Two of the most highly anticipated films this fall — Luca Guadagnino’s “Suspiria” and Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut “A Star Is Born,” — are remakes of beloved classics, but while there are many remakes, few are great. What determines the difference? IndieWire looked through film history for the keys to successfully retelling and reinventing a film.
Each of the 15 directors featured here, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Yasujirō Ozu, found extremely different ways to make the material their own. Some used old stories to reveal something new about the present day; some flipped a premise on its head to create something new; and others used their old films to explore how they had evolved as artists.
15. “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978)
Sci-fi and horror films are often our best vehicles to getting at the ills underneath a society. Don Siegel’s slick, and at times humorous original, captured the insidious side of ’50s Cold War paranoia through his McCarthyism allegory. What’s so enjoyable about Philip Kaufman’s adaptation is it repurposes this premise to access the post-Watergate conspiracy theories and culture malaise of the late ’70s. Moving the story out of the small town and into San Francisco, where rather than rely on the device of alien pods he finds a more subtle form of isolation that stems from humans’ distance from each other.
14. “Pete’s Dragon” (2016)
The premise and pitch driving most Hollywood reboots of children’s classics is they promise to breathe new life into the property with the latest in technical wizardry. David Lowery, an indie director who was a surprise choice by Disney, took a different approach by grounding us in the wonder of a child and the bond he’s formed with a dragon. While the dragon itself is a testimony to the realism that can be achieved with today’s CGI, the film has an analog warmth and nostalgia for a time when building unique story worlds didn’t rely on spectacle and sensory overload.
13. “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986)
This musical transformed Roger Corman’s ’60s B-movie about human-eating plant into an entirely different type of midnight movie. Director Frank Oz builds on the Broadway musical adaptation that proceeded the movie remake by creating a particularly gritty downtown New York with a Hollywood back-lot aesthetic. That might seem paradoxical, except Oz’s version leans on the world of down-and-out loners, while simultaneously dialing up the joy of a Hollywood musical and incredible slapstick chops of his cast, especially Ellen Greene, Steve Martin (as a masochistic dentist), and then-newcomer Rick Moranis. The film is designed to entertain through an oddball lens, twisted sense of humor, and empathetic heart.
12. “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956)
There are those who prefer the boiled-down, brisk, no-nonsense straightforward fun of Alfred Hitchcock’s black-and-white British films when compared to his more elaborate and weighty American films of the 1950s. Yet a comparison of the two eras, through his 1956 and 1934 versions of “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” reveals precisely what a master and artist Hitchcock became. The 1934 version moves along and entertains in witty fashion, but Hitchcock learned how to use the thriller to take the audience to a world where he controlled our every reaction, thought and feeling. He used subjective filmmaking to take us on a psychological journey structured to deeply involve the viewer in the action, but also force the audience to confront what naughty voyeuristic beasts we are. In the case of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” he takes the story of a husband and wife desperately trying to find their child and puts us inside a dead marriage that only comes alive under the pressure of espionage and kidnapping.
11. “Sorcerer” (1977)
Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1953 “Wages of Fear” contains some of the best mounting suspense direction ever, but it is also intentionally painful to watch: a brutal 156 minutes of a truck full of explosives driven over impossible terrain by men so destitute they are compelled to accept the suicide mission. William Friedkin’s takes the premise and turns it into an action film that keeps the audience at the edge of their seats. Gone is the sad-sack pity that fails to properly ground Clouzot’s otherwise incredible film, but thrusts us in the the feeling of what it means to be an ordinary person constantly facing death in a way that is at times more akin to a great war film than an action thrill ride. It is hard to believe that following the breakthrough of “The French Connection” and phenomenal success of “The Exorcist” that Universal and Paramount could join forces to completely bungle the film’s release. Starting with the title — “Sorcerer,” really? Why sell it as yet another “Exorcist” knock off? — to years later failing to put a decent print or DVD into circulation, the film has only recently gotten out from under the rock the two studios mistakenly placed it under.