Friday, July 24, 2009

Behind-The-Curve Trendwatch: Cinematic Déjà Vu

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a film in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a remake. Unfortunately, movie reviewers and fans alike, especially those who specialize in horror, bemoan the recent spate of American remakes of overseas hits, and, for the most part, they have ample reason to complain: something about the Hollywood system seems to drain the essence of what made those films exciting in their native tongue. After the messy cannibalization of J-horror, America now has its sights set on its own corpus, remaking American horror classics from the 70s and now 80s.

It'd be simplistic, however, to chalk this up to the commonly-heard excuse that Hollywood has no good ideas. That'd be like saying that there's no point to reading anything because there are only four different sources of conflict: man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. fate, or man vs. himself. (Or, as John Gardner put it, there are only two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.)

Instead of putting all the blame on Hollywood, part of the fault lies squarely with indiscriminate consumers of horror films. After all, if there weren't such an appetite for remakes (and/or sequels), then film studios would need new ideas or concepts to lure cash-oozing gorehounds back to the theater. But instead of clamoring for something startlingly fresh, we're content to wait for the latest iteration of Halloween or A Nightmare on Elm Street.

But I wonder if people flock to remakes simply because they are familiar. Terror is, at heart, all about being plunged into unfamiliarity, and to allow yourself to be immersed in that situation -- well, what sane human being would want that? Instead, if the horrific element is wrapped in a familiar frame, this minimizes the terror aspect, leaving the audience free to be entertained, rather than terrorized.

While that certainly holds true for sequels, what about remakes? I'd argue that the original wave J-horror films were popular mainly because they were dislocating: there was no pre-set pattern on which audiences could rely. (Later, of course, this would change.) And perhaps bringing in some of these destabilizing elements is a good thing for the proto-typical Hollywood horror film, which has relied too long to serial killers, vampires, and now zombies.

But people charge that remakes (particularly American ones) flatten out the more intriguing aspects of foreign films, instead of injecting new blood into a moribund industry. And while this is a valid criticism, I think this gloss can sometimes be used as a cover to ignore what Hollywood can offer to their remakes. Namely: nudity, loud soundtracks, and big-name stars.

So, as a matter of research, I've added a new feature -- Remake Rumble -- in which I compare an original film to either its foreign counterpart or its fabled forebearer.

Let the games begin!

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