Recent news came out that Jessica Harper, star of the Dario Argento masterpiece and arguably the greatest horror movie ever made in my mind Suspiria, has just signed on to join the cast of Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming remake and this is not the news that made me onboard with the idea of this remake (that was the news that Guadagnino is making it with his muse Tilda Swinton), but it nevertheless reminded me of the inevitable backlash on the idea of the project’s existence and – though in a perfect world I’d rather Suspiria not remade at all – it makes me kind of sad to see it dismissed so immediately. Jim Jarmusch said “Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent” and while that doesn’t mean we ought to start remaking Citizen Kane or Casablanca, I can’t think of a more authentic and inspired filmmaker to put behind this than the Italian maestro of gorgeous color and shape Guadagnino himself (to match Suspiria‘s own gorgeous color and shape) and that makes me cautiously optimistic about this film being worth watching, even if it never matches up to the original (for that IS a high bar).
Cautious because the last time I felt this way, it’s because Kimberly Peirce should have been a better director for the subject matter of Carrie than Brian De Palma and that remake was an absolute wreck, but HEY LET’S KEEP TO THE BRIGHT SIDE, EH?!
This kneejerk connotation of “remake” being a bad word is something I once subscribed to as a young cinephile and have since shaken off after being exposed to enough great remakes, so how’s about I list some right now for all you guys to trick into being somewhat happy about this?
FIVE REMAKES I ABSOLUTELY ADMIRE
The Magnificent Seven (1960, dir. John Sturges)
Kurosawa Akira just makes great stories (Star Wars was on an earlier incarnation of this list, but that seemed a stretch. Do not expect A Fistful of Dollars on this list though, because I’m just too damned in love with Yojimbo). Sturges’ cowboy film is one I saw since I was a child and so it got to me before Seven Samurai did, but I won’t make any illusions about which film is much better – it’s obviously Samurai. Nevertheless, one thing Seven does better is give its enemies a face in the form of Eli Wallach, playing a bandit in the most unexpectedly humane form (or not too unexpected given his later career peak as Tuco in The Good, the Bad, the Ugly) and nevertheless Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen have enough stature as the “cool” characters to have made me want to grow up to be those gunslingers and save villages.
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, dir. Philip Kaufman)
Darker is better sometimes and without getting into so much detail (as that would require spoilers), Kaufman’s remake of Don Siegel’s 1956 classic is undoubtedly more darker and nihilistic (and hence kind of appropriate to the 1970s of Watergate and post-Vietnam, though it is also nearly apolitical unlike Siegel’s film) as from the very beginning it lets us in on how threatening the aliens are (while the original slowly lets us unmask the scenario with its characters) and surrounds us with a modern feeling of helplessness and hopelessness rather than the preparing to fight anti-Communism of Siegel’s picture. I’m not certain as to whether it is better than the ’56 film (I know, I know, I said “darker is better”), but Kaufman’s picture is its own beast of its own time and a world without both films would be remiss of how differently a story can be told through mood and style.
Twelve Monkeys (1995, dir. Terry Gilliam)
Sometimes a remake doesn’t even need to be more than its predecessor. La Jetee works as an exercise in storytelling form with still images led around by narration and sound, and as glorious as that is, it’s an experiment that only needs to be done once and perfectly as Chris Marker did. Gilliam was uninterested in how Marker made his film, but what it was about and tried to sprawl into more of an apocalyptic setting the way you’d expect Gilliam to construct his worlds – all mechanic and defective and bureaucratic with hella room for miscommunication.
Little Shop of Horrors (1986, dir. Frank Oz)
I can’t imagine any other remake possibly taking more good-natured fun at the material it is re-adapting than Frank Oz’s film version of the popular off-Broadway musical. It absolutely loves Seymour, it loves the rock and doo-wop music it indulges in, it loves Skid Row (what a gorgeously artificial set, perfect for a musical), it loves Mr. Mushnik’s shop, it loves Audrey, and even as villainous and bloodthirsty as it is, it loves Audrey II. It loves Audrey II so much that when you take a Muppeteer as the director of a film where its major money element is going to be the puppetry behind its hungry monster plant, well… it’s gonna meet all your expectations with flying colors.
War of the Worlds (2005, dir. Steven Spielberg)
I know people are probably tired of me defending the hell out of this movie, but I will do so until my dying day or until everyone who hates it realizes how wrong they are. It nods enough to Pal’s (admittedly superior) 1953 version for me to count it and the main difference is that Spielberg’s remake is honestly and wholeheartedly frightening. The helplessness of the mass of people as we continuously watch their doom and mass genocide before our very eyes is made only more disturbing on how their bodies just disappear without a trace. The tension of hiding without a certainty that you can remain safe where you are. The revelation of what happens to the people who are captured alive. It’s all dark stuff, the sort of horrifying side of Spielberg we’ve seen hinted before but never with this blunt an objective look at how easily so many people can be killed, except obviously for Schindler’s List.
This is cinema at some of its most devastating and that it has an admittedly shoddy estranged children plot in between its setpieces is dismaying but I don’t think it damns the picture.
Pennies from Heaven (1981, dir. Herbert Ross)
You know what’s even less appreciated than remakes? Remake musicals. And even more unappreciated are ones that can use the usually jovial style of musical film to provide a backbone for some real melancholy. Which is already something Ross’ film takes hold of when it uses the already tragic material of the BBC miniseries and translates it to the already downset Depression era of America. But hey, that dark dark place brings out the best talents of both Steve Martin and Christopher Walken and has just the twinge of hope and pleasure within its absolutely catchy old-timey musical numbers. And hey, Jessica Harper is in this one too.
Oh that shit’s not good enough for you? Well, then how about…
Five Remakes That are Flat-Out Masterpieces!!
Ocean’s Eleven (2001, dir. Steven Soderbergh)
I’ve never ever ever heard a worthwhile defense of the original Rat Pack vehicle Ocean’s 11 as a good movie. I like to keep myself open to other opinions, but that’s just a movie where the Pack themselves seem so damn bored with what they’re doing. Enter Soderbergh bringing in this lovely piece of popcorn cinema that is all flashy and fun and makes Las Vegas look exactly like the desert paradise you’d expect while giving us a non-stop barrage of good-looking and stylish actors to gawk at (Clooney, Pitt, Roberts) or comic personalities whose company we enjoy (pretty much the entire 11 crew) and what we get is a movie that could only be described – as a friend of mine observed once – as “cool”. It is the movie that pops into my mind first when I think of “cool”.
A Star Is Born (1954, dir. George Cukor)
Given the basis of this generational tale is purely as a tragedy-based star vehicle, it’s very easy to see how Judy Garland in this film has more to show off than Janet Gaynor in the previous film and that gives Cukor a hell of an advantage. Probably enough of an advantage that he truly recognized that – while Cukor’s brilliant craftsmanship is very present in the film – he knew that all the movie had to do was take a backseat in the spectacle that such a showcase could accommodate for the character drama and what results is a very moving and impressive piece on the arts that still works as entertainment.
The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter)
John Carpenter loves the shit out of Howard Hawks. This is extremely obvious to anybody who has watched enough of both directors. Hell, Carpenter has been very candid about the majority of his films being unofficial remakes of Rio Bravo and the majority of his leading ladies being modeled off of Hawks’ leading ladies. So it’s no surprise that he would remake a Hawks production eventually in his career and frankly I don’t think there’s any contest as to who pulled off the high tension and gorgeous snow cinematography better. Carpenter done outdid his idol in this work and that’s not even acknowledging the grisly and amazing make-up effects work as the characters become taken over, because that’s just not fair to a 1955 production.
But don’t worry, Hawks will be getting the last laugh soon.
The Maltese Falcon (1941, dir. John Huston)
I’m sure some people may claim that Huston’s Maltese Falcon is not a remake of the 1931 production of the same name or the 1936 Satan Met a Lady so much as a re-adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s novel. I call that straight up shenanigans. WB had been working hard on getting a good unedited version out there and got it perfect the third time around (plus the original two were included in the 3-disc DVD release of the 1941 film, they definitely intended you compare them). The Maltese Falcon is a quintessential example of many things – detective story with its hardboiled capable lead of Sam Spade, man of men. Film noir in its cynical, dark nature with the way it dolls out death to many of its characters in search of a mythical bauble. Star vehicle for Humphrey Bogart to just how coolly and calmly he can control any scene he takes part in and deliver barbs effortlessly. And the masculine craft of Mr. John Huston himself, presenting self-proclaimed men of codes and watching them slowly break those codes for the sake of riches or being manipulated by a wonderfully arch Mary Astor as Brigid O’Shaughnessy, femme fatale to set off all other femme fatales.
AND THE BEST REMAKE I’VE SEEN YET GOES TO…
His Girl Friday (1940, dir. Howard Hawks)
I’m no fan of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, but when people try to argue to me that gender-swapped remakes are an inherently flawed concept, that just makes me realize they’ve never seen His Girl Friday and that’s a damned shame (or not because it means their first time seeing it could possibly be from the upcoming Criterion DVD/Blu-Ray release and not from a shitty copy as is common since the movie is in the public domain). Because Rosalind Russell is more than just a fair match for the screwball banter of Cary Grant, she’s the very engine by which the movie runs about – she fuels both the romantic tension between her and Grant simply by being in the room with threat of running off, she’s our main surrogate into the case of a man whose life is being held by the crooked legal system, and her wit is the source of so many of the laughs of one of the movies I can’t help dying at. But all those things are only there to reward you if you can catch up to the film’s machine-gun-fast dialogue, I’m talking Jimmy-John’s-delivery fast in a way to throw aside all the slow shot-by-reverse-shot conversations in the likes of the 1930 (including the original The Front Page) while providing a much much more engaging look at the newspaper lifestyle as its predecessor (which probably ends up fueling my fascination with the newspaper subgenre and life because of that sort of quick-footed office style).
His Girl Friday is not the best remakes or one of the best comedies, it’s one of the best movies and a testament to Hawks’ continuous inventiveness and ability to work with actors all around to get a crackling sensation just from dialogue and action.
So there you have it. Keep your mind happy that remakes can and do provide a good at times.