Bill Gibron

Reinventing the Remake in Your Own (Re)Image

Reinventing the Remake in Your Own (Re)Image
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How Alexandre Aja and Fede Alvarez Reclaimed Two Horror Classics

By Bill Gibron.

It is, perhaps, the most hated word among film fans. The punchline to this proposed cinematic joke always leaves some beloved title stranded and suffering, relegated to the need for revisiting without any significant proof, save a studio’s bottom line, to suggest same. Indeed, the “remake” reference always sounds like a critique, a way of stating that something from the past requires updating for a more contemporary, if not necessarily savvy mindset. When done well (for example, David Cronenberg’s heartbreaking rendering of the ’50s sci-fi schlockfest The Fly) there is art to be found in the redux approach. When done poorly (there are too many to name), they become mere fodder for a financial statement for the fiscal quarter.

For the filmmaker, it would seem that the remake is both the best of, and the worst parts in, a filmic fool’s paradise. Anyone whose witnessed a beloved favorite faltering under the weight of some addled ambitions understands the dilemma. You have to steady the needs of the modern viewer with the hazy nostalgia-laced memories of the property’s outspoken supporters. Anger or ignore either one and you’re destined for a decent opening weekend, and nothing more. It was this very problem that both Alexandre Aja and Fede Alvarez faced when tackling two of the most celebrated fright films of the last 30 years. The former was behind the recent Maniac remake. The latter replaced the celebrated Sam Raimi for the much anticipated Evil Dead reboot.

Aja became a bit of an overnight sensation when his fascinating French slasher film, Haute Tension (released in the West as High Tension) became a terror talking point among fans. He went on to write and direct remakes of both The Hills Have Eyes (an update of Wes Craven’s original) and Piranha (an old Roger Corman shocker directed by Joe Dante). In between, he tried his hand at an original scary movie – the underappreciated Kiefer Sutherland vehicle, Mirrors – before settling down to tackle William Lustig’s notorious video nasty. Once castigated by renowned critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert as one of the worst movie ever made, Maniac centered on a psychotic killer (a brilliant Joe Spinell) with massive mommy issues who murders women for their scalps. He then placed said bloody headpieces on stolen mannequins which he then staged in grotesque, Grand Guignol tableaus. 

Joe Spinell as Frank in the original Maniac

Joe Spinell as Frank Zito in the original Maniac

Alvarez’s path to Dead was even more unusual. On the basis for a short film centering on an attack by giant robots on Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, the unknown was handpicked by Raimi and his partners Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert to tackle the near impossible task of revisiting the original cabin in the woods chiller. Partnered with frequent collaborator Rodo Sayagues, the duo had to find a way to take the legendary splatter film, the tale of an ancient Book of the Dead, some dopey teenagers, and a tape recorded incantation which unleashes demonic spirits from the bowels of Hell, and rework it so that beloved characters like Ash and infamous moments like the tree rape would appear new and novel.

It’s the primary dilemma in any remake – finding a way of making it your own. In interviews publicizing the release of Maniac, Aja made it clear that his reverence for the original was a bit of a stumbling block. ” I grew up being scared but yet loving Maniac (1980),” the filmmaker said in a discussion with Diabolique Magazine.com,.”It was one of the movies that pushed me to do High Tension.” After speaking with original director William Lustig, he hit upon the idea that would make his version of the movie work – at least, for him. “The idea of making the whole movie P.O.V.-style started to get me really excited,” he said. “We started to dig deeper into the character of Frank Zito, and his motivations and origins, and we started to find a character that was much more like Anthony Perkins’s Norman Bates than the big ogre that Joseph Spinell was.”

Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams in the original Evil Dead

Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams in the original Evil Dead

For Alvarez and Dead, the problems were much bigger. Maniac was minor compared to something as celebrated as Sam Raimi’s first feature film. Fan backlash was a major concern, even for someone with the blessing of the original creative team. Alvarez’s answer was something relatively simple.” I guess we approached it with the right spirit,” he told Collider.com in a recent interview. ” I wouldn’t have known another way to do it, I wouldn’t have done it another way.” This was key, since for the co-writer and director, the first film was the benchmark, not a jumping off point. “I think it was very similar to the spirit of the original film,” he continued.  “We tried to make the scariest, goriest movie we could.  We tried to be very old school in the whole approach.  No state of the art CGI or anything like that. “

Indeed, for Aja it was about approach and the inner workings of the characters presented. For Alvarez, the entire process revolved around revisiting the spirit and drive of the original film. Indeed, in the new Maniac, the script makes specific reference about viewing everything from Frank’s (an excellent Elijah Wood) perspective. We see the victims through his eyes, the vicious killings and mutilations without benefit of an edit or cutaway. It creates an instant connection with the viewer, as well as a voyeuristic in for the horrific crimes to come. With the new Dead, Alvarez went with a flawed female protagonist (Jane Levy) who has gathered together with her friends in a remote part of the woods in order to kick her drug habit once and for all. The former found a new way of presenting a standard scary movie conceit. The latter looked to the source and reconfigured the story to support its 2013 expectations.

In Aja’s mind, this was the only way into a remake. “Let’s just say that when I accept to make a “real” remake it’s because I feel the movie can be enhanced in some way,” he told Cinema Chords.com. In the case of his Maniac, Frank is a far more sympathetic character than Joe Spinell’s. Elijah Wood’s dialogue can best be described as delicate and vulnerable, his atrocious acts only accentuated by how meek and mild mannered his version of the character is. When he meets up with photographer Anna (who will soon become an obsession), he is sheepish in his approach. Aja, who wrote the new screenplay along with longtime pal Grégory Levasseur and new collaborator C.A. Rosenberg, found a way to invest their insane killer with an unusual likeability. Sure, some of this comes from the actor playing the part, but most of the emotion is easily found inside the lines Wood is given.

Elijah Wood as Frank Zito, in the Maniac remake

Elijah Wood as Frank Zito, in the Maniac remake

It’s the same with Alvarez and Sayagues’ efforts on Dead. Levy’s Mia is a miserable young woman with understandable issues. Left to care for her mother while her brother pursued bigger personal goals, she escaped into drugs to defy the death all around her. Before the tape player starts chanting and the blood starts flowing, the screenplay spends a lot of time establishing this dynamic. It pits Mia against her sibling, him against their mutual friends, and his gal pal against everyone else. The narrative draws definite lines between the players, divvying up responsibility and allegiances before unleashing the unholy battle. In fact, it’s safe to say that both films find their footing in three dimensional characters first, guts and gore a distant second.

In fact, Aja denies trying to shock with arterial spray alone. “I’m not writing my scripts in red. (Laughs) No, I don’t look for gore for the sake of gore,” he told Diabolique. “It’s more like the opposite, in fact. I’m always trying to write with a character [in mind] and I try to put myself in a position where I wonder, “What is the worst thing that could happen?” I think that’s where we might find fun ideas for gore, but it is still always motivated by the characters.” For Alvarez, it’s about the viewer’s experience…and the rating. “(Dead) is crazy and it’s violent…and I guess one of the biggest achievements with our movie wasn’t just what was happening, but was getting by the rating panel,” he told Collider.com  “I mean there’s other movies out there that are equally violent and crazy, but usually they go straight to DVD or they get an NC17 and they done see a wide release.  So I think the achievement was to win that rating battle and to be able to put all that stuff in the R-rated movie that was a wide release. “

Clearly, for them both, a remake is a balancing act. It’s approach and source, followed closely by character and careful manipulation of the material. In Aja’s case, the situation is complicated by a desire to keep the camera within the killer’s perception, which leads to problems that go to the very heart of the horror film idea. “To make a P.O.V. film means we get to be in the killer’s head all the time, but as a filmmaker, that was a bit of a handicap,” he said. “To create fear and suspense, you have to cut away. You have to intercut the slow and creeping P.O.V. of the killer with the victim not knowing the killer is approaching; all that classic grammar that creates fear in movies.” By collaborating with director Franck Khalfoun and Director of Photography Maxime Alexandre, they all came up with unusual and unique approaches to bringing tension back into the narrative.

All Alvarez wanted to do was entertain. “As a storyteller, when you’re writing a movie and when you’re directing, you want to keep people entertained. That’s the whole point, right? It has to be entertaining,” he told Crave Online. “A lot of people ask me, “Is the main goal to be scary or shocking?” It’s not. The main goal is to give you an entertaining story.” Again, however, he goes back to the concept of proper set-up and narrative foundation. “I think at the beginning (the movie) takes its time because that was the nature of the story. It had to take some time to introduce the characters and believe this is a grounded story and realistic, which really empowers the fear later on when you set it up in such a realistic tone.”

Jane Levy as Mia in the remake of The Evil Dead

Jane Levy as Mia in the remake of The Evil Dead

So clearly a successful remake is both balance and connection. It’s the old vs. the new drafted in a manner which makes audiences respond to both the fright and the familiar human elements. Novelty is a part of the process, though it’s not really necessary. There has to be something new, however, or you run the risk of merely repeating what’s come before (ala The Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th remakes). Worse still, you can also be too irreverent, dragging a beloved movie (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween) into your own obtuse interpretation. The screenplay becomes the testing ground. “That was something that was a lot of fun for us,” Alvarez said to Crave Online, “while we were writing this movie, having a chance to incorporate a lot of ideas from every movie (in the franchise).”

Yet the real trick remains putting one’s own individual stamp on the story. Cronenberg turned The Fly (via his script with co-writer Charles Edward Pogue) into a desperate love story while John Carpenter, through Bill Lancaster’s interpretation of John W. Campbell Jr.’s original short story, made The Thing into a stunning display of alienation and apprehension. Zach Snyder took George Romero’s lumbering zombies and, with writer James Gunn’s help, electrified them for his fast running remake of Dawn of the Dead while Cloverfield‘s Matt Reeves positioned the Swedish vampire tale Let the Right One In into a post-modern coming of age examination. In all cases, the original film was a blueprint, a blank canvas with a core idea (the living dead, a shapeshifting alien monster) that could be explored in differing and unique ways.

Maniac makes its case by turning Frank slightly sympathetic. Unlike Spinell’s film, we never get a clear picture of the perverted ways the character’s Mom influenced his madness. Here, Aja works on with suggestion and inference, making his lead’s dementia unfathomable and yet wholly felt. Dead does something similar, literalizing Mia’s inner demons and turning her into a disturbing, defiant monster. Yet once we learn her troubles, once we see her side of the story, we pray for possible redemption. It’s not a question of condemning the possessed. Instead, it’s about embracing a flawed individual, and in both Maniac and Dead‘s case, learning something about them we’ve never really seen before.

Joe Spinell in the original Maniac

Joe Spinell in the original Maniac

In essence, a remake works when a filmmaker or scriptwriter takes the term to heart. To remake something is not merely to repeat it. You’re required to add your own input, to bring as much of yourself and your vision to the mix as the main storyline from the past can support. It shouldn’t be an update in name only, or so groveling that it’s merely a shot for shot recapturing of what came before. Instead, as both Aja and Alvarez intimate, it’s a combination of complex factors that can go out of whack at any stage of the process.

The success of films like Maniac and Evil Dead may have more to do with audience expectations and the meeting of same instead of careful scripting and storytelling, but without those motion picture basics, both films would be lost. By doing things their own way, both Alexandre Aja and Fede Alvarez prove that one shouldn’t fear the word “remake.” Instead, with the right attitude and approach, it can be easily embraced. 

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