The Hollywood hype machine, being the smoothly oiled machine that it is, every day brings a few colorful casting announcements related to upcoming projects. One that caught my eye this week was the news that Timothy Olyphant might star in a remake of “Escape from New York” for director Breck Eisner, who recently collaborated with Olyphant on the well-received horror picture “The Crazies.” I’m a huge fan of the original “Escape,” a John Carpenter thriller from 1981 featuring Kurt Russell as antihero Snake Plissken, so I guess it’s good news that the role might be taken over by an actor of Olyphant’s caliber.
The bigger consideration, however, is whether the role needs to be taken over at all. It’s a given that pointless remakes are all the rage in Hollywood these days — “The Karate Kid” and “Robin Hood” are still in theaters as we speak — but if studios are determined to shun original movies, then can’t they at least focus on remaking films that weren’t executed well the first time?
“Escape from New York” certainly isn’t one of sacred texts of American cinema; it’s a fun B-picture with a lot of attitude and style. But like other Carpenter pictures that have gone through the remake grinder, notably the 1978 classic “Halloween,” “Escape” got the job done pretty effectively the first time. Would anyone argue that the remakes of Carpenter pictures like “Assault on Precinct 13” and “The Fog” have somehow improved upon the originals? And in fact haven’t many fans carped that the presence of the remakes somehow diminishes the luster of the originals? Do these new iterations add anything to the world except quick financial returns? I would argue not, and I’m not the only person voicing that opinion.
I’m hopeful that upcoming remakes on “Fright Night” and “Tron” are steps in this direction, because while both of those ’80s movies boast charming elements — a clever premise in the case of “Fright Night,” fondly remembered production design in the case of “Tron” — both have such deeply flawed scripts that there’s plenty of room for new directors to deliver on promises the original directors left unfulfilled. In the vain hope that things will keep moving down that road, I’d like to propose five more viable remake ideas based upon originals that could use some improvement.
“The Black Hole” (1979). For a brief period in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the Walt Disney Company experimented with making pictures for older children and grown-ups, resulting in potent fantasy pictures like “Dragonslayer” (1981) and expensive miscalculations like “The Black Hole.” Boasting a whopper of a premise — astronauts discover a mad scientist operating a remote outer-space laboratory at the precipice of a black hole — the movie earned a well-deserved Oscar-nomination for its gorgeous old-school optical effects. Whenever the movie cruises along on shots of spaceships and celestial phenomena while John Barry’s ominous score throbs in the background, the mood is intoxicating. But the movie hits one roadblock after another with tedious dramatic scenes marred by cardboard characterizations and zombiefied acting — to say nothing of painfully cutesy antics featuring a wide-eyed robot that, one suspects, the Disney folks inserted as a way of lightening the gloomy narrative. Delivering the creepily metaphysical themes that underscore this picture, minus the kiddie flourishes and flat scripting, could lead to something memorably creepy.
“The Deep” (1977). After the blockbuster success of “Jaws,” studios dug their teeth into every other book bearing novelist Peter Benchley’s name, leading to this misbegotten thriller about American tourists who stumble onto drugs inside a sunken wreck off the coast of Bermuda. Even with “Jaws” guy Robert Shaw playing yet another salty boat captain, the movie got more notoriety for a wet T-shirt scene featuring Jacqueline Bissett than it did for its plodding narrative and low-energy fright scenes. But the basic story is solid, the tropical setting is sexy, and the Benchley association suggests all sorts of opportunities for underwater nastiness. A solid hit back in the day, “The Deep” could easily be the basis for a far more interesting thrill ride than the 2005 Jessica Alba thriller “Into the Blue,” a forgettable semi-hit that many critics rightly pegged as a riff on the 1977 picture.
“The Legend of the Lone Ranger” (1981). I’m amazed that the Lone Ranger, one of the most beloved characters in 20th-century popular culture, hasn’t appeared in a feature film since this one hit screens nearly 20 years ago. While it’s tempting to say that “Legend” was so awful that it killed the character’s viability, I suspect it’s more accurate that squabbles over rights and questions of how to modernize a “hokey” franchise are behind the holdup. And even though I’ve heard the same rumors as everyone else about Johnny Depp playing the Ranger’s sidekick Tonto in a Jerry Bruckheimer-produced remake, I think there’s a lot to be learned by revisiting this gorgeously photographed but otherwise tedious version of the story. Giving the Man in the Mask a proper origin story was a great idea that the filmmakers failed to realize, and this version plants the seeds for credible explanations of the Ranger’s relationship with Tonto, his choice of silver bullets, and his rivalry with Western baddie Butch Cavendish. Speaking as a screenwriter, the Lone Ranger is the only major pop-culture franchise I’ve ever had any desire to tackle — but since that isn’t happening anytime soon, I’ll share my hopes that whichever version surfaces in the future, whether with Depp or without, threads the needle between toughening up the character and retaining the cornpone values that won the character his audience in the first place.
“Psycho” (1960). No, I’m not kidding — and, yes, I’m pretending that the Gus Van Sant “shot-for-shot” remake doesn’t exist. The reason I’m citing this Alfred Hitchcock-directed shockfest is that despite the presence of one of the most famous scenes in cinema history (Janet Leigh’s fateful shower), “Psycho” is a movie that merely skirts greatness instead of actually achieving greatness. It’s easy to get seduced by Anthony Perkins’ legendary lead performance, and by Bernard Hermann’s equally lauded musical score (those strings!), but beneath the surface pleasures are some difficult script problems. The movie is a weird hybrid of a heist thriller and an out-and-out horror show, wobbling between rather mundane investigation scenes and highly pitched scare moments. Worse still, the movie undercuts its own impact by featuring a dull final scene that simultaneously offers too much and too little explanation for what has come before. Given the movie’s reputation (and, okay, the presence of that ridiculous Gus Van Sant movie), trying to remake “Psycho” with the same title would probably represent career suicide for any filmmaker. So why not tackle a fresh approach with a simple and evocative title like “Norman”? Sure, revisiting the Bates Motel might mean that the gore factor gets amped up to an unpleasant degree, but seeing as how the title of the original movie (and the Robert Bloch novel upon which it is based) refers to mental problems, wouldn’t a new approach benefit from our deeper modern understanding of aberrant behavior? Seeing how well crisp psychological insight worked for depictions of modern ghouls like Hannibal Lecter, isn’t it safe to say that a contemporary grasp of what’s happening inside Norman Bates would make him even more frightening?
“Wolf” (1994). On paper, this sounded way too good to be true: Jack Nicholson playing a werewolf. And on film, it was too good to be true: Setting aside the fact that playing a ravenous beast wasn’t exactly a stretch for notorious wild man Nicholson, the problem was that director Mike Nichols (really!) seemed committed to only half of this full-on lycanthropy thriller. The first half of the picture, which was based on a novel by “Legends of the Fall” author Jim Harrison, has great fun with the idea that giving into animal tendencies helps Nicholson’s character survive in the, well, dog-eat-dog world of New York publishing. But when the movie drifts into special-effects whammies, Nichols’ boredom at staging physical combat between were-Jack and an equally hirsute opponent is palpable. Assuming the source material has not become too dated, I’d be curious to see a great new attempt by a director who treats the supernatural aspects of the story with enough respect to make the transition from man into monster credible. Using the metaphor of lycanthropy to explore the mysteries of the male animal is a genius idea, but Nichols’ half-hearted movie didn’t come close to delivering on the idea’s potential. If I ran Hollywood, I’d try to put together a remake directed by “Shawn of the Dead” guy Edgar Wright, with reformed ladies’ man Colin Farrell wearing the claws and fangs.