Remaking a classic movie always struck me as roughly equivalent to remarrying your first spouse. I mean, sure, you can do it. And there are some advantages. You pretty much know what you’re getting, and it was a lot of fun the first time around (at least at the beginning). But then you notice that, hey wait a minute, I already know how this turns out and we’re both a bit older and saggier now and not as susceptible to being beguiled. It’s at this point that the whole remake thing starts to get depressing.
You think to yourself, why am I sitting here watching this lame-o remake of Top Gun when I could have been watching that sensitive but funny coming-of-age movie about high school in Sacramento that everyone is talking about? There you are with all your friends and they are talking about what a fresh and delightful movie that was and all you can contribute is: “Maverick and Iceman, those two just can’t seem to get along.”
Not all remakes, however, are disasters. Most are, to be honest, but not all. What makes a successful remake? It has to be true in some meaningful way to the original but have a value and integrity that is independent of its original. A good example of a technically outstanding remake that just falls completely flat for me is Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot identical remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller, Psycho (1960). Van Sant’s version, Psycho (1998) is faithful in the extreme…and kind of boring as a result.
Then there are the remakes that are just irritatingly bad. In this category falls Sabrina (1995), the teeth-grinding remake of Billy Wilder’s immortal original starring Audrey Hepburn, Sabrina (1954).
Here is my list of remakes worth watching.
A movie so nice they remade it twice! When I heard they were remaking The Magnificent Seven (1960), I was wary to say the least. The original The Magnificent Seven was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954.) Each one of these movies stands on its own. Kurosawa’s masterpiece is one of his finest, and it centers on his greatest star, Toshirô Mifune. What I recommend you do is set aside a weekend and watch all three of these movies.
The 1960 American remake of Seven Samurai was a Yul Brynner idea of reimagining Kurosawa’s medieval Japanese tale and setting it in the post-Civil War Old West. What a cast! In addition to Brynner, the cast also included Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and everybody’s favorite German, Horst Buchholz. It was just about impossible to go wrong with this cast.
The 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven more than holds its own in the stratospheric world of its two predecessors. It’s flashy, violent, and lots of white-knuckle fun, with a sassy, up-to-date attitude. Another great cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Peter Sarsgaard.
Go ahead, rent all three. You have your Saturday afternoon, Saturday evening, and Sunday morning all set!
The Thing is a marvelous and taut sci-fi thriller by horror director maestro John Carpenter about scientists in Antarctica who discover a creature—which, of course, turns out to be a monster—buried in the ice. It comes alive and starts killing all the residents of this lonely outpost, one by one. An incredibly exciting movie, and you’ll be pulling the couch blanket over your eyes at several points and telling your kids to go upstairs because this movie is too scary for them…when actually it’s too scary for you. It is based on the 1951 cult classic The Thing From Another World. Many sci-fi fans consider this original to be one of the best films ever made in the genre. I would argue that Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) is a remake of this original as well. A pretty horrible prequel came out in 2011, also called The Thing. It’s terrible. Don’t bother. It’s one of the dopiest movies I have ever watched three or four times. Why did I do that? Probably for the same reason I’ve watched every single Tremors (1990), even though the original was the only good one. What can I say? I am frequently under-occupied.
One of my all-time favorite horror movies, the premise here is that two teenage girls discuss the urban legend that if you watch this one particular videotape, you will die within seven days. They laugh about it, and then one of the girls dies. Her murder is investigated by a journalist who watches the videotape—what was she thinking?!—and trouble ensues. This is a remake based on a Japanese movie of the same name. The Japanese original from 1998, unfortunately, is not available on dvd.com, but the 2002 remake is a worthy successor. It’ll scare the pants off you.
When this came out, I figured there was no way the remake would be in any way approaching the delightfulness of the Vincente Minnelli original Father of the Bride from 1950 with Spencer Tracy. Well, I was wrong. This remake is utterly charming and is still a fresh comedy almost thirty years later. The updated version stars Steve Martin and Diane Keaton as the parents of the bride, with Martin Short in a very amusing turn as Franck Egglehoffer, the over-the-top wedding planner. The original had Elizabeth Taylor as the bride, which is the only area where the original goes way beyond the remake. Otherwise, it is a worthy successor.
Who knew when Roger Corman, the King of the B-movie, cranked out the original Little Shop of Horrors in 1960, that it would turn into a gold mine of remakes and sequels. The silly premise—a nebbish florist who cultivates a blood-thirsty man-eating plant in his shop—had a hard time taking itself seriously in the 1960 version, and that only increased in ensuing productions. In 1982, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote music and lyrics for an Off-Broadway musical production of the movie. (Menken and Ashman went on to create music and lyrics for a brilliant series of animated Disney movies in the 1980s and early '90s, including The Little Mermaid (1989), Aladdin (1992), and the incandescent Beauty and the Beast (1991).) The Little Shop of Horrors musical was brought to the big screen in 1986, and it’s a barrel of fun. Both the original film and the musical film are worth watching. And when you watch the original, see if you can catch a very young Jack Nicholson in a cameo at a dental office. He’s just terrible and that’s the best part. Hah!
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.