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Five 2013 Indie Remakes And How They Measure Up To The Originals

Five 2013 Indie Remakes And How They Measure Up To The Originals

This year has seen the release of what feels like an unusually large number of remakes of indie/foreign films, and this week sees another—Brian de Palma‘s “Passion” (read our review here) which is a remake of French film “Love Crime” (“Crime D’Amour“). While traditionally remakes of lower-budget efforts have given cause for much forehead-scratching and eye-rolling among cinephiles—usually bemoaning the lack of originality in taking a pre-made concept rather than tackling a fresh creation and often then repackaging that concept in as bland a way a possible for sale to a U.S. audience—in recent years there’s been cause for some hope. The phenomenon may not be going away, in fact it might be becoming more prevalent, but the standard of some of those remakes seems to be inching incrementally higher—a recent high watermark being Matt Reeves‘ “Let Me In,” a terrific remake of the terrific Swedish original “Let the Right One In.”

It’s not to suggest that cheapie K-horror knock-offs starring Joshua Jackson or Sarah Michelle Geller are going to disappear completely, or that Hollywood will stop pitching new versions of “Total Recall or “Karate Kid” any time soon. But with big names like Martin Scorsese (‘The Departed“) and the Coens (“True Grit,” “The Ladykillers“) lending remakes an auteurist air of respectability, and this year’s crop of smaller, independent titles largely stacking up surprisingly well against their originals, perhaps we don’t have quite so much to fear from the term “remake” any more. Here are five of this year’s remakes (with a couple more still slated to come) and how they compare to the films they’re based on.

Either Way” (2011) vs “Prince Avalanche” (2013)
The Gist: Two odd couple road crew workers spend their summer away from lives and suffer the pains and joys of being stuck with one another.
Similarities and Differences: The original, directed by Hafsteinn Gunnar Sigurðsson is set in Iceland in the ‘80s and the remake, David Gordon Green’s “Prince Avalanche” is set in a burned down forest in Texas in the 1980s, so the backdrops and milieus are different and yet very similar: both landscapes are sparse, bombed-out looking yet beautiful, and disconnected from the outside world. The dynamics between the two pals is exactly the same too. Sveinn Ólafur Gunnarsson/Paul Rudd both play the stern, meditative and uptight older boss, Finnbogi/Alvin, who loves the solitude of the outdoors. And Hilmar Guðjónsson/Emile Hirsch both play the dopey, insecure younger jackass co-worker, Alfred/Lance, who can’t wait to get back to the city on the weekend so he can get laid. And both Finnbogi/Alvin are dating Alfred/Lance’s older sister (hence him getting the job in the first place). So narratively and spiritually, the films are very similar and Green’s version is a faithful adaptation that hews closely to the original. But there are differences. While “Either Way” boasts a great ‘80s pop soundtrack, including homegrown Icelandic pop hits you’ve never heard that are actually quite good, they’re no match for the gorgeous “Prince Avalanche” score by David Wingo & Explosions In The Sky (easily one of the best scores of the year). Similarly, while “Either Way” is beautiful in its own way, the glorious cinematography of “Prince Avalanche” by Green’s longtime cinematographer Tim Orr really stands out.
Which is Better and Why: It’s difficult to say which is better since the remake is so indebted to the original, but as an adaptation, “Prince Avalanche” is terrific and as a stand-alone film, we’d recommend it over the original. Heresy? Possibly, and some of it might just be a lost in translation cultural/language thing. But to our ears at least, while Gunnarsson and Guðjónsson have a good dynamic, Rudd and Hirsch have crazy off-kilter/oddball chemistry and their delivery is laugh-out-loud funny. There’s also a sublimely felt emotional current in “Prince Avalanche” imbued both in the surrounding devastated-but-beautiful terrain and in Paul Rudd who can turn from perturbed to despondent on an organic and completely believable dime. Also there’s simply no comparison with the unnamed truck driver in the latter. Played by mostly unknown TV character actor Lance LeGault, he steals every single scene he’s in with a hilariously puckish performance. Sadly, the 77-year-old LeGault passed last year, but you can rest be assured if he was still kicking, his phone would be now ringing off the hook.

Maniac” (1980) vs. “Maniac” (2012)
The Gist: Titular madman violently murders young girls in urban environments.
Similarities and Differences: The biggest differences between the two “Maniac” films come down to aesthetics, really. The original “Maniac,” directed by grindhouse auteur William Lustig and starring the genuinely unnerving Joe Spinelli (who also co-wrote the screenplay), was set in New York City and features an unhinged madman stalking and killing young women. The remake replaces scummy New York City with downtown Los Angeles, which gives things an even eerier, end-of-the-world quality, due to that part of town’s desolation and economic depression (it also makes the movie seem like an even-more-violent riff on “Drive“). The killers in both movies are son-of-Norman Bates psychopaths who live in abandoned mannequin factories and scalp young women, although in the new film you rarely see the killer (now played by Elijah Wood), since the movie is almost completely visualized from his point of view. There is also less variety to the slayings in the new movie. The original acted as a kind of art gallery exhibition of gruesome prosthetic and technical effects, created by make-up wizard Tom Savini, including the unforgettable, biologically precise murder by shotgun blast (filmed in slow motion, so you can trace the trajectory of every atomized bone fragment). In the new “Maniac,” it’s exclusively a slasher situation. However both films are unafraid of delving deep into the psychology of a very disturbed man, and both have their own distinctively low rent charm.
Which Is Better and Why: It’s hard to say which is better, exactly, since they’re both kind of grossly glorious in their own unique way. The original probably has the edge because it’s so skuzzy and low budget that it really makes you feel like you’re going along on one of these predatory stalkings. The remake might have elaborate POV shots designed to lodge you, literally, inside the killer’s head, but nothing puts you into the day-to-day workings of a diseased mind like the scenes of crime-ridden New York from that period. Plus there is the handmade quality of the original film, and the sense of lawlessness (many of the shots, especially on location, were stolen, and the shotgun blast effect was achieved by firing an actual shotgun). The new film offers some perversely pleasurable kicks (including some genuine shocks), but between the gooey synth score by Rob (a member of French pop band Phoenix), elegant camerawork, and lead performance by the more classically trained Wood (Spinelli was uncomfortably realistic), it is altogether more mannered and, in a weird way, polite. The uproar that the original film caused, with advocacy groups and critics labeling it horribly misogynistic, didn’t accompany the remake, either because its limited release cut down the outrage, or because it really was more quaint. Still, we’re fans of the remake (you can read our early review here) and while we’ll plump for the original right now, there’s very little in it.

The Evil Dead” (1981) vs. “Evil Dead” (2013)
The Gist: Kids go to cabin in the woods for a weekend away, and unleash demonic forces.
Similarities and Differences: Both films are about a malevolent spirit unwittingly released by a bunch of goofy college kids who are vacationing in a rundown cabin in the woods. That’s about where the similarities begin and end. With “The Evil Dead,” neophyte director Sam Raimi and similarly inexperienced star Bruce Campbell created both a palpable sense of dread, through far-out visual techniques that never betrayed the film’s microscopic budget, and a giddy sense of fun, like going through the spookhouse at your local rickety state fair. Yes, it was violent, but it was also goofy, and the two moods are established as being compatible from the very beginning of the movie, when the kids are making their way to the cabin. On the other hand the new “Evil Dead,” which banished the definite article into some other, hellish dimension, is a punishing slog. The emphasis is on horrible violence, and horrible violence alone, which is a shame because arguably the new “Evil Dead” has an even better hook to hang the movie on. You see, in the remake one of the kids (Jane Levy) is a recovering addict and they have brought her to the cabin to detox. This adds a fascinating dimension to the “Evil Dead” lore because the demons aren’t just external anymore and there’s a reason, for a little while at least, for the other kids to think that she’s not really possessed, she’s just having a hell of a time kicking the heroin. Sadly, this aspect of the film is given very little screentime (undoubtedly the reason co-screenwriter Diablo Cody chose to take her name off the film) and most of the movie is a literal geyser of blood, like the fountains at the Bellagio but way gooier.
Which Is Better and Why: Though Alvarez’s remake won plenty of fans, to us Raimi’s original is infinitely better. His “Evil Dead” was spooky and sometimes disturbing, but it did let you know it was in on the joke (although to a significantly lesser degree than the sequel, “Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn,” which would reverse the scary-to-funny ratio in favor of more humor than horror). The new movie is, damningly, completely free of any level of wit whatsoever — it’s simply violent, through and through, which translates to boring. (This seems like even more of a misstep coming so close after “Cabin in the Woods,” a gleeful genre deconstruction that disassembled this very type of movie, in hilarious and horrifying equal measures.) The director imay be a newbie (Fede Alvarez) but then so was Raimi, and Alvarez’ inexperience is much more apparent. Just look at the way the film’s prologue is shot and edited: it’s an incoherent jumble. Raimi was able to push things visually and viscerally in ways that Alvarez doesn’t even try to approximate, like he professed his love of the original film to Raimi, Campbell, and producer Rob Tapert, all of whom returned for the remake as producers, but never actually understood what made the original so special. After all, if you’ve seen one geyser of blood, you’ve seen them all. And while it’s admirable Alvarez chose practical effects over digital trickery, it’s all still in service of a film that simply doesn’t rival the original, in spirit or form. The original spawned two sequels and an ardent cult following; we can barely muster the energy to re-watch the new one on Blu-ray.

We Are What We Are” (2010) vs “We Are What We Are” (2013)
The Gist: A family of cannibals must search for their next victim in time for a gruesome “ritual.”
Similarities and Differences: A really terrific example of how a director with a genuine feel for a story can take it on, transform it and deliver a U.S. remake of a foreign-language film that doesn’t make everyone ashamed, Jim Mickle’s 2013 incarnation of Jorge Michel Grau’s “Somos lo que Hay” is a completely different film, albeit with the basic premise and some of the beats intact. Where Grau’s original story, detailing a few desperate, grim days in the lives of a family of poverty-stricken slum-dwelling Mexican cannibals, was a clear social allegory about the cheapness of life on the lower rungs of Mexican society, and how extreme marginalisation can cause the degradation from human to monster, Mickle took a more lyrical, gothic approach, and significantly altered the gender roles and the ending to create something with less social bite, but more macabre rainsoaked poetry in how it unravels. Grau’s film has subtexts about prostitution and homosexuality that are absent from Mickle’s, whereas the U.S. film ups the ante on the ritualistic, cultish aspect of the family’s life, something alluded to but never explicitly detailed in the original. Both, however start with the sudden death of a parent in a family who, for one reason or another, have turned cannibalistic, and the struggles that the children of the family face when having to take over that parent’s role in finding the next victim in time for their “ritual.” Both films also deal with local law enforcement’s efforts to track down the killers.
Which is Better and Why: This is a pleasantly tricky call, as we’re fans of both films but while Grau has originality on his side, his film does occasionally creak and the performances are not as professional and compelling as those Mickle gets from his cast. On the other hand, Mickle’s film is much more an exercise in sustained, eerie mood and Grau’s far grittier, punchier and probably more in the straight-up horror fan’s sweet spot (though neither film features that much gore, actually, until the end.) Still, Mickle’s take probably edges it for us, in going the opposite direction to most U.S. horror remakes and turning in something subtler and moodier than the original, rather than clumsily bashing out all resonance and atmosphere in favor of cheap scare tactics. And endearingly, while the two directors are mutual fans, with Mickle securing the rights following a bout of “jealousy” having seen Grau’s film, Grau in turn expressed his admiration for Mickle’s version, going so far as to call it “better” than his own. Both films played at the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, and that’s where we caught Mickle’s version this year (our review is here): it will be released in theaters in September.

Love Crime” (2010) vs. “Passion” (2012)
The Gist: Two female co-workers become entangled, first romantically and then murderously.
Similarities and Differences: Both “Love Crime” and “Passion” share the same basic concept, about a pair of female advertising executives whose relationship first crosses from the professional to the romantic and then (of course) things turn deadly. “Love Crime,” a French thriller, differs from the English-language “Passion” (actually a French/German co-production) in a couple of key regards, although “Passion” director Brian De Palma sees it fit to lift entire sequences and locations from the original. The biggest difference is in the age of the actresses – in “Love Crime,” Kristin Scott Thomas plays the boss lady, while Ludivine Sagnier is her underling. This made for a great “Devil Wears Prada“-goes-to-hell dynamic, with Thomas exerting her older, bitchier powers over the young, more eager Sagnier. (This also excused her character’s seeming naivete.) In “Passion,” the Scott Thomas character is played by Rachel McAdams and the younger employee is Noomi Rapace. Since McAdams is but one year older than Rapace, gone is the deliciously ageist element of their powerplay (and, honestly, a lot of the movie’s fun). Another key difference is the murder itself. In “Love Crime,” we know who is going to murder who, and watch the murderer meticulously plan the crime, in explicit detail. And what’s more – all of this (including the murder) happens in the movie’s first hour. That leaves 45 minutes of some other bullshit that we have to contend with (it mostly involves the murderer going to jail and then weaseling her way out of it). In the De Palma remake, the murder happens well into the third act of the movie, making the whodunit aspect of the movie fuller and more intrinsic to the movie’s plot. Unsurprisingly, De Palma focuses more on the sexual/romantic angle to the women’s relationship, including at least one shot of a double-headed dildo, and makes men all but marginal figures, hanging on at the periphery of the story. Both could have used more nudity.
Which Is Better and Why: While both movies are a kick to watch, there’s more stuff to slog through in “Love Crime” and it’s structurally more of a mess (that post-murder section drags). There’s no reason that the murderer should be revealed so early, and for the final act of the movie to descend into melodramatic mush. As a filmmaker, De Palma is more skilled at handling the material. He builds an environment that, should there be no actual murder, you would still be fully invested in. This is true even if the power play between the two women isn’t as much fun as in the original. Both movies suffer from their restrictively low budgets, but De Palma is able to pull off some luxuriously gorgeous moments that are wholly missing from the original. Sill, the first movie has a deliciously killer twist at the very end.

Others of note: In early October “Gambit,” the Coens-scripted remake of the 1966 Michael Caine caper film finally gets its U.S. release — a month shy of a full year on from its U.K. bow (our review from back then is hereBen Stiller‘s potential Oscar hopeful remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” arrives in December and piqued a lot of positive interest with its recent trailer, while November 27th will see the release of Spike Lee‘s take on Park Chan-Wook‘s “Oldboy” which, if the R-Rated trailer and the most recent pictures (here and here) are anything to go by, with be rounding off the Year of the Respectable Remake in fine, if bloody, style. — Drew Taylor, Rodrigo Perez, Jessica Kiang

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