Friday, September 16, 2011

Straw Dogs Bark Again

I’m not in a rush to see the new Straw Dogs. Though writer/director Rod Lurie has some excellent credentials, I have no great desire to check out his take on the Sam Peckinpah original, which so powerfully illustrated the way a man can turn into an animal when sufficiently provoked. Not that I remember everything about that 1971 film. What I do remember is Dustin Hoffman—as a bookish intellectual—suddenly erupting into a murderous rage once thugs threaten his household. And I remember most vividly my mild-mannered spouse-to-be telling me, after the lights came up, that no one had better mess with us on the way home. I think he was truly frightened by the intensity of his own reaction..

I can’t help being boggled by Hollywood’s passion for do-overs. Obviously, I understand the pragmatic side of it: ever-cautious studios like their movies to be pre-sold, so they greenlight projects that audiences will find familiar. This often means combing the archives for classic films that can be given a modern spin. Sometimes the process results in a new level of meaning. Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002) started with All That Heaven Allows, a 1955 Douglas Sirk melodrama about an illicit romance, then added racial and sexual elements that gave the familiar story intriguing new dimensions. And some properties don’t seem to suffer by being updated once a generation. A Star is Born—about an actor on his way down who marries an actress on her way up—first appeared in 1937, starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March. Judy Garland and James Mason played the roles in 1954, as did Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (in a music industry version) in 1976. And there are rumors that a Beyoncé Knowles adaptation is on its way.

No matter how that goes, I think A Star is Born will survive. But why the eagerness to re-do Straw Dogs? Why, for that matter, did Gus Van Sant feel compelled to do a shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho? And why did Jonathan Demme decide the world needed another cut at The Manchurian Candidate? As a Baby Boomer in good standing, I don’t like anyone tampering with “my” films. There was even a recent plan, involving Disney and Robert Zemeckis, to launch a 3-D motion-capture version of Yellow Submarine. Is nothing sacred? One good result of our bad economy: the project sank long before it could set sail.

Roger Corman has never been shy about plundering his own filmography for new material. When I was his story editor, I was surprised by his willingness to take movies he’d directed in his heyday (like Not of this Earth) and hand them over to bright young newcomers. Critics often praise 1964’s Masque of the Red Death as perhaps Roger’s finest directorial effort, but he had no problem commissioning a re-make in 1989. A 1995 pact with Showtime for a string of TV movies made him even more eager to exploit the contents of his film library. Director Joe Dante is still outraged by what was done with his 1978 New World feature, Piranha: “[Roger] simply took the exact same script, word for word, hired a kid to shoot it, used all the special effects from the old movie, and the only thing he didn’t do is he didn’t remind them it was supposed to be funny. And so it’s a totally straight version of a movie that was done tongue-in-cheek originally. And it’s unwatchable.”

“Unwatchable,” alas, is a word that often applies when filmmakers try to recapture the movie magic of another era.


  1. I'm in total agreement here, Beverly. I think in Corman's case, as with studio suits, they're only looking at the lucrative potential of "re-tracing their steps". I thought that first PIRANHA remake was horrendous as was the HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP redo, by the way.

    I think John Carpenter felt this way regarding his giving the Z man his blessing with that excruciatingly awful HALLOWEEN remake. In an interview Carpenter basically said, "Show me the money".

    And while execs claim that one reason for doing these cover versions is that said remake is a known and proven commodity, there are a great many people (and not just of this new generation) who are unaware of the origins of some of these movies.

    Me and a friend of mine were watching a movie recently and she noticed the LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT DVD on one of my shelves. She had no idea there was another film outside of the remake from a couple years ago.

    The sad state of affairs of these classic pictures is that when an individual actually shows some interest in viewing an original, they more often than not find it dull or boring, or "not as good as the new one".

    I've noticed audiences today want their movies to be the equivalent of fast food, a juicy steak with as little fat as possible, or a sandwich with the crust cut off of it. The movie must have fast cuts, MTV style editing and camerawork that rarely sits still. If the movie goes more than five minutes without some kind of action, viewers begin to lose interest. I'm finding more and more people like this which is fine, I suppose as it parallels the climate and world we live in today.

    We'll always have the originals to savor, though. It may irritate us (well, it does to me) that a flashy, polished, nice and shiny "new model" may be on the market, but us fans who remember where the roots were planted the first time will keep those films alive.

  2. Brian, I really have enjoyed your comments on this topic, especially the "fast food" analogy. In fact, that whole penultimate paragraph is a gem! Thanks!

  3. On one hand I find all these remakes so totally unnecessary - and it angers me that the young people they're geared to won't even watch the original films. But on the other hand, a couple of decades after Universal made their classic monster movies, British studio Hammer came along and made their classic monster movies based on the same stories, so that leaves me in a dichotomy. In the end I take the movies on a case by case basis - seeing some and skipping others. I've yet to see one that topped the original, though.