Re. Make. Those two little syllables send an icy lance of fear deep into the pit of any movie lover’s stomach. We’ve all felt it, and we all have our own list of those unnecessary retreads that sour the memory of their superior originals.
But what about those remakes that actually work? Each of us probably has their own (most likely much shorter) list of these as well (one arguable example? Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead do-over). But what makes a successful film story work the second time around? Let’s take a look at three films from the 1980s that are widely considered to have beaten the odds and actually turned out decent (or better). Interestingly, all three of these films are re-adaptations of fan-favorite 1950s films, and all of them are in the horror/sci-fi genre.
If we look at the approach taken to each of these remakes, a fundamental principle begins to emerge; specifically an emphasis on reevaluating the basic idea of the story. The source material for both versions of The Thing is a novella by John W. Campbell Jr., in 1938 and entitled Who Goes There? It concerns the efforts of an Antarctic research team to contain a dangerous shapeshifting alien being that they have awakened.
The original film adaptation only shares surface elements with Campbell’s story. The alien being was not able to imitate others, but rather was a plant-based life form that looked to use Earth inhabitants as the food for its seed-pod offshoots. The film, titled The Thing From Another World, drops the questions raised by the idea of imitation and plays up the “small group trapped in wasteland by The Other” brand of paranoia, which makes for an effective tale in its own right.
This emphasis on the enemy as apart from us, rather than secretly integrated, gave a slightly different analogy to the “Red Scare” mentality so prevalent during the 1950s. The film clearly emphasizes the superiority of the military to deal with the problem, as opposed to the ineffectual scientists led by Dr. Carrington, who plays like a daydreaming flower child at times. Even without the strong ideas created by Campbell’s original premise, The Thing From Another World works as a strong example of effective science fiction storytelling and continues to be one of the most memorable genre films of its era.
When John Carpenter was hired to remake the film, he brought a fresh set of eyes to the project. Wisely deciding not to try to reheat the same premise, he instead chose to look back at the original story. From there, he and his team fashioned a story that deeply adapted Campbell’s work, even replicating character names. The resulting film allows the novella’s themes to seep through and solidify the plot. Instead of facing a powerful “Other” that can be united against, the crew of this film are no longer sure of anything, even if they themselves have become part of The Thing without their knowledge. Under this environment, every character is on edge when faced with an entirely new type of challenge. By making the decision not to retread the earlier film’s plot, Carpenter allows his film to be mentioned in the same breath as the original, but without the one-to-one comparisons that might have been generated otherwise.
A similar trait is shared by the story of The Fly. Originally written as a short story by George Langelaan that premiered in 1957, The Fly was released in 1958 as a feature film directed by Kurt Neumann and starring David Hedison. A very close adaptation of Langelaan’s story, it details the strange plight of Andre Delambre, a brilliant scientist whose experiments with teleportation mistakenly end with the swapping of his head and arm with that of a housefly. Unable to catch the fly so that the horror can be reversed, Delambre can only commit suicide before the insect urges take over his mind.
The film was a success; spawning two sequels and turning the line “Help me! Help me!” into a catchphrase. When the idea came to remake the original, producer Mel Brooks and his Brooksfilms company finally hired David Cronenberg, a Canadian director known for his personal and graphic horror films. Cronenberg accepted the offer under the condition that he rewrite the script. Using an earlier draft by Charles Edward Pogue as his basis, Cronenberg concocted the story of Seth Brundle, another brilliant scientist whose teleportation work takes a drastic turn for the mutant (and in turn spawns the film’s own catchphrase: “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”).
However, the major difference between this story and the earlier film was in the effect of the metamorphosis. Wherein Langelaan’s original story and the 1958 film feature the scientist coming out of the teleporter immediately transformed; Brundle steps out feeling better than he ever has before. His strength, agility and even libido are augmented and he feels rejuvenated. However, as time goes by he comes to realize why the fly that teleported with him never made it to the other side.
This approach allows the film to work not just on a horrific level, but also as a tragedy. Brundle’s metamorphosing body works as a very apparent metaphor for disease, aging, and corruption of the natural order (as is Cronenberg’s stated intention). The slower degradation makes for a much deeper thematic canvas for the story to play with, and the emotional toll it takes on the characters adds another layer to the whole. Much like the case of The Thing, this extrapolation of mature themes serves as the key to make the new film stand apart from the original as its own piece of work.
What about the case of The Blob? Originally released as part of a B-movie double bill in 1958, The Blob concerns the arrival of a small meteor which releases a lethal substance that consumes scores of people in a small town. Steve McQueen, in one of his first film roles, plays a teenager unable to convince the authorities that alien slime is sampling the locals. The film’s campy thrills, unique monster and catchy theme song (co-written by Burt Bacharach, no less) stuck in the collective memory of filmgoers.
So much so, in fact, that Paramount Pictures decided to remake The Blob for release in the horror-heavy year of 1988. Director Chuck Russell (who would go on to direct Jim Carrey in The Mask, among other things) shepherded the production, which took a similar path to the original. However, much as in the cases of The Thing and The Fly, a few underlying changes were made to freshen up the premise. While the ’50s Blob was certifiably an invader from outer space, the ’80s Blob is revealed in the film to be (requisite SPOILER ALERT!) an escaped government biological weapon experiment. And with that, a bit of political satire is mixed into the monstrous shenanigans.
Looking at these films through this lens, it’s easy to see the through-line. They succeed at not being retreads by rethinking the premise and attacking it from another angle. The key for the filmmakers was to write a game plan that straddled the appeal of the premise with a contemporary take that made sense. And they each found a way to accomplish that; either by changing the nature of the threat and how it affects the characters; modernizing the pulpier elements with updated concepts; or even ramping up the graphic nature of the violence. As more and more remakes of classic films enter development, filmmakers could do much worse than to examine the lessons in these remakes.