these stories to have fallen away from the remakes, but they do retain most of the same values of their predecessors.

There is great value in remaking genre films. Mostly it allows filmmakers to introduce material to an audience that might otherwise be unaware that it already exists in another form. But a remake requires an even greater responsibility on the filmmakers’ part to present an important commentary on the material presented. This is why so many remakes fail. Producers seem to think a remake requires less responsibility, as if there is less to be created or that the audience will bring more to the movie to begin with because of familiarity with the title. The remake is an important thing indeed, something to be taken just a seriously as any film endeavor.

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