Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Are Remakes Just As Risky As New Releases?...

In these tough economic times, film studios are turning to more and more remakes of films first done a generation or two ago. They site the financial insecurity of their viewing public, noting that fewer people are actually going to the theater to see a new release, and therefore, they want to go with what has a known track record, rather than take a big risk. After all, even with the so-called "draw" of Megan Fox, Jennifer's Body brought in less than ten million on opening weekend. However, aren't all films a risk-- especially when studios pour so much money into them and ticket sales steadily increase to the point where "date night" at the movies takes all of a middle class couple's expendable income? And if all of these new-old movies have versions sitting on Blockbuster shelves, in On Demand libraries, and available to be streamed online, why should anyone pay extra to see a "retelling" when they have the original-- the fresh and creative-- at the touch of their fingertips?

When the Alan Parker-directed Fame came out in 1980, boasted a cast of hugely talented but otherwise unknown young performers playing students at a New York City institution for performing arts. The musical, though full of fun and energy at many points, also had it's serious, indicative of the 80s "Very Important Lessons." A wannabe actress gets manipulated by a sleazy director into stripping for an "audition;" a wannabe dancer gets dropped from the program and considers suicide; another dancer gets pregnant and accepted at a major dance company and has an abortion to follow her artistic dreams; and those enraptured by the bright lights quickly sober up when seeing the failed talents around them who are now bussing tables to pay the bills.

The original Fame won two Academy Awards for music (Original Song and Score) and spawned a stage play version, a TV series, and a subsequent spin-off series. Naturally, MGM, most likely blinded by the dollar signs in their eyes after seeing what other recent movie-musicals had done for the genre and the studio attached (the High School Musical series, anyone?) dug into their archives to find the moneymaker and release an updated version just a few weeks ago.

In the 2009 version, though the kids reaching for specific dreams were still virtual unknowns (except Kay Panabaker of Disney Channel and CSI fame), the studio also banked on using recognizable faces to portray the teachers in order to attempt to weave a more intricate story. Here were some flashes from the past: Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullaly, and of course Debbie Allen, who was one of the kids in the original. It was as if a subtle reminder that you may aspire big, but you may have to settle for aiding others to succeed in their dreams instead, which adjusted the tone slightly. Therein lies your one and only Very Important Lesson because this is 2009 and films are now here to thrill and attempt to shock/scare instead of offer much substance.

Fame also got a revamp in the music department, which would have been surprising due to the success of the original, but today's sound is a bit more urban, and in order to "keep up with that," Fame, too, had to include a hip-hop flare. The film did this to give a new, young audience what it thought they wanted rather than show them something new and exciting they never knew they could want, ala the original. Perhaps that laziness is why Fame only opened at #3, though, and behind two brand new and completely unique stories.

Everyone knows the premise of 1984's Nightmare on Elm Street, even if they have been too scared to view any of the graphic horror sequels it has spawned. The infamous Freddy Krueger-- the killer with an F-ed up face and knives for fingers-- lives in your dreams but can kill you in your reality. In some ways, the film series plays on the notion that if you die in your dream, you die in reality, as well. In other ways, the film just muddies the line between what is real and what is not by having its villain be a ghost. Krueger (Robert Englund) is said to be a man who killed about dozen children years and years earlier. The parents of the town took their revenge by burning him alive (hence the F-ed up face, but still no reasoning for the knife-fingers), and now his spirit is acting out and getting revenge by stalking all of those people's children.

Since Nightmare on Elm Street came out during a wave of gory slasher flicks, everyone just took it for what it was at its surface value. The back-story for Krueger was nothing more than exposition-- a little blip to quiet any audience goer who didn't understand the point of such movies was not to ask "But what's the motive?" We didn't explicitly learn until twelve years later, with the first Scream film, that motives are incidental, but the Nightmare... film seemed to be laying that groundwork.

However, in the 2010 version of the same name, Jackie Earle Hayley takes over for Englund as the infamous killer, and with the recasting comes a whole re-branding. Warner Brothers and Samuel Bayer's new version will undoubtedly feature more of the same teenagers (like the aforementioned Jennifer's Body's Kyle Gallner) being slashed open, but it spends a lot more time explaining how Krueger the man was made into Krueger the urban legend for which he is so well known. In doing so, this is one of the exceptions when a remake is not simply an update for the flashier technology or faster pacing of the times.

Hayley did the seemingly impossible a few years back with his star turn as a pedophile in Little Children: he made the audience see things from his character's side--- a character that is usually depicted as one-note and unredeemable-- and he actually made them feel for him. He was not just a monster, but he was also, to a degree, a victim (of others' prejudices). And he is doing the same thing as Fred Krueger in the new Nightmare on Elm Street.

Krueger will get his fair share of screen-time not simply lurking in dark corners, stalking his prey. His story will finally be told in full (at least until the next version of the movie, anyway) as a man who was falsely accused of being a child murderer and punished in the most heinous of ways by a scared and vengeful crowd. He is no longer the monster in life who could not be stopped by death, but instead he is a monster created by the savageness of his death. It is an honorable attempt to at least put a new spin on a very played out tale, but it must be noted that audiences do not want to see humanized versions of movie villains. It changes the whole history of Krueger's two and a half decades of killings if we start to wonder if maybe those people deserved it and maybe he just needed to be hugged.

1987's The Stepfather stars Terry O'Quinn as a man who murders this family and then sets out to start over-- new identity, new town, new job, and of course, new family-- in search of the perfect family. Since the film was based on a real life serial killer, who at the time, was still on the lam, it is very clear from the opening scene that O'Quinn's character is a bad, bad man, and anyone he comes into contact with could be in severe danger.

In Sony Pictures' redo of the same name due out on October 16 (not-so-coincidentally at the same time as the original gets a special DVD release), Dylan Walsh plays the title character just as maniacally so the audience is not confused as to what kind of thriller this film will be. Where there could be some liberties taken to show how in this digital information age, it's easy to get misinformation about a person or an event, there is instead just an attempt at a more polished and higher stakes version of the exact same thing.

The protagonist in this version is a male child (Gossip Girl's Penn Badgley), who returns from school to find a strange man living in his house. This should change the stakes greatly for a man who was looking for women to dote over him in that stereotypical, somewhat backwoods, 1950s way. However, he has not yet even married the mother (Sela Ward); hence the "race against time" feel to learn the truth before their fates are sealed, so to speak. The original was creepy because O'Quinn was already a part of the family, and the tone was that danger was lurking outside the bedroom door, and it was really only a matter of time before your fate caught up to you. In this "new" version, any perceived danger is shotty and weaker than it should be because of the Hollywood machine but also because the real life killer the movie was based on was apprehended just after the original film was released, and that was worked into the script.

While the original Stepfather manages to surprise you at the end, you know going into the new version exactly what is going to happen and you have to lay all of your money on the hopes that the journey there will be worth the price. But if the studios don't want to take risks these days, they have no right to ask their audiences to do so. If there is a perfectly decent version of a story already out there that can be brought into your own home and watched at your leisure, go with that. It's "safer" after all; just follow the studios' lead and maybe through that lack of demand for the same old thing just one hundred new ways, they'll start to churn out more "diamonds in the rough," like this summer's 500 Days of Summer or the more recent limited release Carriers.

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