Belated as always, this year’s FilmsFilmsFilms Halloween movie marathon was a romp through the vast swathe of horror film repeat offenders. And there’s nothing horror fans like more than getting offended, in a good way. With scary cinema offering up more re-treads than any other film genre we really were spoilt for choice.
The horror remake is almost as old as cinema itself, tracing its roots all the way back to Universal’s Dracula (1931) and its fresh take on F.W. Murnau’s Bram Stoker adaptation Nosferatu (1922). Our marathon didn’t head back as far as that though when it kicked off at 1pm, instead journeying back to 1982 for not just one of the best horror remakes ever, but one of the greatest movie remakes of all time, The Thing (1982).
John Carpenter was riding high in the early eighties, elevated by a number of low budget, cult status hits that were fast catching the eye of Hollywood, Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape From New York (1981). Turning down offers of more mainstream fare, Carpenter’s next project was a remake of Howard Hawks The Thing From Another World (1951), itself an adaptation of John W Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? But despite his recent success Carpenter’s The Thing bombed at the box office, only just managing to scrap back its $15million budget thanks to Steven Spielberg’s own visitor from out of space movie E.T. (1982) stealing the limelight.
Though it failed financially and was mauled by critics (Roger Ebert commented “a great barf-bag movie but…I found it disappointing”) The Thing has rightly been reappraised as one of the masterpieces of sci-fi cinema. It’s a testament to just how tense a story Carpenter crafted that the anxiety of the whodunit plot isn’t overshadowed by Rob Bottin’s special effects work, effects which literally have to be seen to be believed. The only effects shot which isn’t quite up to par with what can be achieved with modern cinema’s predilection for shiny CGI is the moment when the exposed Palmer chomps on the hapless Windows and takes his dying body for a spin around the rec room. Other than that, the movie marathoners all agree that The Thing stands as one of the finest examples of physical hands-on effects giving computer generated effects a solid kicking in the authenticity stakes.
Despite repeat viewings for a number of us, we still can’t answer the eternal Thing question of who is who in the closing shot, as Kurt Russell and Keith David crack open a bottle of Scotch and put their snow encrusted feet up. If any film was crying out for a sequel to wrap up the story line it’s The Thing. We’ll just have to make do with superb prequel The Thing (2011) from Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. for now.
The critical and commercial failure of The Thing didn’t kill Hollywood’s appetite for remaking fifties horror sci-fi hits. David Cronenberg had slightly more success with The Fly (1986) and when A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987) director Chuck Russell was looking for his second directorial job he eyed up the 1958 classic The Blob (1958). The resulting movie The Blob (1988) was a fun, creepy and messy delight and was thrust forward as the second film in our quintet of cinematic cover versions.
Featuring a young Shawnee Smith and an even younger looking Kevin Dillon in the heroine and hero roles (filled by a fresh faced Steve McQueen back in 1958), the pair must do battle with a gelatinous mass of goo which arrives from outer space and grows ever larger with each unlucky inhabitant of Arborville it manages to consume. Learning that the blob is a military experiment gone awry, Smith and Dillon must also fend off contamination-suited government thugs. Russell’s Blob did well to remember its roots and offered up a tongue in cheek script peppered with fun frights, daft characters and unlikely plot twists. What was unexpected and what made The Blob such a surprising delight for all but one of the marathoners who hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing it before was the graphic slayings that pepper the film. The film’s cheeky nature lowers a viewer’s defences so that when a hapless victim is eviscerated by the blob in a splatter of gore the scene really packs a hefty punch. A creepy coda featuring the surviving reverend and his pot of defrosted blob makes for superb sequel bait, which to date has gone unfulfilled.
Film three slides into the blu-ray player at 5pm and the marathoners fidget nervously; it’s a steadfast rule of Hollywood that you don’t mess with a classic, and horror films don’t come much more revered than George A Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Fortunately the remake Night of the Living Dead (1991) was in good hands, perhaps the only hands that could do a re-tread justice, special effects maestro and star of Dawn of the Dead (1978) Tom Savini. The Pittsburgh native, like Romero before him, was suitably reverent to the 1968 original, with the exception of turning the Barbara character into a much hardier heroine. As such the marathoners breathe a sigh of relief and settle into one of the best horror remakes of recent times, kicking off with a collective “Ooooo” as Barbara’s brother Johnnie has his skull bounced off a tombstone thanks to the grabby hands of the opening cemetery zombie.
The anatomically correct recently deceased zombies raise nods of appreciation from those marathoners who have spent the last four years chewing on the grisly meat of The Walking Dead television show; the influences have been clear throughout all four series so far. The only down point is the rather on-the-nose ending as Savini points obvious fingers at the cruel nature of humanity when dealing with creatures who we deem to be lower down the pecking order than us. Channelling this commentary through flannel shirted rednecks wasn’t exactly a subtle choice. Still, Tony Todd (watch out for the a bizarrely prescient tribute to Candyman (1992) as Todd exits a truck with a rusty hook in hand) gives a gripping performance, Patricia Tallman’s skirt gets ever shorter in the early running, and Tom Towles’ insults are so bad they’re good “You lame-brains, bunch of yo-yos!”.
With the sun down and night time upon us we steel our nerves for our fourth film, Gore Verbinski’s remake of the J-horror masterpiece Ringu (1998), The Ring (2002). Though it loathes some of the marathoners to include a Hollywood remake that was made simply because most Americans are too lazy to read subtitles, we have to doff our caps in Verbinski’s direction for making a good fist of Westernising one of the most ground breaking horror films of the last century. Hideo Nakata’s original wasn’t the first of the new wave in Asian horror in the nineties but it was the first to find a welcome home on the other side of the Pacific, western fright fans gravitating towards its ingenious use of a cursed video tape as both its Macguffin and its scare delivery system.
Verbinski knew not to tinker with the formula too much and left the narrative as it was in the 1998 original, a growing sense of unease book ended by two fantastic shock scares and an open ended climax that warned of more ugly faced corpses to come (indeed Nakata directed the American sequel to the remake himself three years later, The Ring Two (2005); it wasn’t worth the wait). Solid performances from a strong cast including Kentish home-girl Naomi Watts and Brian Cox elevate the script, though the climatic Samara television crawl with its added CGI static still isn’t a patch on Nakata’s more understated but realistic Sadako original.
Rounding out our marathon at 9pm with a pleasant surprise, with fire up Marcus Nispel’s remake of the 1980 classic Friday the 13th (2009). Expected to be another failed remake following in the sloppy wash of The Fog (2005), Halloween (2007), Prom Night (2008) and numerous others, Nispel’s “reimaging” was actually fairly faithful to Sean Cunningham’s original and a fun fright film in its own right. Having pedigree in the horror remake genre already thanks to the enjoyable The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Nispel set about retooling the Jason Vorhees back story. Following directly on from the 1980 original and incorporating snippets of backstory from the first three sequels, we re-join Vorhees as a towering backwoods dwelling psychopath who has constructed a labyrinth of tunnels in the earth underneath the woodland of Camp Crystal Lake. And when a pack of horny, hellraising teens strays on to his plot the machete is unsheathed once again.
Thankfully Nispel remembered that sympathetic heroes were always key to a successful slasher, so in came Jared Padalecki as the well-meaning older brother looking for his missing and presumed slashed sister. That Jason also has some unlikeable teens to slice and dice also helps (Travis Van Winkle may be the most obnoxious character to ever get offed in a slasher film), but by the time the final act is with us the marathoners really do care who lives and who dies as Padalecki, his rescued sister and his new love interest make a frantic dash through Vorhees underground central. It’s all solid slasher fun, right up to the confusing, slightly tacked on, is-or-isn’t-he-dead final scene.
As the last run of credits rolls at 11pm we surmise that it’s been another enjoyable marathon, eased through thanks to a mountain of Halloween candy and five films on the right side of the horror remake divide. Fortunately the movies aren’t alone and our quintet has more than a few decent stablemates, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Cape Fear (1991), Dawn of the Dead (2004), Piranha 3D (2010). But be warned; for those planning their own fright film remake marathon there are just as many wonky horror remakes on the wrong side of the thriller film fence.