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Night of the Horror Remakes

Night of the Horror Remakes

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“We love Leatherface and we love Jason, but our love for those guys is almost not as strong as our love for Freddy,” declares producer Brad Fuller from his office at Michael Bay’s Platinum Dunes production company. Fuller and his partner, Andrew Form, currently enjoy a first-look deal with Rogue Pictures and a well-earned reputation as Hollywood’s reigning “Remake Kings.” Together, they’ve presided over re-launches of some of the most enduring horror franchises of the last 30 years, including The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, the forthcoming Friday the 13th and (if everything goes according to plan) the child-murderer-turned-dream-stalker saga that spawned seven sequels, A Nightmare on Elm Street. “It would be a dream to be on set making that movie,” says Fuller. “Conceptually, you have one of the top three greatest concepts ever for a horror movie: If you fall asleep, you die.”

The Elm Street franchise, which netted New Line Cinema $500 million during its initial run and earned the studio the moniker “the house that Freddy built,” has been inching toward a reboot since 2003’s monster face-off Freddy vs. Jason earned $82 million domestically. But things took a left turn in February when New Line was reabsorbed into Warner Bros. just as Platinum was beginning to throw its weight behind bringing Freddy back to multiplexes. “There’s no deal yet,” Fuller says. “It’s a function of the studio not knowing how they want to go forward on the movie.” New Line has remained silent since July, when screenwriter Wesley Strick was tapped to draft an Elm Street script, the progress of which is unknown. “They haven’t let us talk to Wesley at all,” Fuller says, allowing that ultimately the studio may not deign to hire Platinum onto the presumably effects-heavy movie for budgetary reasons. “We’re not cheap,” he admits. “There are lots of production companies out there that cost less than we do, but I can guarantee you that no one is more passionate about the project.”

In 2009, the horror remake game will be Hollywood’s favorite preoccupation, with more than 40 titles slated for release or in active development. The list includes remakes of chaste Universal monster classics like The Wolf Man and family-friendly fare like Poltergeist, reworkings of B-level franchises such as Child’s Play and Clive Barker’s flesh feast Hellraiser (appropriately stuck in development hell at the moment), Americanizations of Italian thrillers such as Suspiria (with Natalie Portman in talks to star), updatings of dreck like the daddy-issues slasher flick The Stepfather and shlock-exotica such as It’s Alive. Every property is a potential remake, especially those with recognizable titles and villains, easy-to-replicate storylines and aging stars of the original who are willing to ride the publicity bandwagon, all of which adds up to cheaper marketing costs and a higher probability of return on investment.

From his place at the top of this pyramid, Fuller practices careful selection. “There are plenty of remakes we’ve passed on,” he notes. “There are things we look specifically for and that limits the titles to a tiny number. I think at one point we were looking at Prom Night and there’s not an iconic image from Prom Night that you see and think ‘Prom Night!’ But our teaser poster for Friday the 13th? That’s all you need… Jason, Freddy, even the Amityville house—[these are] iconic things that audiences recognize.”

How do makers of the original movies—the ones who created the iconic things in the first place—fit into this new Hollywood calculus? For a director like Wes Craven, who has ridden successive waves of popularity over the decades, past success affords him a comfortable position at a production shingle where he oversees remakes of his own earlier movies by hand-picked directors while focusing on his own work. In 2006, the precursor to Craven’s Midnight Entertainment drew praise for selecting Alexandre Aja, a 28-year-old upstart, to remake The Hills Have Eyes—a gamble that paid off with a warm reception from horror fans. “One of the biggest challenges is finding ways to make the remakes exciting for us as well as the audience,” says Midnight Entertainment producer Cody Zwieg. “Finding a director with a true vision for each film is essential. We went through an extensive search before we met with Aja. With The Last House on the Left, we wanted to find a director who could handle the extreme tension and overall brutality of the original, but had the sensitivity needed to make each character come to life. I met with a lot of talented genre directors, but I had seen a film called Hardcore, directed by Dennis Iliadis, that blew me away.”
The Last House on the Left, which Iliadis is prepping for a March release, is a purportedly faithful remake of Craven’s 1972 hippie-nightmare version of Hansel and Gretel, in which two comely teenage girls go out looking for pot and run straight into the arms of a Manson-style gang. But staying faithful to a movie that originally received an X rating means careful negotiations with the MPAA. Zwieg says the board has been “great to work with, but the sequence in the middle which fans of The Last House on the Left will remember has been a real challenge.” After Last House, Midnight will proceed with two more Craven remakes: Shocker and The People Under the Stairs.

For moviemakers with less control over their old projects—or less interest in revisiting the past—reactions to remakes of their work run the gamut from bemusement to sarcasm to a top-me-if-you-can spirit. Legendary director Joe Dante says he’s given “no input” to the team currently laboring to reimagine his 1978 horror-comedy Piranha, but wishes them well. “These guys are to be congratulated if they actually get the movie made, as it seems there’s been a Piranha remake announced every year or so for the past few decades,” Dante says. “I’ve read the script and except for the presence of piranha, bathers and (lots of) blood, it bears no resemblance to the 1978 version, its characters or plot. But I think it will always be perceived as a ‘remake’ because it has the same title. And let’s face it, without the title they wouldn’t be making it at all.”

Other Dante classics are also circling the remake vortex, each with its own complicating factors. “The Howling has a very tangled rights history which may never be sorted out,” he says, alluding to an issue Fuller also knows well. “Friday the 13th took two years to close up the rights,” Fuller says. “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was about a year and a half. The Amityville Horror was a little cleaner, but it’s a huge, huge issue.”

Movies made with now-outdated technology also present hurdles. “Sooner or later there will be another Gremlins, but the technology is now so out of style that I can’t see what the approach would be, unless it’s a retro kind of CGI movie like that mash-up that guy from Belgium posted on the Internet. Maybe the Gremlins invade your computer?” Dante muses. “Also, I already remade Gremlins as Gremlins 2 and Small Soldiers!”

Jokes aside, Dante retains a certain nonchalance about the remake tidal wave. “I don’t care if they remake my stuff,” he says. “I’ve borrowed too many elements from other people’s movies over the years to look askance at taking an old story once more around the barn. Some of our favorite movies are remakes, but when I look at something like The Haunting remake, I wonder what the point is of revisiting something great only to prove you didn’t understand it in the first place? The best remakes reimagine the original source material or build on it in a way that acknowledges the original intent.”

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Oftentimes though, original intent needs to be bottled into a formula palatable to new producers. This spring’s sleeper hit Prom Night made up for its lack of a name villain with a teenager-friendly PG-13 rating, resulting in a $20 million opening weekend for a movie that cost $18 million to make. It’s a formula that will be repeated in next year’s remake of The House on Sorority Row, starring Carrie Fisher as the curmudgeonly house mother. The original is rife with grisly slayings—the killer leaves one sorority sister’s head in a toilet—but Sorority Row producer Mike Karz says the remake will tread lighter. “We opted not to go for the relentless, hard side of the genre but instead to bring it back to the tone last seen in films like I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream—clever scares and twists peppered with comic relief,” he says. “The goal is not only to appeal to the fans of the original but also to open up the film to an audience that may have stayed away from the darkness of the genre the last few years.”

The cold sweats that come with remaking an established classic haven’t deterred Platinum from what may be its biggest challenge yet: Its planned remake of The Birds, with Naomi Watts and Casino Royale director Martin Campbell both attached and awaiting a new script. “None of us are going to go try to remake a Hitchcock movie with a script that doesn’t feel perfect,” says Fuller. Reverent words, but they’d carry little weight with the original’s star, 78-year-old Tippi Hedren, who denounced the remake in September during an interview with a British paper. “Can’t they get any fresh ideas of their own?” she reportedly fumed. That’s a tough line that many inevitably take, but Hollywood’s self-cannibalization will continue unabated and accepting the good output with the bad may be the healthy choice. “For every Pan’s Labyrinth or The Others there will be five remade My Bloody Valentines or Friday the 13th Part 24s,” Dante says. “It’s just the way it is. Do you know how many Children of the Corn movies there are? Or Leprechauns? Answer: Too many to stop now.”

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