As a horror fan, and an overall fan of film in general, the one word I hear that generally brings me nausea is “remake.” It's a sentiment shared by many lovers of films, as Hollywood seems consumed with remaking, rebooting, and revitalizing any and all popular (and sometimes not-so-popular) films and franchises for the sake of earning a dollar rather than making any kind of contribution of originality. Of course, sometimes doing this has the effect of making a viewer want to go back and revisit the source material...but generally, those who watch the “remake” don't know that there was an original unless they enjoy researching things. And perhaps ignorance is bliss because, usually, remakes are frowned upon by critics and fans alike...so, if you don't know about the original, there's nothing to compare it to. But a movie fan like me...or one that's nearly as obsessive...might find it difficult to fully like a remake.
I had a discussion with a friend recently about remakes. He posed the question, “Is there a good remake?” My response was yes, and it didn't take much thought. There are good remakes of films out there, but to me, the best ones have been in the realm of horror...and yes, horror is also home to some of the weakest ones, too. But he was curious as to what I believed was a good horror film remake. And while I had a few I answered with, the best example I'll use here is David Cronenberg's version of “The Fly,” a film I have referenced a few times already. Now, some people might see it more as a science-fiction film than a horror movie, but there is a fine line between the two that allows for some experimentation...and the 1986 Jeff Goldblum monster tour-de-force is a stomach-churning horror flick to me. But how is it a good remake? Well, let's look at a sub-par remake.
A fine example is 2010's “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” To most fans, it was heresy to think of anyone other than legendary horror actor Robert Englund in the role of the villainous dream demon, Freddy Krueger...but let's face it, he's getting older and it's feasible to find someone else for the role. But in stepped Jackie Earle Haley, an actor finally getting his career revitalized, and he seemed like an inspired choice...and honestly, I found him to be the most decent thing about the film, albeit under-utilized. The rest of the film is more or less a full-out rehash of the original, complete with redone scenes (the blonde girl being thrown around the ceiling, Freddy pushing through the wall above Nancy's bed, the glove in the bathtub)...it was just poor overall. Granted, it wasn't Gus Van Sant's 1998 “Psycho” remake, a shot-by-shot remake of the original...but still.
So what makes “The Fly” a good remake? It fits my answer to my friend's question: it takes the basic premise of the original film and goes into a different direction. It has hints of the original, maybe some homages in dialogue and the like, but it becomes its own animal. And how does it pull that off? Spoilers follow here, so if you've never seen either the 1958 original or the remake, do yourself a favor and watch them...and be prepared to get creeped out or grossed out if you're not a fan of insects.
Essentially, the original film is a scientist experimenting with teleportation. He screws up during an experiment when he sends himself through along with an unwanted passenger, a housefly, and has his atoms mixed with that of the bug. He emerges with a fly head and arm, and the fly has his head and arm, albeit minuscule. This leaves his wife to try and save him from his monstrous predicament as his humanity slips away. The remake takes the idea of a scientist and his teleportation experiments, but alters them slightly: instead of mixing molecules, the machine becomes a gene-splicer. The scientist goes in and when he steps out, he seems fine. He's stronger, his sexual potency is at its peak, his strength is increased...but then he begins to deteriorate. His fingernails peel off, his ears fall off...he becomes sickly and diseased. To his horror, he learns he's becoming some terrible hybrid of man and insect, and in his desperation and madness, he decides to try and splice himself with his girlfriend and their unborn child.
Cronenberg, himself an expert in twisted, surreal, and downright grotesque films that act as explorations of the sub-genre “body horror,” took a basic science-fiction tale of a man made a monster by science and ended up creating a horrific, sometimes poignant, and definitely tragic film that ended up acting as a parallel to the real-life destruction of illness, primarily the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. Simply, he took something and stripped it down to its bare bones and built something unique. Other examples of good horror remakes, in my opinion, are John Carpenter's version of “The Thing” (a film that's only gotten more beloved with age), 2004's “Dawn of the Dead,” and even the fairly recent remake of “Fright Night” is not so bad. Sure, they share the same titles as other movies, and they share certain elements, characters, and ideas, but ultimately, they try to bring something new to the table. Don't get me wrong...I enjoy seeing familiar tropes in horror films...I enjoy the “Nightmare” and “Friday the 13th” series, which are mostly the same things over and over...but in those cases, unless Hollywood wants to do something wholly unique, just make another sequel instead of a remake. But if films should be remade...do something new with them.
Do what Cronenberg did, as an example: take that basic idea and run in another direction. Anything can be made fresh with new ingredients.